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Creating social cohesion through cultural initiatives: Key learnings

By Platform
Woman taking photo during presentation

On 24 October 2023, the Policy Learning Platform organised a webinar on cultural initiatives’ contribution to social cohesion.

In recent years, culture and creative activities have attracted a lot of attention as a vector of economic growth, jobs and export incomes. The notion of ‘Cultural and Creative Industries’ is being used by policy makers at all territorial levels. This movement is amplified by the fact that creativity is associated with innovation, which is the key to growth.

However, culture is also the glue that binds communities and societies together. The COVID crisis offered a full-scale experiment of what it implied to have severely reduced access to performing arts, cinemas, live music, and book shops. The negative impacts were obvious.

We’re also currently experiencing increasing mistrust, social tensions and the rise of populism. It therefore seems important to also reflect on how culture can bring European citizens closer. This is a question of health, well-being and preservation of our democracies. Trust and social cohesion are also prerequisites for the success of the green and digital transitions.

The webinar provided an overview of relevant policy developments at European level that set the scene for cultural policies with social cohesion ambitions. It also provided concrete examples of how local and regional authorities, individual associations and other private actors can use culture as a vector of social cohesion.

Webinar agenda

The webinar has been designed and moderated by Erik Gløersen and Mart Veliste, Thematic Experts for a more social Europe. 

00:01:07 Introduction by Erik Gløersen to the topic and agenda 

00:12:02 Keynote speech by Lars Ebert on European policy frameworks for the promotion of local and regional cultural initiatives as factors of social cohesion

00:40:31 Q&A: Could you comment on the notion of cultural democracy?

00:45:21 Q&A: You mentioned the study on the effect of culture on community well-being, do you have examples or insightful facts that you can share?

00:49:25 Presentation by Caroline Couret on creative ecosystems in Ibiza and other parts of Europe for creative tourism development

01:02:45 Q&A: Do you see this going beyond niche tourism?

01:04:37 Q&A: Have you put measurements behind each activity to see if it contributes to Sustainable Development Goals?

01:06:23 Presentation by Diogo Henriques on the LX factory transformation of an old industrial site into a “Creative Island”

01:15:40 Q&A: Do you think there is a learning curve to take on board for the next steps?

01:18:05 Q&A: Lars, having listened to the two presentations of examples of initiatives where culture is a central component of policies respectively for sustainable tourism and for urban reconversion. Would you agree that this illustrates your request for culture to become a central part of sustainable development?

Key learnings

Lars Ebert, Director of Cultural Action Europe, highlighted different key policy developments at EU level:

  • The Faro Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society which was adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 2005) has helped to frame many of the more positive – and socially progressive – aspects of cultural heritage policies. A key message is that Heritage is not only about ‘belonging’, but also ‘becoming’. The Faro Convention promotes the notion of heritage communities, i.e. “self-organised, self-managed groups of individuals who are interested in the progressive social transformation of relationships between peoples, places and stories, with an inclusive approach based on an enhanced definition of heritage”.
  • The Porto Santo Charter is a guiding document on cultural democracy drafted in 2021. It promotes the notion of “Full Cultural Citizenship”. Many cultural policies lack ambition when it comes to triggering participation. Cultural democracy implies that as many people as possible co-design cultural experiences and co-create their outputs. This presupposes that cultural institutions provide meeting and creation venues, focus on emancipation and empowerment and encourage cultural amateur activities. Attendance of cultural events is welcome, but insufficient.
  • Frameworks for the assessment and monitoring of cultural initiatives’ contribution to social cohesion exist. A European Parliament report entitled Cultural and Democracy: the Evidence has also recently been published by the European Parliament. These methods and results could be better mobilised by EU Policies, e.g. in Cohesion Policy. Culture is also currently Declaration.pdf">inadequately addressed in the pursuit of Sustainable Development Goals.
  • The Cáceres Declaration adopted by EU Ministers of Culture in September 2023 states that cultural policies should be considered as an essential vector of social cohesion and sustainable development.

Caroline Couret, Director of the Creative Tourism Network, provided examples of localities, regions and cities that have promoted Creative Tourism. This is tourism that focuses on ‘activities’ and ‘human exchanges’ rather than on ‘destination’.

Hosting territories create an ecosystem of ‘dream makers’ who provide experiences for tourists. Their activities are embedded in local and regional heritage, but also in the creativity of communities and individuals. The Creative Tourism Network develops a Code of Ethics and list of good practice. This is a model for how economic and social benefits can go hand in hand.

Diogo Enriques of the Association for Development of the Superior Technical Institute (ADIST) discussed the role of culture in an urban reconversion project, transforming a Lisbon industrial site into a centre for creative activities and social interaction called LX Factory. LX Factory initially rented out affordable workspaces for artists and creators.

Two cultural initiatives were also key in promoting the initiative: inviting street artists to decorate the site and opening a large second-hand bookshop with subsidised rent. As LX Factory became more popular, rents increased and many of the artists moved on to other locations. This raises questions on whether cultural initiatives and creativity thrive best in temporary bubbles protected from market pressures.

There are examples of associations that have specialised in acquiring knowledge and know-how on how to best make use of temporary urban sites, e.g. Yes We Camp in Paris. However, this also presupposes a critical reflection on how such cultural activities complement those that benefit from permanent infrastructures and have long-term development perspectives.

The webinar explored a field of reflection that is still relatively new in the contexts of local and regional development and interregional cooperation. Cultural initiatives across Europe could benefit from more systematic reflections and strategies on how to optimise their impacts on social cohesion.

Policy documents, methods, tools and good practices exist. They now have to be applied. This also holds true for EU-funded Interreg programmes, which dedicate a significant part of their funding cultural initiatives. As a first step, their evaluation systems could make use of the assessment and monitoring tools developed by the Faro Convention Network.


Download the presentations below.

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