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The Key Role Of Culture In Making Cities Cohesive

“El Peine De Los Vientos 1, San Sebastian” by Sukopare, Wikimedia CC

Historically, the weight of culture in management and decision-making structures at the local government level has been peripheral. Furthermore, there have been no substantial differences in relation to the geographical location of administrations. Thanks to a long-standing tradition, European administrations in general have allocated greater resources for the management of culture, and in this respect the formulation of a cultural policy of a local nature happened in Europe before it did in the United States. Nevertheless, even then it did not occupy the core status that other public policies have held over the years.

In recent years, we have witnessed an intensification of the commitment to culture in almost all European and North American cities. From the periphery to the center: this how we can summarize the change that has taken place in local Administrations, from a marginal presence to one of fundamental importance. The reasons for this revival are numerous. In many cases, culture has served cities that were previously industrial and in decline, helping their rebirth and their efforts to position themselves competitively against others. The strong weight of culture in the economic development of cities is another vector in the analysis of cultural policy. There are other reasons, however, some of them difficult to quantify, but which have the great merit of structuring the societies of cities.

In this general context, two cities very distant from each other geographically but close in terms of their characteristics are making a firm commitment to place culture at the heart of their policies: Donostia, Basque Country and Boise, Idaho. This article will examine the similarities and the differences that separate them when it comes to managing cultural policies.

Maria Cristina Bridge
Puente de María Cristina, en San Sebastián/Donostia (Euskadi, España). Wikimedia.


Let us begin with Donostia. With a slightly smaller population (186,000), Donostia has been a city that has stood out because it has been involved in an ongoing process of self-renewal. Being a medium-sized city, in historic terms it has been part of the wave of cosmopolitan cities present in the vanguard of change. Thanks to its innate natural beauty, it has been a favorite tourist destination for aristocrats, monarchs, and political leaders in general. Even during the First World War it had casinos, a racecourse, and motor racing circuits. This impetus included the promotion of top-level cultural festivals which still feature strongly on the international cultural agenda several decades later.

From that initial standpoint, in the 1980s a decision was made to go to another level, in which culture would occupy one of the key roles in the City Council’s public policies. From a perspective of culture that was largely focused on elitist and seasonal manifestations, it was decided to try and involve all the people in the city so that they could achieve a community-based culture that would go beyond the basic level. Nowadays, and at the same level as other cultural disciplines, efforts are focused on the application of new technologies and including all citizens in the process. In 1990, a Municipal Culture Board (Patronato Municipal de Cultura) was set up following the absorption of three previous boards created in 1987. Later, in 2008 to be precise, what we know as the Business-Based Public Entity (Entidad Pública Empresarial) was founded to manage cultural policy in the city. With over 250 employees working in this entity, the City Council makes its intention to place culture at the heart of its agenda very clear. The figures discussed below are highly illustrative of this commitment.

The city has more than twenty public libraries and over fifteen civic centers (one for each neighborhood of the city). Over half the population (100,000+) uses the department’s services, together with 1,300,000 visits per year to the twenty-plus cultural centers in the city. Beyond the figures, however, and in a context of strong political conflict, culture has helped to make Donostia a more integrated, cultured, inclusive, and cohesive city thanks to the Council’s strong commitment. Donostia suffered the consequences of terrorism for many years; indeed, it was the city where ETA committed the highest number of killings. The end of ETA has happened as a result of numerous factors, although there is no doubt that the contribution of different forms of culture has been a key one. In this respect the City Council’s firm commitment to culture has made the path smoother to walk. In 2016, Donostia was the European Capital of Culture, with Reconciliation and Peace as the core themes of its program. Two years later, ETA has decided to disband definitively.

Furthermore, in the search for a new model of local governance that can overcome the credibility crisis suffered by the public and political sphere, culture is making a major contribution to fostering new forms of participation in public affairs. It is not by chance that Donostia has the previously mentioned network of more than fifteen civic centers, which have become spaces of authentic participation in the task of building an active society.

Boise starts from a different situation. In contrast to Donostia, whose population has hardly varied since the 1970s (165,829 in 1974 compared with 186,064 in 2017), Boise’s growth (from 74,990 to 216,282 in the same period) is now the issue at the heart of the debate in the city. Beyond the numbers, however, both cities share a desire to get out of their comfort zone, showing an ambition to reinvent themselves, to search for new potential through diversity and to assimilate new energies by looking outward and fostering inclusion.

In this context, it makes complete sense that Boise started to put a lot of effort into creating a systematized cultural policy. Given the conditions and circumstances that now converge in the city, and in the context of growth it is experiencing, it is also logical that culture should have started the move from the periphery to the center of the political and social agenda in Idaho’s capital. It is what current demands impose.

That is why the milestones that characterize the creation of a cultural policy are very recent in Boise. The city’s Department of Arts & History was set up in 2008, while its Cultural Plan was implemented in March 2017. There were certainly other, isolated initiatives before – although not necessarily planned – that have gradually configured a cultural policy that is part of the range of public policies in Boise. The fact of having a Master Plan, which had never happened before in the city’s history, shows the political will to place cultural policy on the same level as other policies. The drawing up of a plan, with all it involves, marks the way in which the plan should be implemented, not as a vague and disperse space. However, it is impossible to understand this without considering the current situation of the city of Boise. It is likely that a plan of this type would not have been considered without the factors that prevail in Boise. Nothing can be analyzed without taking the city’s growth into account. This growth led to matters that were outside the local political agenda until recently being considered,

With different timing, the steps that are now being taken in Boise go in the same direction as those implemented in San Sebastian (as Donostia is also called) thirty years ago. The Safdie architectural project (a new library and Center for Arts & History) that combined a range of cultural content and services is similar to the approach applied in Donostia when the civic centers were set up.

In a different context, culture has helped Donostia to channel a conflict that divided local society and affected families, a conflict that destroyed harmonious coexistence. Boise is facing different challenges that are nevertheless also considerable. Although there is no polarization of a local nature and the social fractures in the city are of a different nature (the wide range of opinions around the city’s growth is an example), culture may be the necessary ‘meeting place’ to channel extremist views and help the debate to take place serenely at a time of such uncertainty.

Taking into account these different starting points and characteristics, in both cities culture has been strongly incorporated into the heart of local governance and, above all, it has made a great mark on the landscape and life of the two cities.

Bown Crossing Library
Bown Crossing Library, Boise, Idaho. Photo by Jim Munkres


Initially, the figures might lead us to draw wrong conclusions. In San Sebastian, for example, if we start with the structure that manages culture in the city within the City Council’s overall structure, more than 250 people work in it. To this we should add another three structures (all public) that employ more than 500 people working in the field of culture. As for Boise, the department that is most similar to San Sebastian’s structure has 16 people working in it, so it is difficult to even make a comparative analysis, bearing in mind the long distance between the two cities. However, it is necessary to provide data that will finally lead us to conclude that there are two ways of undertaking the management of culture from the perspective of the City Council and from a general city perspective.

An illustrative point: while all the cultural services and contents in San Sebastian are grouped together in a single department, in Boise, for example, the city’s library service does not come under the Department of Arts & History. Although the numbers vary considerably, if we add the cultural services of some of the public amenities of Boise, the differences are not so great.

In the case of Donostia – and focusing on the public sphere – the City Council is practically the only public institution with exclusive responsibilities in the field of culture. The Diputación (Territorial Administration) of Gipuzkoa has a certain impact on the management of culture in the city, although the City Council is undoubtedly the main player. The responsibilities are shared to a greater extent in Boise.

As for the different levels of powers and functions and resources allocated by the two city councils, the main and most substantial difference is in the space each of them occupies in terms of management responsibility. In Donostia, the City Council almost exclusively covers the area of culture, and this leads us to an initial reflection.

San Sebastian also has private initiatives by cultural entrepreneurs; there are over two hundred cultural associations, reflecting a strong tradition in this respect. This scenario is not that different from the one in Boise, with the difference that the City Council maintains a prominent role. Far from coordinating, supervising, or facilitating, the City Council assumes its responsibility almost exclusively without leaving much free space, and this clearly involves certain risks.

It is a model that can suffocate citizens’ initiatives. It can lead to a certain feeling of comfort for citizens that is very necessary in this era of distance between people and the entities that govern then, and also of a certain passivity and cooling of citizens’ commitment towards public affairs. At a time when the impulse provided by citizens’ participation is so essential, this model seems to create the opposite effect. Doubts also emerge about its viability and sustainability. It is clear that having a single department in which all cultural disciplines converge guarantees a strong, across-the-board, and efficient approach.

In Boise, in contrast, the role of the City Council is much ‘lighter.’ It is rather an arbitrator than a leader or coach, encouraging and facilitating the organization of events. True, its leadership is becoming consolidated more and more and the City Council is starting to adopt a decidedly stronger role. In Boise, things are shared on a wide scale, which ensures a more participative and active, citizen-based tone; they should be the authentic protagonists of the city.

In San Sebastian, for example, the distance between the universities and the City Council is enormous. The universities act on the fringes of the city, and they turn their backs on it continuously, which obviously means a great loss of potential. In Boise, the interaction between the Boise State University and the city means that all energies, synergies, and potential are exploited, including in the cultural area.

Boise is living through an exceptional moment and the cultural area is the reflection of the city’s state of health. The strength with which Treefort has emerged and developed can probably be understood in the context currently experienced by the city. San Sebastian, however, has a different – and complicated – challenge that is, above all, different from the one faced by Boise. Having reached its peak, and in order to avoid being a victim of its own success, Donostia needs a new narrative that can excite and involve people. Donostia is undoubtedly a model of success that many cities would like to emulate, but it lacks the intensity, soul, and power that Boise is now showing in the cultural area. Starting from its unequalled position, San Sebastian needs to recover the impulse that led it to create an International Film Festival (one of only five Class 1 festivals in the world), the Jazz Festival (where the veteran Curtis Stigers will perform this year, and last year John Nemeth, both from Boise), or the Quincena Musical (Classical Music Fortnight). These were all initiatives of local citizens and traders whose vision was to make San Sebastian a reference point in the world of culture. Boise is following the spirit that characterized San Sebastian around fifty or sixty years ago.

composite opera house and treefortVictoria Eugenia Theatre (San Sebastian) at night by Zarateman, Wikimedia CC; Boise’s Treefort Music Fest by Aaron Rodriguez (cropped).


It could be said that the ideal formula is an equilibrium between the public resources allocated by San Sebastian and the vigor that Boise transmits nowadays. While some envy the extent of San Sebastian’s administrative structure, others aspire to match the energy that Boise conveys. San Sebastian runs the risk of suffering from a scorched earth syndrome. The future undoubtedly involves a strong interaction between the authorities and citizens; without them, no cultural project is worthwhile undertaking.