Guest blog by architect Martine Zoeteman:

"Disruptive communities are anchors in the informal cultural landscape"

Architect Martine Zoeteman has been studying (temporary) creative hubs in relation to urban development in The Hague, and beyond. In this guest blog, she looks at how creative hubs influence the identity of their direct environment. The philosophy a specific community adheres to significantly impacts the city as it becomes an anchor in the informal cultural landscape, she argues. Read her contribution below.  

An interesting characteristic of creative entrepreneurs is that they recognize potential where others do not (yet). This quality becomes even clearer when they develop as a group over the years. Whereas the creative caravan – see my previous blog – is often organized relatively loosely, a group of creative entrepreneurs really starts to act as a community when it colonizes a certain location for a longer period of time.

Unsolicited urban planners

When a creative hub exists for a couple of years, its community will sooner or later start to influence the identity of the direct environment. The dynamics of the hub will attract similar businesses and expanding entrepreneurs often create their own space in the neighbourhood. This process becomes for example visible in the Binckhorsthaven, a district of industrial area the Binckhorst in The Hague.

Restaurant MaMa Kelly opened here recently and two entrepreneurs – product developer Secrid and beer brewer Kompaan, initially located at creative hubs the Caballerofabriek and De Besturing – are now renting their own building down the street. After almost a decade – the Caballerofabriek and De Besturing were founded in 2006 – the creative identity slowly starts to spread like an oil stain. Such spin offs are more or less a common principle of the ‘creative city’ concept, as introduced by the American sociologist Richard Florida (2002).

The effect of creative hubs on an area becomes more unique when its community gets proactively engaged with the environment. The Schieblock in Rotterdam is a well-known example of whereto this can lead. This building, which would be demolished initially, became a creative hub in 2009. At that time the area was quite desolated, but in the past years it turned into a dynamic district.

Creative entrepreneurs, based in the Schieblock, started to experiment with a wide variety of public programs, like the debate centre De Dépendance, beer festivals and a roof garden, attracting citizens and new businesses to the area. Masterminds behind this unsolicited plan, architecture firm ZUS, made this transition visible with the ‘Luchtsingel symbolically. Being partly funded by the crowd, one could say that the citizens of Rotterdam built their own bridge between Central Station, the Schieblock and the North of the city. This example shows what might happen if a city invests in creative communities instead of (new) ‘bricks’ only.

Luchtsingel, where communities grow

The Luchtsingel in Rotterdam, connecting Central Station, the Schieblock and the North of the city. Photo: Ossip van Duivenbode.

Questioning the status quo

The potential of creative communities as unsolicited urban planners is already quite acknowledged. However, what it takes for a group of creative entrepreneurs to become one of the stakeholders in (a part of) the city is less known. As I pointed out in my first blog, there are limited studies of how creative communities function on a small scale. To stay vital on the long term, they have to act almost like a real estate developer and formulate a solid exploitation model including a financial, spatial and organizational structure.

If you do look more closely, it is interesting to see that the philosophy behind communities influences these formal structures significantly. Their often social or even idealistic foundations lead to business plans with other interests than regular real estate developers. And by doing so, they question the status quo along the way.

De Besturing, for example, introduced a ‘ruimteabonnement’ (workspace membership) as alternative for regular rent. A square meter price assumes that someone’s revenues are related to the size of one’s workspace. The bigger the space, the more money someone earns. Obviously, this logic does not work in an environment with designers and artists.

To the community of De Besturing someone’s ambitions, knowledge and skills are of much more importance than one’s income. Therefore each tenant or rather member pays the same fixed fee that gives access to the building, facilities, knowledge and skills. There is only a small differentiation made with a supplement for an individual workspace, based on the size-categories S, M and L.

Another example of a group of entrepreneurs that favours the interests of the community above the individual’s is the cooperative Founded by All at Strijp-S in Eindhoven. In 2006 Maarten Hendriks (Little Mountain) started his own ideal workplace in Eindhoven: a space where (young) creative entrepreneurs share, in addition to basic facilities, commissions and knowledge and where personal development is leading. This concept transformed, together with business partners, educational institutions and the municipality of Eindhoven, into a sustainable business model with the establishment of Founded by All in 2013.

This cooperative now comprises over thirty entrepreneurs working in the tech and design world. Even though the community is much more formalized than in its early days, every entrepreneur’s personal development is still the core of the cooperative. This requires willingness of every member to share knowledge, skills and commissions. Practice has shown that each member kick starts specifically because of this openness.

New horizons ahead

There is no such thing as a formula for building a successful creative community. Cities can only offer certain conditions that might lead to a solid basis for a community to grow. The model of the creative caravan ensures the rise of new creative communities. Additionally we need to identify groups that have the potential to develop into a durable community with significant impact on the city. Therefore we need to take into account the lessons learned from best practices of more advanced communities.

Hubs like the Schieblock, De Besturing and Founded by All have three important things in common. Firstly these groups of entrepreneurs have had time – not a couple of months but a couple of years – to develop into a steady community with a clear vision on how they want to work. Secondly the driving forces behind these communities are also part of it; so the users are running the place themselves. And thirdly the communities were able to create their own specific business model that gives them a long-term perspective without doing concessions on their ideals.

No quick fix

The bottom line is that creative hubs are all but a quick fix for neglected areas. Every community-based hub is one of a kind, simply because the synergy between creative entrepreneurs cannot be planned. It is exactly this uniqueness that is most valuable for our society, because it leads to a wide variety of new horizons for how we can work and live together. Moreover, they become anchors in the city’s informal cultural landscape, each with their own identity and reputation where (starting) individual entrepreneurs can benefit from. In this perspective, it is hopeful that The Hague has several communities, like Maakhaven and De Besturing, ready to take this role as anchor for the long-term.

Martine Zoeteman (architect and writer) is founder of STADvogels, an architecture studio for research and design. For several years she studied (temporary) creative hubs in relation to urban development. Besides being part of De Besturing, a collective of artists, designers and cultural entrepreneurs that runs its own studio complex in the Binckhorst.