Both Saul and Kingwell argued that our understanding of culture has taken on an economic dimension - a change that has been for the worse. They suggested that we should reconsider our view of culture and its place in society.
Saul said that culture is misconceived as a luxury reserved for “sissies and entertainment.” It is seen as an attraction for tourists or as the preserve of the wealthy. For Kingwell, the popular understanding of culture has been reduced to an economic calculation- what he referred to as “use-value.” As a result, culture in Toronto, even when there is a revival of interest in the arts, has been seriously devalued.
Both speakers also touched on the relation between culture and location. Ralston Saul in particular argued for the importance of place, or how the physical design of the city shapes our interactions and ability to make use of it. “Toronto is a northern city and we need to build things accordingly,” he said.
The fact that the City of Toronto has not done so has led to basic problems for quality of life, he said. “If you go to Oslo,” Saul explained, “any public building will have a large, well-ordered cloak room and a place to put your boots.” Our goal should be a well-conceived version of Toronto accepting the specificity of our culture, rather than one of a number of undifferentiated “world class cities.”
Citing the ways in which culture and place reinforce each other, Kingwell also emphasized the need not only to optimize public space for public utility, but also to expand our idea of public space. “Every citizen has a right to the city,” he said. However public space is often constructed to shape and limit its use. Seemingly minor decisions, such as adding armrests to park benches to prevent people from sleeping on them, limit how we consider and occupy public space. “What’s actually wrong with sleeping on a bench?” inquired Kingwell.
At the root of this tendency towards seeing culture in economic terms and structuring our cities in accordance with this view is a decline in what Kingwell called the “shared idea of citizenship.” Beyond the matter of poor design and planning causing inconvenience, without public space we cannot develop public values. Only by reconsidering how we theorize culture and by developing our cities based on their capacity to serve and nurture a coherent public – and not just by increasing funding for the arts – can we solve this problem.