In a few short weeks, COVID-19 has swept away the world we knew. The measures we must take to protect our health have changed how we live and damaged our prosperity. We are grieving. We are remembering things we took for granted, including culture. We are also discovering unexpected resources of kindness, courage and solidarity in our societies.
At first, we talked about life ‘after the crisis’. Now we are learning that the disease might be with us for a long time, and that we will have to adapt to its presence. The experience is changing how we think about ourselves, about others and about the communities in which we live. It is changing our sense of what matters, who we admire, and how we want to live.
A few months ago, the city of Rome began a process of reflection on people’s participation in cultural life at local level, in the belief that commodification and economic priorities threatened equity, justice and human dignity. We wanted to contribute to global debates about development, citizenship and democracy, debates in which culture, human rights and cities are shamefully marginal. We still do – indeed we think it is now even more important and urgent. If this debate is genuinely global, avoiding historic eurocentrism, and inclusive of marginalised voices and cultures, it can lead to the strengthening of international institutions, programmes and policies related to the place of culture in development.
With the challenges it provokes, a crisis brings a responsibility and an opportunity to think beyond existing boundaries and do things that seemed impossible before, and already, in a few weeks, governments, institutions and citizens have sometimes done both. If some good can come from COVID-19, it will be because we have been brave enough to imagine different, better, more sustainable ways of living together and we won’t stop after the immediate crisis is over. And cities, which will shelter two thirds of the world’s population by 2050, are central to this challenge.
Culture is how people transform experience into meaning – and not only good or true meanings: it is a power that has been and is now put to bad uses. Culture is how people form, express, share and negotiate their values – including those of which they are unconscious or unable to articulate directly. Culture is everything we do beyond survival. Culture is everything we do to enrich our lives. It is also the story that shapes our actions, even when we are unaware of it. Culture describes the world, and we see the world through its lens.
And culture is also the renewable, human resource we have turned to in this crisis. Science helps us find understanding, answers and protection. Art offers comfort, education and entertainment in isolation. Both result from research, competences, creativity and hard work, not only pleasure. Culture connects us across empty streets in music and song, it enables us form and share our feelings with others. It is how we know who we are and how we meet others. It is in culture that we tell stories, make sense, dream and hope. It is culture that will shape the values and conduct of the cities we must renew after the trauma of COVID-19.
Now, more than ever, we want to affirm the social value of culture, where people, not profits, are its heart and purpose. We cannot yet say what that might mean in the world that is now emerging. This is a process of discovery, shaped by the situation and the people who contribute. We believe that conversations that help citizens make sense of the present, and imagine the future in hope, are a good way to rethink the city. This is where we are, where we stand today.
We must move beyond established thinking – about culture, creative cities, inclusive urbanism, rights and duties. We don’t know where it will end, but we are convinced that we need cultural democracy more than ever. Our whole society needs a period of healing and recovery, but may face a period of more conflicts and further inequalities. We need to find a new direction that includes all. Old answers will not do. We must ask what kind of life we want now and for the next generations, believing that the answers depend on the resources of democracy and a spirit of generosity.
Cities are spaces of experimentation and creativity. It is in Rome’s capacities to gather, connect and explore, a crossroads between worlds and times. We start from here: with Rome as a common crucible for new ideas about social models. Rome, ancient and modern, beautiful survivor, witness to plagues and wars and renaissance, is working for the inspiration to bring new paradigms into reality – and to share them. This is an invitation to create together an alternative future in those places that today represent a confinement as well as an opportunity: CITIES.
The World Organisation of United Cities and Local Governments – UCLG is the largest organisation of local and regional governments in the world. You, we, stand on the shoulders of countless women and men who have worked tirelessly to empower each other for over a century, to lift up our communities and to collaborate with one another to achieve positive change.
We represent, defend, and amplify the voices of local and regional governments, so that no-one and no place are left behind. Together we are the sentinels of the hopes, dreams, and aspirations held by individuals in communities around the world – searching for a life in which the ideals of the Sustainable Development Goals are a lived reality, and advocating for a strong multilateral system built from the territories around the world.
The place of culture in the sustainable development of our communities is one of the key areas of work of UCLG.
The 2020 Rome Charter statements are a work in progress developed in conversation with more than 50 cities and contributors from all over the world. There is more we will explore in the following months to develop detailed cultural policies, plans and actions in the next consultation and collaboration phase and specific to local contexts. We will invite responses, thoughts, new conversations, debates; we are willing to serve, gather, combine, reshape a new order of things.
Will you join us in this journey of renewal?
Please read the 2020 Rome Charter