World Cities Culture Report 2012 - selected measures (source: WSJ)

London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, released the World cities culture report 2012 yesterday, a survey he commissioned comparing the cultural strength of 12 international cities on 60 variables.

One of those twelve cities is Sydney and, of course, London’s there too. The others are Berlin, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Mumbai, New York, Paris, São Paulo, Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo

The Financial Times says the survey puts the UK capital at or near the top on measures such as number of museums and art galleries. London comes out with 173 national and other museums against New York’s 131 and Paris’s 137.

The Guardian sees Paris as the benchmark for London. It reports Paris has three times the number of cinemas as London, twice as many public libraries, far more bookshops, theatres and music venues. London, on the other hand, has more museums, restaurants, night clubs and green spaces.

The Wall Street Journal reports NY led in seven categories, including dance performances and theatre performances. New York has more theatres than any other city but Paris has the most music performances.

There are some surprises too. According to the Journal, “Johannesburg has the highest number of rare and secondhand bookstores, with 943, and Istanbul—along with Paris and Shanghai—has more cinemas than New York.” Tokyo has the most bookshops.

Sydney doesn’t top any of the 60 categories but is only marginally behind Singapore – and well ahead of the rest – on the percentage of public green space. Sydney also does pretty well on festivals and the number of libraries and bookshops per head of population.

Here’re some examples put together by one media outlet showing which cities “came top” on selected measures:

National museums: Shanghai

Percentage of public green space: Singapore

Public libraries per 100,000 population: Sydney / Tokyo

Cinemas (per million population): Paris

Restaurants per 100,000 population: Tokyo

Michelin-starred restaurants: Tokyo

UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Paris

Other historical / heritage sites: Istanbul

Theatrical performances per year: New York

Comedy clubs: New York

Art galleries: Paris

Rare and second-hand bookshops: Johannesburg

Nightclubs, discos and dance halls: São Paulo

Having a long history, large numbers of tourists and an advanced economy seems to help, but as with almost all of these sorts of “benchmarking” exercises, the survey shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Yes, culture does matter – both in terms of the economic value of creative industries and in terms of a city’s ability to attract tourists and skilled residents – but this survey doesn’t really tell us a lot about the differences between these cities beyond the obvious.

A key problem is it defines ‘culture’ extraordinarily broadly. It uses a multi-dimensional definition embracing (a) culture as aesthetic forms and practices, (b) culture as a way of life, and (c) culture as a resource for supporting human development. That’s so all-embracing it’s very hard to operationalise.

So it’s not surprising the selected measures have many imperfections. I’m not going to go into their failings, instead I just want to mention some of the thoughts that occurred to me when I read the report.

One is you need to be careful about what these indicators mean. I doubt Johannesburg’s pre-eminence in bookshops and Tokyo’s in restaurants signifies these are among the most cultured cities in the world. It’s probably got more to do with factors like how many Johannesburg residents can afford new books.

Another is size matters. Although lots of the data is frustratingly presented in absolute terms rather than per capita terms, it matters that Paris has many more theatrical venues than Sydney. Sydney does better in per capita terms than many of the measures indicate, but bigger cities (and the effective populations of many are bolstered by tourism) simply provide more scope for specialisation.

Assuming the measures are right, another observation is Sydney does surprisingly poorly on some of the more popular cultural activities. For example, Sydney has 69 live music venues compared to Paris’s 423 (and Istanbul’s 91) and 432 comedy performances per year compared to London’s 11,388 (and Johannesburg’s 508). Perhaps the quality is higher in Sydney (something that’s not captured well by the measures).

I think a couple of the key challenges facing the 12 cities identified in the report are important for Australian cities too. We don’t have the history of London or even New York, but a relevant one nevertheless is “striking a balance between tradition and modernity.”

Some cities’ international image is very much shaped by their historic buildings and heritage, yet they need to find a way to make sure their contemporary culture is recognised and vibrant – a question Paris is interested in. On the other hand, the international images of, say, Tokyo and Shanghai tend to overlook their historic quarters and buildings.

Another that’s also relevant to all our cities is establishing and maintaining a sense of the local in a globally oriented world.

As ideas and people move more and more freely across borders, it may become hard to keep hold of the distinctive elements of a city’s culture. How can this be done without becoming parochial or protectionist?

Finally, the measures cover both ‘high brow’ and ‘low brow’ culture, but the emphasis is on arts-related culture. Other activities – like sporting attendances and participation – don’t get a mention, notwithstanding that they seem consistent with the definition of culture assumed in the study i.e. (b) culture as a way of life and (c) culture as a resource for supporting human development.

One line in the study made me shake my head. Describing Sydney, the authors say: “The city also draws on its climate and natural beauty to create a relaxed, convivial, inclusive culture.” So that’s why some communities are more (or less) inclusive than others!