A collaboration between the city government of Rome and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) — a network of 250,000 towns, cities, regions and metropolises across the world — is promoting culture as a pillar to sustainable urban development, at a time when the Covid-19 crisis is prompting a reassessment of public and private governance models globally. 

Enshrined in the so-called ‘Rome Charter’, the initiative draws from the universal declaration of human rights to promote “the right to participate fully and freely in cultural life”, and thus give local policy makers a new set of guiding principles to reform their approach to cultural policies and local governance.

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Some 45 cities across the globe have already backed the initiative, which will be officially launched on October 1–3 in Rome. 

Putting culture centre stage

“It is a change of model that we are seeking,” Emilia Saiz, the secretary general of the UCLG, tells fDi. “Our societies are built around industries that are obsolete and not sustainable. Tourism, for example, is built around a model that will not make it in the future, probably. The type of jobs are going to be very different in the future, the type of people’s belongings are also going to be very different. Culture and creativity need to be part of the new algorithm, and the charter opens a way to rethink our society; to make sure people see themselves not only as consumers, but actual drivers of culture.”

The charter urges policy makers to support their citizens to discover, create, share, enjoy and protect local culture and creativity. 

“It’s a simple set of guidelines that deal with urban development as a whole — it’s not just about the culture sector any more,” Luca Bergamo, the deputy mayor of Rome for culture development and co-author of the charter, tells fDi

“We cannot go back to square one. We have to give people new ways to emancipate, particularly as this crisis risks leaving behind the most vulnerable members of our communities. A new economic model has yet to be articulated, and the pattern outlined by the charter is functional to this and the achievement of sustainable development goals. For example, if we give free access to anyone to cultural sites in Rome, while at the same time engaging with the private sector for the provision of high-added-value services related to those cultural experiences, we can build a different economy. Today, the contribution of the creative and cultural industry to the city’s GDP stands at 10%. We have yet to assess its value through the lenses of this different approach.”  

The Rome city government is now pioneering an observatory able to capture the habits of cultural participation across the city through data analysis and make it a new reference for policy making. 

Covid-19 sparks rethinking 

The social and economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted local policy makers across the globe to rethink their approach to the development of their communities, particularly through the prism of livability and sustainability. 

“What has been the loftiest aspiration of urbanists the world over is now coming to fruition: cities are rapidly becoming more human-centric,” Scott Shepard, the chief business officer at Iomob, a Barcelona-based platform that connects public transport systems with private mobility service providers, wrote in fDi in June.

Some cities are already testing a comprehensive paradigm shift in their policy making. Amsterdam, for example, has been working with Oxford University economist Kate Raworth to apply her ‘doughnut model’, which provides an alternative set of principles for policy makers at any level to strike a balance between growth and sustainability. 

The pandemic is thus accelerating the global shift towards new models of ‘intelligent urbanism’ pioneered by cities like Medellin, Colombia; Bilbao, Spain; and Copenhagen, Denmark. 

This governance reform matters at city level, and it may well influence an ongoing reform of global governance too. 

“We need cities to be involved in the reform of global governance,” Mr Bergamo says.  

“Cities are the true root of multilateralism.”

The UN projects 68% of the world population will live in urban areas by 2050.