Overall, this crisis begs the question of why the contribution of arts and culture to a city’s urban landscape is not taken more seriously, not only as a staple of good urban planning and design, but as an economic engine that drives development investment, population growth and tourism. While a city can have a beautifully-designed built environment, without the development of unique character—often driven by, or experiencing contributions from, local artists—that turns a city’s space into place, the success of an urban environment may be time-limited.
With recent densification trends, our cities are simply not doing enough to provide assistance or advocate for preserving the spaces artists need to work and live in order to make their vital contribution to the vibrancy of a city. Rather than focusing only on code enforcement and penalization of those who struggle to revitalize these spaces, city governments should be creatively looking to incentivize building owners, such as through property tax breaks, to not only ensure code compliance, but also support the unique circumstances of these tenants and preserve the urban character they generate. Ultimately, what is overlooked is that excessive and constant loss of artist space drastically increases the chance that, over time, artistic neighborhoods will fall to inauthentic character and deactivated space, for when you remove the creatives, you lose the atmosphere they produced.
However, even if you go beyond these more intangible aspects of artists’ contributions to urban character, hard numbers still support the vital purpose of the artistic community, especially in Colorado. The Colorado Business Committee for the Arts’ biennial economic impact study, released in October of last year, shows that in 2015, arts and culture generated $1.8 billion dollars of economic activity and employed 11,000 people, which is up 5% from 2013 and outpacing total employment growth in metro Denver, Colorado and nationally. Further, more than 14 million people participated in a cultural activity in Colorado that year, with many residing outside the state, as cultural tourism accounts for $365 million in total economic impact on metro Denver.
What does this all mean? Plainly, that artists and the cultural opportunities they create are a driver for Denver’s economic engine, workforce development, job growth and tourism—all crucial factors to building and planning successful cities.
As the trend toward moving back to cities continues, housing prices will resume their upward drive, as supply is simply not keeping up with demand. In particular, cities like Denver, with its rapid growth in jobs, infrastructure and residents, are especially vulnerable to this volatile environment. It is at this nexus that its becoming more important than ever to responsibly grow and preserve the character in our cities by advocating for the artists that have played a critical role in their successful resurgence.
Camron Bridgford is a master’s candidate in urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver, with a particular interest in the use and politics of public space as it relates to urban revitalization, culture and placemaking, and community development. She also works as a freelance writer to investigate urban-related issues and serves as a non-profit consultant.