Lisa Colley & Ianto Ware,
City of Sydney

Culture in Context: Connecting Sydney’s Creative, Economic and Spatial Environments

An important part of successful cultural districts around the world lies in whether the thought has been given to the animation of public spaces for outdoor performances, smaller scale galleries, live music in cafes and bars, craft studios and maker spaces, informal gathering spaces, educational facilities and how all this links to the surrounding urban fabric. The small stuff that feels like background is as important in a compelling destination as are the more established cultural institutions that create the foreground.
Culture Forward—A Plan for Culture for Brooklyn 1

To talk about the culture of a city is almost tautological. It is our cultural life which makes Sydney more than a collection of buildings. That life emerges directly from our residents, workers and visitors.

Sydney’s cultural life has strong foundations. Statistically, New South Wales hosts the nation’s largest number of artists, musicians, architects, designers and cultural professionals, as well as the biggest audiences and highest levels of participation. As the NSW Creative Industries Economic Profile noted, our cultural life is of national importance. Indeed, the Profile found 40% of the nation’s entire Creative Industries workforce was based in NSW, concluding:

‘Sydney is truly NSW’s creative capital, with 86.3% of the State’s creative workforce based in the emerald city as of 2011. This is far above its share of total employment in the State, which stands at about 65%. Not only is Sydney home to the most creative workers (127,000), but it has the highest concentration of creative industries employees in the State.’ 2

The Profile notes 97.4% of creative enterprises were small, staffed by less than twenty people. 3 We must make room for these smaller initiatives and, moreover, we need to ensure the people who drive them can not only live in Sydney, but lead the kind of lives that inspire creativity. It is for this reason that the City of Sydney has begun developing a cultural infrastructure strategy.

Whilst Sydney is the state capital, it is defined by its place within a wider metropolitan, state, national and international context. Around 1.2 million people visit the city each day, including workers, visitors and our residents. Whilst our residential population is 205,339, the city has 576,869 jobs, driving 62,000 businesses. 4 To maintain that creative workforce, we rely on the energy of people from beyond our local government borders.

This means the development of our cultural sector is complicated by the need to think across local and regional borders. If the Greater Sydney area cannot provide suitable space for creative enterprises, or provide affordable housing for cultural workers, we are faced with ramifications at the national level. Making this link between culture and space is difficult as the necessary policy levers are divided over numerous policy domains, including planning, building, liquor licensing, transport and housing.

Additionally, cultural policies have often been disconnected from other areas, which can produce significant, and unintended, results. For example, the 2015 NSW Arts and Cultural Policy Framework, Create in NSW, commits to ‘develop policy and regulatory settings to support the continued growth and vibrancy of music in NSW’, 5 mirroring the City of Sydney’s Live Music and Performance Action Plan. Yet recent changes to the State liquor licensing law have had immense and negative impacts on live music venues, with the Australasian Performing Right Association estimating a 40% decline in live music revenue between 2013 and 2015. 6

As Sydney has undergone significant growth in recent years, these policy disconnects have become more pressing. In 2013, the City commissioned a study into its employment lands, which found barriers within the built environment, in particular existing planning systems, were affecting creative enterprise “due to difficulties in utilising existing use rights”. 7 Similar findings emerged in consultation for the City’s cultural policy, which found:

‘Regulatory policies continue to be cited as deterring cultural initiative, highlighting the City’s dual role in helping creative teams navigate difficult regulatory processes and elevating regulatory controls to the policy review agenda.’ 8

Over the past two years, the City has undertaken research into the impact of building and planning policy on the cultural sector to help understand exactly where the problem lies. This has involved public forums, a discussion paper and studies with the University of Technology Sydney and the Sydney Fringe Festival.

We found 20th century planning systems, built upon the separation of commercial, residential and industrial zones, have struggled to handle 21st century initiatives using hybrid business models and reliant on the cross pollination of ideas.

At one level, this is about updating our current regulatory framework. Beyond that is a more complex question of how to plan for the city we want to become. Whilst we know the bulk of Australia’s creative industries are based in NSW, a 2009 study by the Centre for International Economics, found Australia remains a net importer of creativity, importing twice as much as it exports. Indeed, the ratio actually increased during their study period of 1999 to 2008. 9

This is reflected in the City’s review of core cultural occupations, collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, following a standard developed by UNESCO. 10 These initially appear to show an 18% increase in the culture workforce between the 1996 and 2011 censuses. 11 Yet this growth is falsely inflated by change in definition, absorbing information and communication technologies after the 2001 census.

When we look at a consistent definition of ‘cultural occupations’, strong growth in some areas, such as architecture, is offset by significant declines, primarily in those areas devoted to making new creative content. In their analysis of the census data for the Australia Council’s Artfacts, Stuart Cunningham and Peter Higgs noted those employed in ‘artist occupations’—meaning visual artists, writers, composers and the like— actually declined between in 1996 and 2011. 12 This potentially explains our status as a creative importer.

Naturally, an architect, designer or artist doesn’t simply appear fully formed, but relies on years of creative engagement. Here we begin to see a further spatial and cultural division. The ABS’s cultural attendance and participation surveys provide detailed data on cultural activity across Australia, with stark differences across the Greater Sydney area. Within the City and Inner West, rates of attendance were around 70%, and participation just under 40%. In the Outer Western Suburbs, attendance declines to 46%, and participation rates more than halve, dropping to 18%. 13

For an economy reliant on knowledge and ideas, creative participation is directly tied to workforce participation. Accordingly, differences in participation rates between outer and inner suburbs mean we are at risk of a spatial entrenchment of cultural and economic disadvantage. As the City relies on a workforce drawn from the wider metropolitan area, this disadvantage directly impacts on our place at the heart of Australia’s creative economy.

In this light, the term ‘cultural infrastructure’ is fundamentally a question about people, and not simply about infrastructure investment or economics. The development of our infrastructure strategy follows a path set by our Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan, in which our community told us they saw culture as a fundamental part of their city. Accordingly, we developed our cultural policy Creative City. Consultation for the policy raised issues around barriers to taking part in Sydney’s cultural life, ranging from the presence of creativity in the public realm, the impact of regulation on small and medium creative enterprise, and the sustainability of the cultural sector. Ultimately, the policy was built around six priorities: precinct distinctiveness and creativity in the public domain, new avenues for creative participation, sector sustainability, sharing knowledge and global engagement.

The City of Sydney invests $34 million each year in the cultural and creative life of our city. However, we know that funding alone cannot deliver the outcomes we want. As our cultural policy notes:

‘[T]he City has many means of supporting Sydney’s cultural life and creative communities, and fostering and promoting individual and collaborative creative expression. It also has a special leadership role, including planning for cultural infrastructure and precincts as part of its urban-planning process. The ubiquitous interweaving of culture and creativity into every aspect of life also means it is sensitive to government regulations and policy in all areas.’ 14

We know the leadership we provide through avenues such as our planning and regulatory policies, and the management of our property portfolio, is critical. This includes initiatives like the $25 million purpose built creative hub for dance, theatre, music, film and visual arts, to be built in the city centre following an agreement negotiated by the City and developer Greenland Australia. It also includes our Creative Spaces and Accommodation Grants programs, which activate formerly vacant City-owned buildings through affordable leases to creative enterprise. In this way, we are making space for our citizens to make culture.

We also use things like our Design Advisory Panel and public domain design codes to shape the kind of city we want for the future. Similarly, our public art strategy, City Art, has reinforced the importance of the Cultural Ribbon and Eora Journey as transformation projects. Three of seven public art projects created by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists have now been installed. A draft Cultural Ribbon strategy has been on public exhibition, proposing a culture nature walk between the Maritime Museum and Woolloomooloo as its first iteration.

Whilst the City of Sydney has taken the lead on these projects, we simply cannot succeed if we think purely at a local government level, either economically or culturally. We must think at a broader level. To help us understand this challenge, the City of Sydney has undertaken a significant body of research, working with Western Sydney University, the University of Tasmania, UTS, the Cultural Development Network and World Cities Cultural Forum, as well as conducting our own Floor Space and Employment and Wellbeing Surveys. We’ve also funded sector driven research by the National Association for the Visual Arts and Frontyard Projects.

This research points to one conclusion. We cannot address these problems in isolation. In the coming months, the City will release its research and begin a formal consultation process to develop a strategy for cultural infrastructure. This will aim to understand what kind of space people need, the barriers impacting upon their access to it, and the policy levers available to us. We look forward to working with stakeholders from the arts and creative sectors, other government agencies, business, and the broader community to identify a cohesive, integrated cultural infrastructure strategy. We hope this will help us understand the spatial context in which our culture is created, and the ways we can strengthen this vital connection.

Street art on the corner of Glebe Point Road and Hereford Street in Glebe, 2017. The City of Sydney has recently passed a street art policy that will enable more street art in the City. Photo credit: Eva Rodriguez Riestra, City of Sydney.
  1. AEC Consulting, 2016, Downtown Brooklyn Arts Alliance and Downtown Brooklyn, Culture Forward, Brooklyn: Downtown Brooklyn.

  2. State Government of NSW, 2013, Creative Industries Economic Profile

  3. State Government of NSW, 2013, Creative Industries Economic Profile

  4. .iD, 2016, City of Sydney Economic Profile.

  5. ArtsNSW, 2015, Create in NSW: Arts and Cultural Policy Framework. Sydney: ArtsNSW.

  6. APRA AMCOS, 2016, ‘Sydney CBD sees drop in live performance revenue since introduction of lockout laws’.

  7. SGS Economics and Planning, 2013, Employment Lands Study, Sydney: City of Sydney.

  8. City of Sydney, 2014, Creative City, Sydney: City of Sydney.

  9. Centre for International Economics, 2009, Creative Industries Economic Analysis, Canberra: Creative Industries and Innovation Centre.

  10. UNESCO, 2016, UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity.

  11. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012, Employment in Culture, Australia

  12. Australia Council, 2013, Creative Workforce: Emplopyment in arts-related occupations has almost doubled since 1996.

  13. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014, Arts and Culture in Australia

  14. City of Sydney, 2014, Creative City, Sydney: City of Sydney.