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The cultural challenge for cities to meet the Paris climate targets

By Paul Owens, Director of the World Cities Culture Forum

Last week states, cities, major NGOs and business leaders gathered in Bonn for COP23 to collaborate on the frameworks and policy solutions that will support countries’ efforts to achieve Paris Climate Agreement targets. The summit cemented world cities’ already ascendant role as leaders of global efforts to address climate change, with mayors setting ambitious targets and working collaboratively with cities around the world.

As cities take on increasing responsibility for helping nations meet their Paris Climate targets, they have an additional unexpected, and until this point largely overlooked, tool at their disposal to enact their sustainability and resilience agenda – their local cultural and creative industries.

A year on from UN Habitat III, and the release of UNESCO’s landmark report on the role of culture in sustainable urban development Culture: Urban Future, mayors and civic policymakers once again have an opportunity to strategically align their creative and climate adaption agendas. By bringing together cultural and environmental organisations, citizens, businesses and policymakers around a shared vision, mayors can get their message to new audiences, increase public engagement, and drive behaviour change on sustainability and climate change locally.

The cultural and creative industries—a major contributor to GDP in cities across the world and representing between 1.3 and 16 percent of employment in world cities—is eager, ready and willing to lend their skills, talent, and networks to local climate mitigation efforts, but they’ve been needing a strategic framework to channel that energy most effectively. Cities need to establish frameworks that directly integrate sustainability and climate policy with cultural policy and should intentionally leverage their cultural capital—in the form of both human creativity and cultural buildings and infrastructure—towards sustainability and climate action.

The stage has been set, but until this point cities have been without a plan for how best to link these agendas. Now with the release of Culture and Climate Change, a new report from the World Cities Culture Forum in partnership with C40 and Julie’s Bicycle, we are providing the first global survey and handbook of urban solutions to link culture and climate agendas. It examines three key areas where this integration is taking place: greening the cultural sector, the role of culture in driving citizen engagement and public awareness of climate issues, and culture’s involvement in environmentally-led regeneration and urban infrastructure development.

Developing a more environmentally sustainable and resilient creative sector in cities

Cultural and creative spaces—from music venues and performance spaces to galleries and museums—form a vital piece of the social fabric of cities. Cities need more deliberate policy solutions and better resources to ensure their cultural infrastructure is both more environmentally compliant and more responsive to present and future climate patterns (a need that has been made starkly clear by recent climate events in North America).

Amsterdam has taken steps to reduce the carbon footprint of the city’s cultural building stock through its Cultural Venue Sustainability Action Plan. The project is helping spaces throughout the city better understand and measure their environmental impact and then to set concrete goals and implementation plans accordingly to meet a citywide target of a 20 percent energy-use reduction by 2020.

In London, this has taken the form of efforts by the city to align the creative industries with the mayor’s Climate Change Action Plan, with an aim to curb the capital’s carbon emissions 60 percent by 2025. A series of industry-specific Green Guides have been developed for music, theatre, film, fashion, and visual arts to guide them on how to embed action on local climate policy in their sectors’ activities. One example is The Green Music Guide which provides specific steps for sustainability guidance for touring, offices, recording studios, and festivals.

Leveraging culture to increase public awareness and engagement with local environment + climate issues

Cultural and creative interventions can bring conversations around sustainability and climate change out of the abstract and into the public realm, sparking wider local dialogue and conversation and improving understanding of complicated climate concepts. For CURRENT: LA, the City of Los Angeles commissioned teams of artists to develop 15 site-specific outdoor installations in each of the city’s districts as part of the inaugural Public Art Biennial. Situated along the LA River channel and other bodies of water across the city, these installations drew more than 30,000 people to directly engage with the city’s water issues, including infrastructure challenges, drought, ecology, and conservation.

And this week, Austin is hosting its fourth annual Creek Show. The project is a nine-night outdoor exhibition of light-based art installations running along the Downtown section of Waller Creek, an ambitious parks redevelopment scheme the city is undertaking to restore its local ecology and better prepare Austin for future flooding and climate patterns. Creek Show is simultaneously providing a platform for local designers and artists to showcase their work and getting residents reacquainted with a piece of the city’s landscape infrastructure that many previously viewed as derelict. This year’s event has seen more than 20,000 attendees (twice as many as 2016) and generated over 1,000 Instagram posts

We hope Culture and Climate Change will inspire deeper levels of dialogue and action among mayoral administrations, environmental groups, and the creative community, that will drive joined-up solutions between cities’ environmental and cultural affairs departments. These solutions can take the form of greater inclusion of environmental measures in local cultural policies, developing more opportunities for knowledge and skills exchange between cities, and more closely measuring the impact of these programs.

While all of these projects being undertaken by cities are important first steps in linking these agendas, it will take a more concerted scaling-up of efforts and a clear vision on the part of mayors working cross-departmentally—from culture to housing to transportation–to fully use all of the tools at their disposal in meeting the Paris Climate targets. In many ways, climate change is ultimately a cultural challenge for cities and will need the talent, ingenuity, and storytelling of the cultural and creative sector to make cities that are sustainable, resilient, and liveable places now and in the future.

Click the image to download the handbook.

Paul Owens is Director of the World Cities Culture Forum, a network of the cultural affairs departments and cultural leaders from over 35 cities around the world. Culture and Climate Change is the newest handbook from the Forum’s Policy and Practice Series.