Why does poverty in Lafayette, Louisiana, teach us about developing creative talent?

This article first appeared in CityMetric

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

Can a new perspective on urban regeneration change the way we develop creative talent?

This study on the city of Lafayette, Louisiana can change how we think about how our cities incubate and support creative talent. Reported in urbanism blog Strong Towns, the author, Charles Marohn, discusses the findings of a study his firm conducted on Lafayette.

They analysed how the city makes and spends its money, finding that lower income neighbourhoods earn more for a city than higher income areas. They map income inequality through property values, job retention and demographics, and compare what Lafayette spends in each of its wards against the amount of revenue, per head, it retains in tax. And Lafayette, like most mid-sized American cities, is a market failure. To break even, each tax paying household would have to increase their contribution by $8,000. This is not improbable. It is impossible.

Lafayette, like all cities, has grown outward, with wealthier suburbs and housing estates dotting the outer reaches of the city. These areas are richer than its inner city, per capita. But it is the dense inner city that is more economically valuable for Lafayette, not the richer, larger and more spread out suburbs. This is backed up by examining the demographics of each ward and comparing against each other, both the wealthy and deprived neighbourhoods.

In Lafayette, poorer areas have narrower streets and higher population densities. They are cheaper to maintain (as they are smaller) and interventions impact more people (because there are more people). Large acreages create more servicing costs, be it watering a lawn or fixing a street lamp. Therefore, Mahorn concludes instead of spending on larger, more geographically expansive projects, such as suburban subdivisions and the utilities to service them, smaller, more varied investments in poorer neighbourhoods make the most fiscal sense for Lafayette to continue to tread water and avert bankruptcy.

This thinking is not restricted to housing, infrastructure and utilities. As our cities – large and small – continue to grow and compete for new talent, Lafayette’s story has stark parallels to how we plan and maintain our cultural infrastructure, and music’s role in particular. Around the world, cities are involved in large scale infrastructure projects involving music, much of them complex, expensive exercises that are often over budget and controversial.

In Hamburg, the beautiful Elbharmonie opened seven years late and €700m over budget, in some assessments. In London, the proposed Centre for Music in the City of London is now in doubt, as there is no consensus on whether it is needed. At the same time, local schemes that support talent development - across all artforms - are struggling. In London, it is widely accepted that 35% of grassroots (i.e small) music venues have closed since 2007. While yet to be counted, it is estimated that such a percentage is true across the UK.

In Toronto, 2017 has seen two iconic venues close - The Hoxton and Hugh’s Room. Music education remains for the privileged few at the highest level, with STEM subjects seen as more important. And at the same time, community centres, youth clubs, programs for the elderly and other local initiatives are closing due to council budget cuts. While not restricted to music, the smaller spaces often lose out, while these larger projects continue. Cultural infrastructure grows outward, like the suburbs in Lafayette.

The development methodology in how we support music and creative talent in cities is much like what happened in Lafayette. In the end the system is unsustainable, seen as a market failure, with investment shifted from the grassroots to larger projects, because they are seen as being more economically viable. Similarly, the outward growth and focus on the suburbs was seen as a way to support wealth generation, like building a large concert hall or arena. However, too much of a focus on these initiatives blinded Lafayette to the most fiscally valuable residents, those in lower income, higher density neighbourhoods. And while their value stabilised, the services to support their growth stagnated.

Back in music, the live sector is in bullish health in many respects. The O2 Arena, for example, is Europe’s most ticketed venue. However, small ecosystems are struggling; And what’s missing here is while we recognise the value of an arena or a festival, we ignore the small venue, DIY rehearsal space or community centre. However, each grassroots music venue in the UK contributes £500,000 in direct investment in new and emerging talent, according to a new report by the GLA. But we’re developing talent in the same way we’re building suburbs and at the same time, ignoring the economic value the lower income areas bring.

The authors of the study state; “What is obvious here is that the poor neighborhoods are profitable while the affluent neighborhoods are not.” They go on to state that in the manner Lafayette’s coffers are spent, the less invested in poorer neighbourhoods, the more value, per dollar, they return to the city. This is compelling. To combat this, they argue for a redistribution of city resources to much smaller investments across poorer neighbourhoods, as many as possible, so the poorer neighbourhoods develop at the same rate as more affluent ones, and the gap between how much poorer and richer areas contribute to Lafayette shrinks.

Without that, the poorer area will still contribute more, but be poor. In regards to our cultural infrastructure, let’s take Lafayette as a lesson. If we ignore the value of our new and emerging talent infrastructure, their contributions will outweigh their growth. In other words, the more shining concert halls we have, the less talent we’ll develop to perform in them and the narrower talent development pathways that service these projects will become. By focusing more on smaller, more diverse interventions –such as improving equipment in a venue or improving permitting procedures – the pathway expands.