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Mobilizing Culture for Regional Development

Across the European Union, a diverse range of cities and regions use culturally-orientated activities in order to strengthen the very fabric of their social, cultural and economic lives.

kultur europaeische-union europaeische-identitaet

Whether it be the famous Guggenheim in Bilbao; the more anarchic Arts Centre in Lodz; or the events organised as part of the Ruhr 2010 European Capital of Culture in Germany – there are manifold examples of events or institutions which have uniquely contributed to the prosperity of their cities and regions. In each of these cases, culture has helped strengthen the identification of local communities with their surroundings and – in the very best scenarios – encouraged the development of a more engaged and participatory society at a local level.

The significance of this broader cultural impact should not go unrecognised, since Europe’s growth is a direct result of the diversity of its regional cultures – a richness that evolves from below. Nevertheless, more can be done at a European level to support the integration of culture into regional development, not least through cohesion funding.

Comprehensive evidence of the positive impact of cultural projects supported by cohesion funding can be found in a study recently published by the European Commission on the contribution of culture to local and regional development. Significantly, this study also illustrates that culture has so far received inadequate recognition at policy level. It thus asks for a stronger strategic integration of culture into Europe’s regional development projects.

Given this, it is particularly unfortunate that the latest report of the European Commission on economic and social cohesion does not recognize the essential role that culture plays in promoting more sustainable social and economic development in Europe’s regions and cities. Since this report marks an important milestone in the development of the next EU budget, it could be seen by pessimists as an indication that culture will be “left out” as a funding and policy priority in the future.

Central to the success of a culturally-based sustainable regional development are the activities of the cultural sector and their self-determined projects and ideas, as well as the participation of individual citizens in cultural life. Funding cultural activities and projects rooted in civil society makes it easier for regions to connect to civil society in general, and, more specifically, to a democratically based development of European culture.

A regional development programme based on sustainability should thus aim systematically to support smaller, dynamic and forward-looking projects. It is not only established structures and institutions such as municipal and regional theatres, museums and associations that should first and foremost be involved as core cultural players within civil society. Rather, it is individuals and initiatives from outside existing institutions that truly represent the cultural life of a region.

In order to create connections between the active cultural scene of the regions and the decision-makers in regional development, we require a mediating body which is networked inter-regionally and structured on civil society principles – a body which is also independent of public institutions and free from the interests of associations. This body would have the task of creating broader, more sophisticated access to the cultural resources of the regions.

The initiative ‘A Soul for Europe’ believes that by strengthening collaboration between different regional players we can further support the proven positive impact of EU-funded cultural activities on a regional level. After all, mobilizing cultural forces for regional development not only has a cultural impact but – vitally – has a range of major economic, social and political effects which contribute to the sustainability of regional development in the most wide-ranging and profound of ways.

A German version of the article can be found here

A Soul for Europe is a civil society initiative that employs a novel, future-oriented model for cooperation between civil society and policy-makers. One of the main ideas is to create a Europe of the Europeans with the citizens’ responsibility for political mechanisms, rather than just a Europe of institutions and regulations. From bases in Amsterdam, Belgrade, Berlin, Brussels, Porto and Tbilisi, the “A Soul for Europe” Initiative is building an international network of European cities and regions, the cultural sector and business as well as European policy-makers. The very heart of the network is the strategy group with 55 outstanding individuals from 21 countries.

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