Plea for an uncreative city


31/08/2006, TENT

Five points prior to any discussion about launching a cultural counterweight against the current launching of Rotterdam as cultural capital of the Netherlands

First draft of a yet to be finalized manuscript Rotterdam, Augustus 31st 2006


By traditional standards, Rotterdam is today undergoing a miraculous phase. We all remember the days when progressive policy consisted in educating, organizing and emancipating the working class – abundantly present in Rotterdam. Raising the level of the conditions of existence of this underprivileged and discontented masses – for instance by providing housing, health care, education and leisure facilities – was seen as a conditio sine qua non for creating high social cohesion as well as a stable economy. The policy pursued by Rotterdam today, inverts this logic. Progressive policy no longer strives to stabilize the economy, but to dynamize and innovate it in function of its international competitiveness. It no longer aims at creating whole, tight-knit communities but stimulates individuality and variation. For this, it no longer invests in the large majority of the population – the middle group – but in smaller, more specific groups which – so one claims – give colour and life to the Rotterdam community such as artists, designers, ICT-nerds but also managers, yuppies, CEO’s.1 The manifestations of this change in mentality are today visible everywhere in Rotterdam. Think for instance of the Lloyd Quarter, a mega-development conceived by by the Rotterdam municipality and its privileged partners as an oasis for living and working for the creative class. A smaller yet equally symptomatic project is the housing project ‘De dichterlijke vrijheid’ [The poetic freedom] in Spangen, where houses were literally given away to youngsters working in the creative sector.

The general policy-line behind these two examples is clear: rather than optimizing the welfare level of the largest possible group, creative capital is located in specific groups and ‘tapped off’ in the belief that this best serves the common good. One is convinced that only creativity can reawaken Rotterdam’s cultural, social and economic life from its winter sleep. Three reasons are commonly put forward here. First, the creative class is launched as the most essential condition for a lively urban culture. Often mentioned in this regard are its unconventional behaviour, its eccentric daily occupations, its varied – and often inimitable – housing preferences. Second, this creative urban climate is said to install an atmosphere of permanent innovation and renewal which forms a feeding ground for existing as well as new economic activities. Finally, one believes that the creative sector will exert a pulling force on high earners, so that the city’s population would become more varied. This is said to be especially important for municipalities like Rotterdam since this would enable it to generate the necessary funds for being able to keep on financing social services for the majority of its population – and this without artificial, negative measures such as erecting a fence around Rotterdam. In short, pampering the creative class with locational advantages, cheap living and working arrangements or attractive leisure facilities is today not regarded one-sided social policy privileging a specific stretch of the population and thus the restoration of a class society running on two speeds. On the contrary, it is propagated as the mantle piece of a progressive policy in which everyone – all though some by nature more than others – can maximally exploit his or her creative potential.2


The creative class is not only interesting as a producer of a dynamic urban climate but also because of its insatiable consumption drive. It is not a coincidence that Richard Florida characterizes the contemporary creative as a bohemian, a sensualist who is willing to pay a lot of money for his or her life quality. This character trait is highly desired today by cities. Thus Ron Boschma claims that “wherever the creative class lives, companies settle down, new companies are being started and employment rises. The creative class is not only creative and innovative, they also spend a lot of money on different kinds of leisure activities… hotels, restaurants, cafés, theatres, which leads to extra employment and a contribution to the local economy.”3 Nurturing the bohemians among its inhabitants is thus for Rotterdam an investment with an assured ‘return’. This as opposed to the old strategy of building sport stadiums for instance, which all too often offered a low or uncertain return value.4 Not to mention the year-long investments that disappeared in the bottomless pit of social housing. Today it is claimed that only by placing one’s bets on those sectors with a high return value – such as the bohemians – Rotterdam can generate the necessary income for sectors that demand more care such as social housing. In short, the creative class is today also as a consumer regarded as vital to the survival of cities. It contributes to the construction of a strong, regional economy providing Rotterdam with an own economic base and thus no longer making it dependent on ‘outside’ forces. This conviction is strengthened further by the realization that although Rotterdam, with its harbour activities, might posses an economic-industrial asset of international importance, its success is nonetheless very uncertain. A decision on the other side of the ocean might submerge Rotterdam in no time in a financial crisis, the shock waves of which will spread across the entire Rotterdam metropolitan area. It is thus a matter of life and death for Rotterdam to make serious work of its creative industry, apart from the harbour activities.5

‘Big neighbour’ Amsterdam serves as a shining example with regards to urban management focused on creativity – as well as being Rotterdam’s nearest competitor. When compared to Amsterdam, that is considered by many as ‘creative by nature’, Rotterdam seems to have a historic backlog.6 And indeed, when Florida propagates the homosexual as the textbook case of the bohemian, and elevates him or her into the critical yardstick for determining the ‘creativeness’ of cities, Amsterdam no doubt beats Rotterdam with hands free. As we already remarked however, Rotterdam doesn’t just sit down in despair but on the contrary is very busy with taking all kinds of measures to commit creativity to the city, to mobilize, stimulate and organize it. We here encounter a flagrant contradiction within the theory and practice of the creative city. It is one of its articles of faith that for a city to be creative it shouldn’t do anything at all and merely remain authentic. Arjo Klamer described this as ‘Lean back and be authentic… more stress on knowledge, than on the harbour.”7 In short, Rotterdam shouldn’t tender so much for new contracts with multinationals but offer space to new initiatives that develop spontaneously ‘from the bottom up’. In spite of all this talk about authenticity and spontaneity, in practice the opposite is the case: all creative initiatives are marked by a strong entrepreneurial attitude as well as a belief in the ‘malleability’ of a creative city. One assumes the latter can be developed (Paul Rutten) or at the least organized (Siebe Thissen). Local governments try hard to engage partners and stakeholders in all possible ways in the conception and execution of new initiatives. One can think here of the many public-private co-operations in which the know-how and capital of private parties is utilized for restructuring the city. Giving away old warehouses, industrial complexes or pre-war social housing to creative professionals is also part of this production of creativity. Think for instance of the old VOC-building that was put at the disposal of the music and movie podium WORM@VOC. Finally, the launching by local governments of interactive city projects such as the ‘Groeibriljanten’ [Growth brilliants] – in which the common man is ‘allowed’ to identify and exploit the creative potential in his neighbourhood and thus contribute to the construction of the new Rotterdam, is part of this remarkable rebirth of a social constructivism. The creative age is thus not just some natural event, spontaneously occurring as the next phase in the historical development of cities. Rotterdam seems to give history a helping hand by first constructing and installing a creative class – by putting a part of its population on the throne which then have to behave authentically and creatively.8


When Florida claims that ‘place’ is the most important economic and social organizing unit of our age, we shouldn’t be misled.9 It doesn’t simply affirm the Marxian insight into what David Harvey called ‘the central moment of urban construction’. Harvey claims that “all politico-economic processes that we perceive are mediated by the filter of the urban organization”, and thus that “the urban and the city are not simply constituted by social processes, but that the former inversely constitutes the latter.”10 For Florida, in contrast, place is dependent primarily on what he calls ‘the three T’s’: technology, talent and tolerance.11 Even though Florida claims that these three values are of equal importantance, he nonetheless puts forward tolerance as the most important of the three – as a value elevated above all else. In short, it is clear that Florida is not so much concerned with ‘place’ but with a personal character-trait of ‘man’: a tolerant mental attitude. Here, we encounter the pure reversal of the Marxian conviction that the economical-spatial lay-out of society forms the basis of the social construction – the so-called infrastructure – on top of which the cultural-ideological superstructure is erected. The function of the latter would be to rationalize and make plausible the economic decisions, for instance through mobilizing religious convictions or cultural norms and values. Within the theory of the creative city this hierarchy is put upside down. The psychological attitude of man now becomes the determining factor in society’s construction, while a flourishing economy is seen as the effect of the right kind of attitude or state of mind. Translated to the case of Rotterdam this means that a sustainable economic development is linked to the willingness of the individual to live out his or her creativity without constraints and put it to the service of the community. We here encounter a development analogous to the one Boris Broys identifies as the ‘psychologization’ of communism during the reign of Stalin.12 Now that it is clear that the recasting of society in a capitalist mold, isn’t capable of keeping its promises – the promise for instance of an open and free society – its subjects are summoned to behave as if they are already free and creative.13

How is the creative class mobilized to perform her revolutionary task in the historical development towards a creative society? In the traditional Marxian scenario, the revolutionalization of the proletariat is a logical consequence of its place within the relations of production – a place which, in the case of the proletariat, also functions as the symbol of the structural injustice on which the entire societal organization is build. All the talk about authenticity in the recruiting campaigns of Rotterdam towards creative youngsters, reveals how the latter are mobilized through the cunning of the superego. The present generation of artists and designers would have to be caught in a self-destructive loop not to welcome the many advantageous given to them – the free work and living places, exciting leisure facilities and so on. These are designed to satisfy their inmost desire: to give free course to their in-born creativity and thus to ‘become themselves’. This is the superego at its most cunning: the subject is being blackmailed into choosing something by the superego’s argument that he or she cannot not do this something – that is, if he or she doesn’t want to go against his/her own ‘nature’. In short it reduces something of the order of a choice to that of a natural necessity.

This is off course a double-edged sword. The creative class is not only urged to live out its inborn capacity for innovation, at the same time a massive expectation is placed onto its shoulders. This causes the typical ‘split’ personality of the creative class. Gerard Marlet and Clemens van Woerkens thus claim that the creative class “combines a Calvinist work ethics (with hard work as its goal) with a hedonistic lifestyle (with enjoyment as its goal).”14 How are we to understand this? Convinced of its holy mission, the creative class adjusts its entire thinking and acting towards this goal of saving society through creativity: after a bloody day of attempts to make its creativity productive, its seeks compensation by indulging in an urban culture of enjoyment. The creative class also particularly seems to enjoy its intensive work rhythm – which causes its subjective structure to resemble the paradoxical structure of masochism, finding pleasure in pain. To outsiders it is never clear when the creative class is in fact ‘working’ and when it is ‘enjoying’. Its work routine is relaxed and almost festive while its night life is an integrated part of its work – networking during exhibitions, technical discussions with colleagues at dinner, interactive dance labs, and so on. Rather authentically enjoying, the opposite seems the case: the entire ‘being’ of the creative class testifies to a compulsive response to the injunction to be creative.


Is it surprising within this context – in which all kinds of advantages are lavished upon an already spoiled creative class – that Rotterdam has recently witnessed an upsurge in populism? It is part of the earlier mentioned ‘inversion of all values’ – in which the Left unashamedly invests in the creative class – that the Right-wing populists of all people take a traditionally Leftist stance. It is Leefbaar Rotterdam [Liveable Rotterdam] which – in the debate on a creative Rotterdam – poses the obvious question whether it is really such a matter of life and death for the city to subsidize the creative sector and further asks whether the ‘normal’ inhabitants of Rotterdam also feature in its future. In this way we’re confronted in Rotterdam with a situation in which only the most Right-wing party has the courage to say what everybody silently thinks and openly questions the official doctrine that keeps Rotterdam in its grip: more precisely the conviction that the creative class is the long-awaited messenger of God that is going to update its slacking competitiveness and thus secure the welfare of all.

On the one hand it is heart-warming to see how Leefbaar Rotterdam tries to mobilize the last bits of democratic consciousness of the Rotterdam population. In its election programme for the period 2006-2010 it claims: “Every inhabitant of Rotterdam must feel safe / Every inhabitant of Rotterdam who needs help, will receive help / Every neighbourhood of every inhabitant of Rotterdam must become attractive…”15 On the other hand we are left hungry here. If the idea of a creative city is an ideological construction that covers up an ordinary compromise between the creative sector and the Rotterdam elite and serves as a rationalization of a plain and one-sided urban policy focused on high-earners, surely something more radical is needed than a pathetic plea for a city in which everyone’s desires and interests are satisfied. The idea of a total or undivided city – in which there’s something for everyone – is moreover not fundamentally foreign to the doctrine of the creative city. The latter presents itself equally – however superficial – as ‘inclusive’. It not only explicitly intends to give a chance to spontaneous initiatives from the bottom up, it is also based on the idea that investing in the creative class will generate a spin-off to the lower regions of society. It is said that every ‘creative’ job creates X new jobs for low-trained workers (for instance in delivery services) and that creative enterprises generate the necessary funds for social pilot projects.

Our point is that these inclusive urban models excludes the traditional democratic gesture in the way Jacques Rancière theorizes it. It wants to pacify the discontents of the excluded masses by including traditional non- or low-skilled labour in the compromise between capital and creativity. In this way Leefbaar Rotterdam strives towards what David Harvey calls a ‘regional compromise’.16 With this a monster alliance is forged between the different classes in the region, in which each expresses one’s willingness to take their ‘natural’ place so that the region can compete unimpeded with its neighbours. The democratic gesture Rancière points to, aims at precisely the opposite: rather than a moment of consensus, it concerns a moment in which “the demos, the horde that has nothing” undermines the existing division of power by presenting itself as “the political community of free Atheneans” and take their own decisions.17 Within Rotterdam we can for instance think of the half-legal Eastern European workers indissolubly connected to the Rotterdam economy and responsible to a large degree for the competitiveness and thus wealth of Rotterdam, which are nevertheless not counted as a fully-fledged part of the Rotterdam community. Because of this they have less right to their ‘piece of the pie’, and within the regional compromise receive the shortest end of the stick. If democracy in Rotterdam still means anything at all, it has to give voice to this ‘horde that has nothing’, this group that regardless of its crucial contribution to the urban is not included in the official representation of the city.


This desperate attempt to reduce the demand for democracy by forging a regional compromise in which the existing power relations are kept intact, is symptomatic for the current debate on the value of creativity for the city. This doesn’t mean however that there is no debate on the creative city. The Netherlands wouldn’t be the Netherlands if – throughout the country – thousand-and-one consultation rounds, workshops and debates weren’t been organized in which the new phenomenon of the creative class is discussed in all its facets. In spite of this all-encompassing atmosphere of debate, discussions nevertheless often get stuck on the attempt to identify that ‘something’ that causes the one city to be that little bit more creative than the others, as well as on the question how to acquire or hold on to this ‘something’. This quest is off course a never-ending process because creativity is always ‘on the moove’ and constantly reinvents and redefines itself. Or, as Florida expresses it: “Economies are fluid and creativity is an asset that has to be cultivated constantly.”18 This permanent discussion about what deserves the label of being creative and what not, has to be understood as an interpassive activity. It is meant to prevent the creative doctrine itself from being called in question – for instance for not being able to fundamentally rethink the urban process. Differently put, the constant streaming of debates establishes a band width, in which the use and advantage of creativity is assured its place as the prime article of faith.19

This consensus doesn’t mean however that the different participants in the debate are hand in glove. On the contrary, within creative cities there is a permanent struggle between the different groups in society for acquiring the hallmark of most productive and profitable creative sector. Each faction tries to profile itself as more creative than the others. In response to Rotterdams ‘Groeibriljanten’-programme mentioned earlier, Wouter Vanstiphout for instance complained about the fact that the cultural sector was bypassed by displacing the initiative of creativity to another part of society: that of the common man who was now allowed to set loose his or her own imagination on his life-world and uncover and exploit the hidden opportunities.20 The squatter’s movement secured their own creativity by erecting a clear boundary between their own so-called authentic creativity and the institutionalized, economized or ‘yupiefied’ creativity. Finally, the recurring characterization of artists as ‘elitists fool’ by Marco Pastors, leading man of Leefbaar Rotterdam, is obviously intended to say that the art sector no longer is creative and that the vital creativity has to be localized somewhere – God knows where – else.21

What all these positions have in common is that they engage in a struggle about the content of the notion of creativity and situate the demarcation line of the struggle horizontally.22 Geert Loving thus speaks of a ‘creative class struggle’: a struggle between different groups in society for cultural hegemony.23 It is more correct however to see it as an ordinary quarrel between different factions within the same class over the privileged position of being the creative capital of the urban economy or, if the struggle is lost, like in the case of Vanstiphout, a desparate attempt to come into the city manager’s good books. This often hilarious display of creative factions engaged in infighting, mustn’t blind us however about the true class struggle – in the traditional, Marxian sense of the term. Marlet and van Woerden for instance conclude that in Richard Florida’s theory, the label ‘creative class’ in the final instance comes down to the traditional category of high-earners.24 However, instead of following Marlet&co in their search for a more precise definition of the creative class, it seems more productive to follow Harvey’s advice when he claims that “if something looks like a class struggle and behaves like it, then we should also call it one.”

We can learn here from the stance André Thomsen took towards the attempt of the city Den Bosch to reshape itself according to the new demands of the creative age.25 Especially the residential neighbourhood Boschveld was ‘elected’ by the municipality and their private partners as the ‘place par excellence’ to further the creative revolution (it was to be demolished and replaced by a more creative, read: more up-market, urban lay-out). Thomsen side-stepped the quarrel between the municipality and the developers on the one hand and the inhabitants on the other, that was mainly dominated by the claim of the former that the inhabitants shouldn’t behave asocially and that they should sacrifice themselves for the higher cause: that of launching Den Bosch in the creative age. He conducted research that revealed how the houses up for demolition were actually, provided that a few minor adjustments were being made, in a good shape, thus dismantling the major argument of the corporations and developers that the houses were hopelessly outmoded. Thompsen concluded that it was not so much the houses but their inhabitants that were seen by the developers and authorities as the major obstacle to their dream of a creative Den Bosch. Thomsen refused in other words to situate the class struggle ‘horizontally’ and instead drew a ‘vertical’ line: that is to say, he made visible how the discussion about creativity as a condition sine qua non for a prosperous city, hides how a creative elite is being prioritized in urban planning, repressing unwanted inhabitants to an unknown destination

This allows us to take the thesis of Merijn Oudenampsen that in the creative city “talent [is being] sought and social problems averted”, one step further.26 The example of Den Bosch reveals that strategy of attracting and accommodating talent by the municipality and its private partners can only be presented as a ‘wonder cure’ for social problems by deporting the unwanted or untalented groups. We are thus confronted with the condition of possibility of the creative city: it can only present itself as such by first outsourcing the old, production based industry to other parts of the Netherlands or even the globe and by fragmenting the remainder of jobless low-skilled workers over the urban territory.

Instead of participating in this creative circus, our proposition to cultural agents is to use their creativity for generating strategies to make concrete Dieter Lesage’s plea that Rotterdam, instead of desperately trying to look for a metropolitan image, has to embrace its poverty.27 The first step would be to take absolutely serious the philosophy of self-sufficiency that is preached today to the common man. If Rotterdam really believes that it should learn how to maintain itself, than it should give away its dilapidated houses in the first place to the current inhabitants of the problem neighbourhoods, including their informal inhabitants such as junks and Eastern European workers. This, as opposed to the current scenario in which self-sufficiency serves as an alibi to deliver unwanted groups to the abstract logics of the market-place, while pampering wanted ‘creative’ groups with free ‘klushuizen’ [do-it-yourself houses]. Only as ‘city of poverty’ can Rotterdam restore its democratic status.


1 In the case Rotterdam the category of the creative class is usually broadened to encompass not only the traditional artist in an old industrial warehouse but also the creative service sector and manager’s elite. Think of Gerard Marlet’s intervention during the debate ‘Creatieve klasse: kansen voor stad en regio’, organized by the Nirov, December 2 2004 in Amsterdam. For a report see: ‘De creatieve stad: hype of kans’, on: nd

2 In this regard, Richard Florida speaks of creativity as ‘the great leveler’. Richard Florida, The rise of the creative class, Basic Books 2004, p. xiv.

3 Ron Boschma a.o., Creatieve klasse en regionaal-economische groei, Departement Sociale geografie en planologie, Universiteit Utrecht, version Juni 21st 2005, p. 2.

4 Richard Florida, op. cit., p. xxiv.

5 See Economische Verkenning Rotterdam 2005, on:

6 For a comparison of the creative industries in Rotterdam en Amsterdam, see Paul Rutten a.o., Creatieve industrie in Rotterdam, TNO Rapport EPS 2005-06, Delft 2005.

7 During a debate organized by the Rotterdam board for Art and Culture on Februari 24th 2005. For a report see ‘Stad als laboratorium’, on:

8 Gerard Marlet en Clemens van Woerkens, Het economisch belang van de creatieve klasse, in: ESB 11-6-2004, pp. 280-283.

9 “… place is the key economic and social organising unit of our time.” Zie: Richard Florida, op. cit., p. xix.

10 David Harvey, Contested Cities: social process and spatial form, in: Transforming Cities, Routledge, London 1998, p. 19 en 23.

11 Richard Florida, op. cit., p. xix.

12 Boris Groys claims that once it was clear that the new economic layout in the Soviet Union didn’t automatically produce a new Soviet man, the “previous irrational belief in technology was replaced by an equally irrational belief in the latent human strength.” It is this superhuman force that was displayed in the Social Realist art works. See: Boris Groys, The total art of Stalin, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1998, p. 60 and further

13 If the masses are not prepared to do this, cities can always make use of the well-known strategy of the United States to, as Florida remarks, create a free and open society by investing massively in creativity (education, research, culture) and by attracting (European) intellectuals. Richard Florida, op. cit., p. xxiii.

14 G. Marlet en C. van Woerkens, op. cit., pp. 280-283.


16 David Harvey, Spaces of global capitalism, Verso, London 2006, p. 102 and further

17 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement, Minnesota University Press, 1999, p. 9 and further

18 Richard Florida, op. cit., p. xxiii.

19 We can ths claim that the current explosion of the discourse on the city coincides wit hits ‘implosion’ – an implosion that is comparable to the one that occured during Stalin’s show trials.

20 In the context of the Groeibriljanten-programme Vanstiphout speaks of “the inversion of cultural politics”. He claims that: ” Instead of looking at Rotterdam from an international point of view, as a subject of constant change architectural innovation, they [city’s cultural administrators and civil servants] are forced to lower themselves to the level of its inhabitants, and work upwards from there. Lastly, it acts as a brutal provocation to the city’s artistic and architectural elite, by seemingly destroying any chance for huge, centrally supported cultural programs on a monumental level, and turning cultural and architectural innovation over to the streets”. See: Wouter Vanstiphout, Dirty Minimalism, In: Archis #5, 2004, pp.77-78.

21 See:

22 The deeper link between populism and ‘creativism’ comes to the fore in the popular idea amongst city managers that the creative class is equally keen on quiet, safe and pleasant neighbourhoods.

23 Geert Lovink, Creatieve klassenstrijd, mei 2006, on:

24 G. Marlet en C. van Woerkens, op. cit., pp. 280-283.

25 In the Tegenlicht-documentary ‘Planner’s blight: de strategie van het gummetje’, June 26th 2005. See:

26 “Dit is de nieuwe logica van insluiting en uitsluiting in de stadsvernieuwing. In het I Amsterdam model wordt talent gezocht en sociale problemen geweerd.” See: Merijn Oudenampsen, Total Makeover, September 2005, op:

27 Dieter Lesage, Omtrent Metropolitane machinaties, in: MetropolisM #2, 2005, pp. 80-84.

Tags: English

Categories: Urban planning

Type: Article