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Arts, culture as economic development tool along San Diego’s waterfront

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The city of San Diego has experienced significant advancement during the past few decades, but there is still much work to be done.

Thoughtful development and revitalization of the downtown waterfront, which is currently in the planning stages, would enable San Diego to position itself as one of the nation’s great cities of the 21st century. A vital waterfront can add tremendous economic and social impacts to the region.

The development of San Diego’s waterfront, specifically the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan (NEVP), has not been an easy process. It has been fraught with numerous controversies, challenges and concerns throughout the years as many differing views exist on how the space should be built out.

In order to find a common mission, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) San Diego/Tijuana District Council hosted a public dialogue on June 12 in which participants discussed the potential to enliven the waterfront with arts and culture. The workshop, organized by a broad-based civic coalition including David Malmuth, Scott Peters, Mike Stepner, Steve Haase and world-class architects Rob Quigley and Stan Eckstut, explored the possibility of a more activated downtown waterfront.

In cities throughout the country -- Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia -- it has been shown that arts and culture in the built environment not only create beautiful and meaningful places, but they also provide a significant economic stimulus and enrich the life of the citizens. The downtown waterfront holds this potential, and should become the treasured destination of the entire region, a place for San Diegans and tourists alike.

A growing body of evidence suggests strategic investment in arts and culture initiatives can generate significant economic benefits for cities large and small. Data collected across numerous studies, along with the broad array of recent arts and culture plans and projects, indicates the right strategy and implementation approach can result in significant increases in property values, revenues and jobs.

Several leading thinkers have argued that focusing only on the nonprofit arts sector is too narrow to capture the full economic benefits of a creativity-driven investment strategy. American economist Richard Florida’s work on the Creative Economy and author Daniel Pink’s discussion on the Conceptual Age both make the case that investment in creative industries -- and fostering the conditions that attract creative people -- are the key determinants for success in the 21st century economy.

"The more creative types working in a regional economy, the better is its outlook for improved earnings, productivity and competitiveness," according to Christopher Farrell, a leading economist.

On Sept. 25, ULI will convene a one-day conference called "Art in the City" at the Bayfront Hilton to determine how the most transformative arts and culture initiatives nationwide can be implemented in San Diego. The aim of Art in the City is to generate ideas and action on arts and cultural development strategies for San Diego’s waterfront and beyond.

The conference will feature some of the most influential arts and culture developers that are implementing innovative cultural programs throughout the nation, such as Bob Wislow, who is credited with bringing world-class art to Millennium Park in Chicago; and Craig Robins, who implemented art and design as key components in Miami's Design District. The conference will also include local leaders who are involved with guiding similar initiatives in San Diego, such as Mary Beebe, who curates the Stuart Collection at University of California San Diego.

The Art in the City conference is open to the public. For more information, go to ulisd.org.

In this climate of reduced resources, it seems prudent to some policy-makers to cut spending on "frills" like arts and culture. However, the evidence, both academic and practical, suggests communities that continue to invest in their creative appeal will fare much better economically than those that don’t.


Lydon is executive director of the Urban Land Institute San Diego/Tijuana District Council, an international nonprofit research and education organization focused on best land use practices. Malmuth is a 25-year member of the Urban Land Institute and has his own development company, which focuses on the creation of art-inspired places and projects that transform communities.

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