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What does a cultural district actually do? Critically reappraising 15 years of cultural district policy in Italy

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Culture-driven urban and regional strategies have grown since the 1980s in Europe and beyond. Countless initiatives for creative clusters, cultural quarters and culture-led urban policies have mushroomed since the mid-1990s. Being exceptionally rich and dense in cultural amenities and institutions, creative production and cultural consumption, Italy seemed to be the natural ground for such a cultural turn in policymaking. In fact, Italy has been the cradle for cultural districts (CDs) since the early 2000s, fostering both analytical and normative speculations and experiments. Despite this richness, a systematic study of CD policy implementation is lacking and several questions are still pending, in Italy as well as in other countries. For example, how diverse are the CD experiences being developed; and what are the aims and core activities, the urban and regional settings and development effects? This paper presents an original survey of 68 experimentations that were officially labelled as ‘cultural districts’ over the last 15 years in Italy: as such it constitutes the first attempt at a nation-wide comprehensive analysis of CD policy. Even though the major importance of CDs as an analytical tool is acknowledged, the evidence gathered in this study shows the fuzziness and inconsistencies in the implementation of CD policy in Italy. The analysis shows the uneven regional geography of CDs, stresses the large variety of contents and promoters and high rate of failure, and the limited degree of specialization and integration with cultural industries. The paper reconsiders critically the policy notion and practice of CDs in Italy and calls for further international scholarly and policy debates.
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DOI: 10.1177/0969776416643749
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European Urban
and Regional
Studies
Introduction
The role of cultural production and consumption in
urban and regional development is now a long-
standing topic in academic debates: from economic
What does a cultural district
actually do? Critically
reappraising 15 years of cultural
district policy in Italy
Massimiliano Nuccio
Università degli Studi di Torino, Italy
Davide Ponzini
Politecnico di Milano, Italy
Abstract
Culture-driven urban and regional strategies have grown since the 1980s in Europe and beyond. Countless initiatives
for creative clusters, cultural quarters and culture-led urban policies have mushroomed since the mid-1990s. Being
exceptionally rich and dense in cultural amenities and institutions, creative production and cultural consumption, Italy
seemed to be the natural ground for such a cultural turn in policymaking. In fact, Italy has been the cradle for cultural
districts (CDs) since the early 2000s, fostering both analytical and normative speculations and experiments. Despite
this richness, a systematic study of CD policy implementation is lacking and several questions are still pending, in Italy as
well as in other countries. For example, how diverse are the CD experiences being developed; and what are the aims
and core activities, the urban and regional settings and development effects? This paper presents an original survey of
68 experimentations that were officially labelled as ‘cultural districts’ over the last 15 years in Italy: as such it constitutes
the first attempt at a nation-wide comprehensive analysis of CD policy. Even though the major importance of CDs as
an analytical tool is acknowledged, the evidence gathered in this study shows the fuzziness and inconsistencies in the
implementation of CD policy in Italy. The analysis shows the uneven regional geography of CDs, stresses the large
variety of contents and promoters and high rate of failure, and the limited degree of specialization and integration with
cultural industries. The paper reconsiders critically the policy notion and practice of CDs in Italy and calls for further
international scholarly and policy debates.
Keywords
Cluster, cultural districts, cultural policy, fuzzy concept, Italy
Corresponding author:
Massimiliano Nuccio, Università degli Studi di Torino, Lungo
Dora Siena, 100 A, Torino 10153, Italy.
Email: massimiliano.nuccio@unito.it
643749EUR0010.1177/0969776416643749European Urban and Regional StudiesNuccio and Ponzini
research-article2016
Article
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2 European Urban and Regional Studies
geography (among others: Scott, 2000, 2004, 2014)
to urban sociology (Zukin, 1989), from tourism
(Richards and Wilson, 2006) to urban planning and
cultural policy (Bianchini and Parkinson, 1993;
Ponzini, 2009; Strom, 2002). In particular, the spatial
organization of the cultural and creative economy has
been described in terms of cultural clusters and quar-
ters (Mommaas, 2004; Pratt, 2009; Zarlenga et al.,
2013) or cultural districts (Sacco et al., 2009;
Santagata, 2002). In most segments of literature these
three labels have been used with equal separate effect
or with overlapping meanings, attracting significant
attention both in theory and in policy practice.
Despite the success and spread of such forms of
agglomeration, academic research has generally fol-
lowed two directions. First, single or multiple in-
depth case studies helped to analyze advantages of
more or less spontaneous clusters, districts and quar-
ters in specific local contexts (Le Blanc, 2010;
Lorenzini, 2011; Ponzini, 2009; Pratt, 2009; Sacco
et al., 2013b; Zarlenga et al., 2013), but they did not
provide more general and comparative evaluations of
similar policies. Second, urban, regional and national
surveys measured the concentration of firms and
employees in the cultural and creative industries
(Bertacchini and Borrione, 2013; Boix et al., 2014;
Krätke, 2012; Lazzeretti, 2013), whose increase is
not related to explicit clustering policy. Despite the
fact that some authors have recently started question-
ing their effect (Mould and Comunian, 2015), there is
currently a lack of systematic single-country surveys
and evaluation of cultural policies promoting such
spatial agglomerations, and limited comparative
analysis of their effectiveness.1 Several crucial ques-
tions remain to be answered. For example:
How diverse are the experiences developed in
one country under the banner of ‘cultural dis-
trict’ (CD)?;
What are the core activities undertaken and
their aims? – are they about the recognition
and preservation of existing heritage,
research, communication, education, cultural
events, or what else?;
Where are these initiatives concentrated?
In cities where there is a higher density of cul-
tural supply and demand or in areas in need of
some cultural momentum?;
Are the initiatives region-wide or concen-
trated in the territory of one single municipal-
ity or even smaller areas?; and
What are the most critical aspects in their suc-
cess: specialization, governance, communica-
tion or others?
By developing an original nation-wide long-term
survey, this paper provides extensive evidence
regarding CD programs and policies in Italy since
the early 2000s. There are multiple aims: first, to
evaluate critically a long and diverse period of CD
policy and to find shortcomings of such initiatives,
with specific reference to their spatial planning and
local development aspects; second, to assess how the
notion of a CD has been understood and adopted by
policy makers; and, third, to go beyond the descrip-
tion and to articulate critical policy appraisals and
considerations.
The paper contributes to the academic and policy
debate in two principal ways. It is the first extensive
survey of CD policy carried out at a national level,
providing a reliable map of operating and non-oper-
ating CDs in Italy; and, second, it is a critical assess-
ment of a much-diffused urban and regional policy
label, which needs to be theoretically reconsidered
and discussed internationally.
Finally, this paper concentrates on the genesis and
experimentation of CDs in the Italian context; how-
ever, it is argued that the findings are of evident
interest to other national and regional contexts
where, under different names, similar concepts have
been put to work (e.g. ‘cultural and creative clusters’
and ‘cultural quarters’ in the UK, ‘cultural quarters’
in the USA, and so on). Nonetheless, Italy has some
particular characteristics in terms of its institutional
framework, its cultural policy field, and its intellec-
tual legacy in cultural economy and planning that
will be briefly reviewed.
The paper is structured as follows. First there is a
concise review of the extant literature with regard to
the definition of CDs, with reference to the relevance
of the industrial district concept and CD policy in
Italy as well as to the critical distinction between a
CD as an analytical concept or a CD as a policy solu-
tion. Second, there is a brief discussion of the local
and international relevance of the topic; and, third,
we present the method and the original dataset
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Nuccio and Ponzini 3
regarding the 68 Italian CDs studied. Next, we dis-
cuss three aspects of the datasets: CD activities, gov-
ernance and communication; and the paper concludes
with the presentation of four critical considerations
regarding CDs and a call for a serious reappraisal of
the CD both as a concept and policy solution, stress-
ing the limits of the limited reflective role played by
experts.
From industrial to cultural
districts: evolution of a notion
between positive analysis and
policymaking
The genesis and evolution of the notion of a CD
inevitably refers to the industrial district theory. The
literature regarding industrial districts includes a rel-
evant and substantial quantity of academic contribu-
tions, coming from many disciplines, perspectives
and different countries. A review in detail of this lit-
erature is beyond this paper’s scope. However, we
intend to concentrate on the features of industrial
districts that have, in various ways, been adopted
and adapted in CD scholarly and policy debates. In
particular, in the field of cultural production, we pro-
vide an insight into the formation and clustering
rationales of CDs and some of the most recurrent
features (geographical scale, governance, agglomer-
ation effects, knowledge spillovers) found in the
specialist literature.
The term ‘industrial district’ was originally
coined by Alfred Marshall (1890 [2013] to define a
concentration of typically small and specialised
firms in a particular location. His seminal contribu-
tion is the foundation of the following research,
which has recognised agglomeration economies as
the standard source of advantage for localized firms.
After a long period of dominance of the vertically
integrated corporation, the interest in industrial dis-
tricts rises again at the end of the 1970s and in the
1980s on both sides of the Atlantic: in Europe, neo-
Marshallian theories were developed both by the
Italian school (Becattini, 1979, 1990; Brusco, 1982,
1986) and by the flexible specialization school
(Priore and Sabel, 1984), while in the USA the
Californian school of external economies addressed
similar issues (Scott, 1988; Storper and Scott, 1989).
Giacomo Becattini and Arnaldo Bagnasco are
among the founders of the Italian School, which
helped reconsider the Marshallian industrial district
as a ‘socio-economic paradigm’ (Becattini, 1990)
shaping the so-called ‘Third Italy’. The latter was
intended as a complex model of growth, as an alter-
native to the Fordist model (Bagnasco, 1977).
According to Becattini (2000, 2004), the external
economies of localization – recognised as the main
source of advantages of clustering – are based on a
combination of organizational processes and knowl-
edge spillovers. Recalling the Marshallian definition
of ‘industrial atmosphere’, Becattini (1990) synthe-
sized the ability of the local system in developing its
own cognitive structures derived from a unique local
combination of human and social capital as the
source of competitive advantage. In the same period,
the evaluation at a broader regional scale of the insti-
tutional performance related to the associational life
inspired works of paramount importance for the def-
inition of social capital (Putnam et al., 1994).
In the 1990s the primacy of the USA in this field
of research is marked by the terminological shift
from ‘district’ to ‘cluster’, supported by the substan-
tial work by Porter (2000) on competitiveness, and
Krugman (1991), who recombines localization and
growth theories into the so-called new economic
geography by introducing the concept of increasing
returns. European scholars focused on the socio-eco-
nomic dimension of districts/clusters, testing models
and theories of innovation systems (Camagni, 1991;
Breschi and Lissoni, 2001); technological and organ-
izational change (Boschma, 2005; Maskell and
Lorenzen, 2004); and institutions, human capital and
learning (Amin and Thrift, 1992; Bathelt et al., 2004;
Maskell and Malmberg, 1999).
The interest of this literature in different forms of
non-material capital contributed to the evolution of
the original industrial district model and eventually
arrived at the potentially explanatory role of culture
in the processes of endogenous local development.
The notion of CDs can be understood as the result
of these multiple reflections, a type of point of con-
vergence of the ‘cultural turn’ which led the transi-
tion to the knowledge economy and creative
economy (Evans, 2004; Florida, 2005; Scott, 2000).
Cultural and creative industries typically rely on
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4 European Urban and Regional Studies
strong symbolic values, they are subject to the effects
of Engel’s Law and, above all, they tend to concen-
trate spatially in urban contexts and clusters (Cooke
and Lazzeretti, 2008; Krätke, 2012; Lazzeretti, 2013;
Pratt, 2004; Stern and Seifert, 2010). At the same
time, the field of cultural policy has been expanding,
not only supplying goods and services with cultural
contents but also involving social welfare, the
accommodation and empowerment of immigrant
and diverse populations (Dreeszen, 1998; Kunzmann,
2004), and, finally, the transformation of the urban
environment in providing cultural facilities, activi-
ties and events (see, among others, Evans, 2001,
2004; Landry, 2000).
In this framework the idea of cultural districts,
clusters and quarters flourished with slightly differ-
ent reference to local and national contexts and to
their cultural and economic contents. Nevertheless,
some structural features are recurrent: according to
Scott (2004) and Santagata (2006), the advantages of
given ‘natural’ clusters, districts or quarters include
the internalization of positive externalities of culture,
capacity-building and social capital improvement,
common infrastructure and, of course, economies of
agglomeration.
The geographical scale of these agglomerations
can be differentiated in two main typologies. In cit-
ies and metropolitan areas, the clustering process has
been analyzed as a sub-unit of the urban structure
and described as producing an urban district or clus-
ter. What most research discussing culture and place
shares in common is either the departure from or the
conclusion of the fact that cultural activities tend to
cluster in the inner city. Whether old industrial com-
plexes that are being re-used by creative industries
(Barnes and Hutton, 2009; Mommaas, 2004), or the
choice of creative institutions to settle in former
working class and devalued quarters (Casellas and
Pallares-Barbera, 2009; Montgomery, 2004; Pratt,
2009), the city is where creativity seems to find its
place to flourish. This proposition is based on the
belief that consumption is the main driver leading
individuals to locate in a specific place, even if crite-
ria of classification concerning activities, govern-
ance, audience, investments and policy model
identify a substantial and broad taxonomy (Hutton,
2004; Mommaas, 2004; Montgomery, 2004).
In less urbanized territories, characterized by the
dispersed location of small–medium sized towns and
villages, cultural clustering seems to be the analyti-
cal extension of the original industrial district.
Santagata (2002) widened the scope of the tradi-
tional manufacturing districts, first by acknowledg-
ing the support of local institutions in creating the
conditions for a cultural economy to flourish and,
second, by underlining the possibilities of an effec-
tive management of intellectual property rights in all
those industrial chains based on symbolic capital.
The ground-breaking study by Santagata (2002)
introduced a taxonomy for CDs, suggesting four
ideal types: industrial CDs, institutional CDs and
two versions of quasi-CDs, which typically might be
a museum CD or a metropolitan CD. Building on
this approach, the model of the ‘system-wide cul-
tural district’ introduced by Sacco et al. (2009,
2013a) pushes the productive orientation of the CD
even further: the strategic complementarities among
different productive chains through a deeper hori-
zontal integration can improve at the same time the
creation and diffusion of cognitive competences and
capabilities, the orientation towards innovation, the
attraction of talents, and the exploitation of space
and resources to create new enterprises.
These agglomeration advantages can only par-
tially explain the governance of CDs. In fact, both
CDs and other public or private stakeholders not
taking part in the strictly cultural production chain
(Scott, 2004) are interested in providing situated
common goods such as physical infrastructures or
urban facilities, and more in general in improving
the urban life quality. Conflicting goals can there-
fore emerge between cultural and other urban poli-
cies, where the former are instrumentally informed
and often controlled by the dominant social and
economic agenda (Ponzini and Rossi, 2010;
Ponzini, 2009; Gray, 2006; Strom, 2002). Early
studies regarding the connection to local political
power investigated single cases (Newman and
Smith, 2000), even when dealing with policies of
wider scope (e.g. culture clustering in Scotland, see
McCarthy, 2006).
Comparing a limited set of cases does not provide
for disclosure of many CD problems because, typi-
cally, case studies are selected among successful or
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Nuccio and Ponzini 5
at least operating CDs: it is very rare that failures in
cultural and urban policy are discussed at all. The
unintended effects of top-down policies for culture-
led clustering are often underestimated by scholars,
policy makers and by policy consultants who are
self-interested in promoting similar and ready-made
policy solutions. Ponzini et al. (2014) offered an
insight into recent policy for the development of
CDs in Italy. According to the analysis of the national
context and to most advanced experimentations
these scholars questioned if the concept of cultural
district could be used equally both for analyzing the
spatial organization of cultural production and con-
sumption and for crafting policies for better manag-
ing these activities.
We conclude that only limited research has been
carried out on evaluating Italian CD policy experi-
ments and that a more critical approach is required
(among the exceptions see: Calcagno et al., 2012).
This point seems relevant due to the fact that a some-
how self-referential circle of experts often supports
policymaking and, most importantly, that several
programs have resulted in little or no impact.
Just another fuzzy concept? The
evaluation of CD policies in Italy
From a theoretical perspective the cluster concept
itself has been heavily criticized. Martin and Sunley
(2003) and Benneworth and Henry (2004) stated the
lack of clarity of clusters in addressing spatial con-
centration as a key-driver for the growth and success
of firms, questioning its flexible application to het-
erogeneous contexts. These authors considered
industrial and geographical boundaries of clusters,
often regarded as immeasurable, and doubted that
networks within what is called a cluster could be dif-
ferentiated from links with outside firms.
These considerations led to questions of whether
the cluster is no more than a brand, and how then to
use this concept in actual development policy. As
suggested by Markusen (2003), fuzzy conceptual-
ization in regional studies would be of little concern
if it had minor policy implications. However, when a
concept such as ‘cultural district’ is broadly applied
as a normative proposition, testing its validity and
assessing the effects of its implementation is an
important task for research. In addition, the research
strategy of exploring the variety of uses of uncriti-
cally accepted policy terms proved to be extremely
useful in debunking common myths in European
policymaking and providing a better understanding
to scholars (see, among others, the exemplary work
on the ‘European region’ by Casellas and Galley,
1999).
Governments have actively promoted the forma-
tion of creative or cultural clusters to support eco-
nomic development, urban regeneration or other
strategies. However, the flourishing of cluster policy
has not taken place without critical voices being
raised, and policies instrumentally using the creative
industries for place promotion have been questioned
on the basis of case studies (Mommaas, 2004).
CD policy has been widespread and relevant in
Italy since 2000. For example, in the programming
of EU structural funds in Southern Italy there was
heavy involvement of cultural planning and systemic
initiatives in each of these regions. In some cases, a
single regional government or bank foundations ini-
tiated extensive planning of CDs (Ponzini et al.,
2014), without developing advanced methodological
or policy connections with other regions. From a leg-
islative perspective only two regions offer a formal
framework for the establishment and financing of
CDs.2
Although industrial districts and clusters do have
theoretical variations and alternative mapping meth-
odologies, there is a shared understanding of their
geographical distribution, scope and impact in
Europe (Crouch et al., 2001). However, the scholarly
definitions of CDs discussed above can be mislead-
ing in analytical terms and there is no consensus on
how to operationalize such a notion into policy
terms. Their common postulate claims that arts and
cultural industries are a primary boost to local devel-
opment because they are expected to enhance the
‘quality of places’ and their attractiveness.
The final aim of the present paper is to collect –
with reference to Italy – comprehensive evidence to
develop an understanding of what exactly a cultural
district is, in which forms it manifests and what the
effects of cultural districts actually are. Is a CD simply
another type of industrial district? When this is the
case, industrial economists and economic geographers
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6 European Urban and Regional Studies
have conceived CDs in the form of spatial agglomera-
tions specialized in the production and consumption of
cultural goods and activities – such as cultural indus-
tries, heritage and museums, festivals and events. They
are typically service oriented, concentrated in large
urban areas, linked to international networks and open
to global markets (Mommaas, 2004; Pratt, 2009; Scott,
2000; Simmie, 2004).
Alternatively, some scholars have considered
CDs as an evolution of the traditional industrial dis-
trict. This second hypothesis incorporates two major
changes to the industrial model: first, a stronger
institutional approach (governance) aimed at pro-
tecting ‘idiosyncratic’ production and favoring the
‘creative atmosphere’ (Bertacchini and Santagata,
2012; Santagata, 2002, 2006); and, second, a con-
tinuous orientation towards process innovation able
to integrate different industries by using cultural
capital as a catalyst (Sacco et al., 2009).
Both evolutions are valid in theory, but one can
question what happens when they are translated
into policy for urban and regional development.
Quantitative surveys have been published on pat-
terns of diffusion of the creative and cultural indus-
tries in Italy and other countries (Bertacchini and
Borrione, 2013; Boix et al., 2014), but their starting
point is a pure industrial approach based on loca-
tion quotients. Simply measuring local quotients of
cultural industries excludes what is in practice
labelled as a ‘cultural district’ by policymakers, but
which may include other sorts of policy outcomes,
namely urban quarters, archaeological and natural
parks, archaeological sites, eco-museums, muse-
ums or other cultural networks.
There is consensus among scholars that success-
ful CDs were based on natural clustering at the urban
level (Mommaas, 2004; Zukin, 1989), but no clear-
cut evaluation of policy-induced CDs has yet con-
firmed their positive effects on local development.
Despite being a quite appealing buzzword and label,
there has not been any systematic study or policy at
national level dealing with CDs which attests what
approaches worked and under what kind of urban
and regional conditions. In this sense, our research
on Italy can foster further investigations in other
national contexts and with reference to other similar
labels, since Italy is often seen as a relevant testbed
in the fields of built heritage, cultural district and
clustering policy (see, among others Ponzini, 2010;
Ponzini et al., 2014; Santagata, 2009).
Materials and methodology
Given the relevance of CD policies in Italy and its
fuzzy conceptualization, we decided to study the
policy initiatives that officially claim to be ‘cultural
districts’. We are fully aware that some contexts that
could analytically be described as CDs (e.g. the
Langhe wine district or culturally rich urban quarters
in some historic cities) may ultimately not be
included in this survey because they have not been
labelled as a ‘cultural district’ by any official policy.
At the same time, this methodology has the substan-
tial advantage of investigating extensively the vari-
ety of interpretations, meanings and effects of
‘cultural district’ policies, without assuming ex ante
any correct or ultimate definition. Moreover, this
approach can show the diverse urban and regional
conditions under which CD policies were tested, and
their effects.
The paper offers a simple protocol of analysis to
describe self-claimed CDs and eventually to dis-
card non-relevant ones. The survey has been based
on different secondary sources, which include sev-
eral official reports, feasibility studies and over 50
dedicated and institutional websites (Table 6). To
validate data, 25 stakeholders over 20 different
CDs have been interviewed, including officers and
managers working at local authorities and funding
bodies. They have been asked whether a CD pro-
ject is still active and, in cases where this is not the
case, the reasons for their conclusion. In operating
CDs, survey questions focused on mission and
core activities, governance model and communica-
tion strategies.
The protocol included geographical descriptive
data for each CD: location, region, surface area cov-
ered, activities performed, and population (Table 1).
In addition, for those CDs that were actually funded,
we collected information regarding the administra-
tive area (regional, provincial, local government)
and the funding/operating bodies (Tables 4 and 5).
Using a map localizing the CDs over the Italian
regions (see Figure 2) enabled us to analyse their
spatial distribution and highlight the operating/non-
operating ones (see definitions below).
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Nuccio and Ponzini 7
We assumed that if a CD existed in any form it
would appear on the Internet, and at the very least it
could be found through a Google search. We there-
fore searched for the Italian terms ‘distretto cul-
turale’ both with and without quotes, finding
respectively about 112k and 577k results on Google.
it.3 From these we clustered the most quoted URLs
(Table 7) and selected all those that had been explic-
itly named as a ‘cultural district’ by the policymak-
ers who planned, launched or managed the projects.
As mentioned above, although some other initiatives
could be considered as a CD, we excluded those that
used different definitions or labels (for example
‘ecomuseum’ or ‘design district’). In this way we
were able to select and map 68 districts. This set
includes those CDs that were actually established
and functioned, others that expired after a short life
span, and even those that remained as an official pro-
ject only on paper. From a temporal perspective,
these cases cover a period of fifteen years, between
2000 and 2014, a significant time span for our
research questions.
The protocol targeted three descriptive dimen-
sions: first, the cultural and creative domain, speci-
fying the activities in which each CD is involved
and offers services; second, the institutional and
organizational dimension (governance) of the man-
aging organization and the main funding body; and,
third, communication activities, including official
websites, social networks, articles and publica-
tions. The combination of these dimensions can
help with understanding the level of implementa-
tion of CDs. Our database included detailed infor-
mation regarding the proposed aims and degree of
activity of each CD and the three main strategies
carried out: to build a network of institutional
stakeholders and cultural organizations; to design
and implement cultural policies in the form of plans
Table 1. Overview of the Italian cultural districts in the sample.
Regions Number
of
districts
Size of
district
(km2)
Total
size
(km2)
km2
saturation
rate
District
population
Total
Population
(2012)
Population
saturation
rate
1 Abruzzo 2 6,260 10,795 58% 633,734 1,312,507 48%
2 Basilicata 2 1,533.42 9,995 15% 148,274 576,194 26%
3 Calabria 5 4,461.43 15,081 30% 580,237 1,958,238 30%
4 Campania 3 422.03 13,590 3% 1,247,216 5,769,750 22%
5 Emilia Romagna 10 5,383.93 22,456 24% 989,975 4,377,487 23%
6 Friuli Venezia Giulia 1 84 7,855 1% 205,535 1,221,860 17%
7 Lazio* 4 17,208 17,208 100% 5,557,276 5,557,276 100%
8 Liguria 1 275.55 5,421 5% 100,768 1,565,127 6%
9 Lombardia 11 14,368.82 23,863 60% 2,588,925 9,794,525 26%
10 Marche* 2 9,366 9,366 100% 1,545,155 1,545,155 100%
11 Molise 1 1,529 4,433 34% 88,444 313,341 28%
12 Puglia 1 1,337 19,371 7% 76,543 4,050,803 2%
13 Sardegna 10 7,137.95 24,089 30% 896,416 1,640,379 55%
14 Sicilia* 6 25,703 25,703 100% 4,999,932 4,999,932 100%
15 Toscana* 2 22,990 22,990 100% 3,692,828 3,692,828 100%
16 Trentino Alto Adige 1 6,000 13,607 44% 477,000 1,039,934 46%
17 Umbria 1 2,532 8,456 30% 151,000 886,239 17%
18 Veneto* 3 18,391 18,391 100% 4,881,756 4,881,756 100%
19 Piemonte 2 1,652.28 25,402 7% 256,925 4,374,052 6%
Total valid 68 146,635.41 29,8072 49% 29,117,939 59,557,383 49%
20 Valle d'Aosta 0 0 3,263 0 0 127,844 0
Italy (totals) 68 146,635.41 301,335 49% 29,117,939 59,685,227 49%
*These regions have delivered projects for CDs which are intended to cover the entire regional area.
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8 European Urban and Regional Studies
and projects; and, eventually, to promote advanced
technological services applied to cultural heritage
and services (Table 2). CDs are defined as ‘operat-
ing’ when evidence of any activity can be tracked.
In this case, the main sources of information used
in order to verify their actual commitment were
their websites, and published reports and newspa-
pers articles regarding their production and con-
sumption activities (Table 3).
It is acknowledged that the method and protocol
used have imitations. First of all, the survey, albeit
extensive, was based on those organizations which
labelled themselves as a CD; but, as explained, pro-
ducing a comprehensive and consistent survey of all
the organizations functioning as cultural districts,
clusters or quarters and being labelled otherwise
Table 2. Strategies of operating cultural districts.
Categories Number of districts involved %
Network – Communication (bottom -up) 17 50%
Cultural Planning (top-down) 12 38%
Technology Hub 5 12%
Total 34 100%
Table 3. Main activities* of Italian CDs.
Actvities Operating Non-operating Total
Cultural hub 44% 56% 50%
Cultural heritage 44% 26% 35%
Communication 35% 15% 25%
Education 32% 6% 19%
Research 21% 12% 16%
Popular culture 18% 12% 15%
Nature–rural 9% 18% 13%
Museum 18% 9% 13%
Visual arts 12% 9% 10%
Food 9% 9% 9%
Performing arts 6% 9% 7%
Literature 6% 6% 6%
*Note that CDs can engage in more than one activity at a time.
Table 4. CDs and their administrative area.
Administrative
area
General Operating Non-
operating
Region 6 9% 4 67% 2 33%
Province 13 19% 4 31% 9 69%
Municipality 14 21% 11 79% 3 21%
Cluster of
Municipalities
35 51% 15 43% 20 57%
Total 68 100% 34 50% 34 50%
Table 5. CDs and their funding bodies.
Main funding body Number of districts
(valid = 51)
Region 6 12%
Province 11 22%
Municipality 2 4%
Foundation 25 49%
Other (UNESCO, GAL, private
companies.)
7 14%
Total 51
Missing 17
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Nuccio and Ponzini 9
proved open to question, and ultimately not possible,
given Italy’s cultural richness and complexity. Second,
it was not possible to collect a comprehensive
set of primary data (e.g. by conducting systematic
Table 6. Web presence and source of information.
Regions Number of
districts
Official
Website
PA
Website
Other digital
sources
1 Abruzzo 2 2
2 Basilicata 2 1 1
3 Calabria 5 1 2 2
4 Campania 3 2 1
5 Emilia Romagna 10 7 3
6 Friuli Venezia Giulia 1 1
7 Lazio 4 2 2
8 Liguria 1 1
9 Lombardia 11 5 3 3
10 Marche 2 1 1
11 Molise 1 1
12 Piemonte 2 2
13 Puglia 1 1
14 Sardegna 10 10
15 Sicilia 6 4 2
16 Toscana 2 2
17 Trentino Alto Adige 1 1
18 Umbria 1 1
19 Veneto 3 1 2
Totals 68 22 30 16
100% 35% 48% 26%
Table 7. Most quoted URL (Uniform Resource Locator) in 200 Google.it search results for ‘distretto culturale’ (last
accessed 15 February 2015).
Cultural Districts Promoter Quotations
Marche Regione Marche 42
Generic reference Literature/Newspaper 29
Urbino e il Montfeltro Regione Marche 11
Valtellina Cariplo Foundation 10
Sardegna Regione Sardegna 7
Monza Brianza Cariplo Foundation 7
Valle Camonica Cariplo Foundation 6
Habitat Rupestre Matera Fondazione Zetema 6
Oltrepò Mantovano Cariplo Foundation 6
Palermo (Sicily) City of Palermo 5
Regge dei Gonzaga Cariplo Foundation 5
Lazio Regione Lazio 5
Sud-Est Sicily City of Noto 4
Madonie (Sicily) Natural Park Madonie 4
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10 European Urban and Regional Studies
Figure 1. Percentage of regional areas involved in CD
projects (1 = 100%).
semi-structured interviews) regarding all the 68 CDs,
also taking into consideration the fact that some
of the CDs changed over time or were not currently
operating.
Cultural districts in Italy between
2000 and 2014
The results of the survey will be presented accord-
ing to a CD’s location and spatial organization, its
state of activity or inactivity, and its functions. With
regard to geographical distribution, CDs are located
all over Italy. As illustrated in Table 1, the 68 CDs
seemingly cover an area equal to 49% of the Italian
regions, populated by almost 30 million people.
Five regions (Veneto, Tuscany, Marche, Lazio and
Sicily) have delivered comprehensive projects that
include their total area. Only the small Valle
d’Aosta has not yet developed any cultural district
at the time of the survey, despite being the region
with the highest per capita spending regarding cul-
tural policy in Italy. The variation in the distribu-
tion is wide, from only one CD in six regions to ten
in Emilia-Romagna and Sardinia and a maximum
of eleven in Lombardy. Similarly, the coverage rate
is extremely varied (Figure 1): Abruzzi and Friuli
are two relatively small regions, but CDs cover an
area equal to 58% in the former and only 1% in the
latter. Lombardy presents a different situation, in
which almost 60% of the territory is apparently
involved in projects on CDs, but only 26% of its
population is affected by their potential activities.
Most of the CDs (about 72% of the sample) are
promoted either by provinces or by municipalities,
and are less frequently backed by regional govern-
ments. This diverse mix of promoters has triggered a
variety of geographical scales and raised further con-
fusion regarding the definition of CD policies which
in practice stretch from urban compounds to whole
regions.
With reference to the taxonomy originally devel-
oped by Santagata (2002), the sample does not include
any example of a metropolitan district, although each
major Italian art city (Rome, Florence, Naples and
Venice) is the headquarters of a research and technol-
ogy-based CD operating in the area of cultural herit-
age. There were very few cities (Bologna, Palermo,
Catania and Reggio Calabria) and towns (Prato and
Faenza) which claimed to be an urban cultural district
as a whole. According to Boix et al. (2014), many
Italian as well as European cities do have de facto
‘cultural districts’, but they are rarely labelled as such
since descriptive terms such as ‘historic centre’ or
‘cultural quarters’ are generally preferred, and they
typically need policy supports that are different from
standard CD ready-made policy packages. CDs are
mostly concentrated in less densely populated areas,
sometimes rich with cultural and natural heritage, but
poor in infrastructure and outside the main tourist
flows.
The survey also provides us with a systematic
insight into what CDs do or do not do. Their orienta-
tion to service is so predominant that no CD shows
specific activities related to manufacturing produc-
tion. As mentioned above, this is due to the fact that
very few CDs include large and medium-sized cities
and, even when their areas overlap with an industrial
district, local production systems prefer to label
themselves as a ‘rural’ or ‘industrial’ district rather
than ‘cultural’.
Operating and non-operating CDs
One significant finding of our survey refers to the
ratio of operating and non-operating CDs (Figure 2).
In our survey 34 operating CDs are classified accord-
ing to three prevailing missions that drive their core
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Nuccio and Ponzini 11
activities (Table 2): network creation, cultural plan-
ning, and technological innovation.
CDs primarily manage networking activities serv-
ing as facilitators for local cultural organizations and
Figure 2. Geo-localization of Italian operating and non-operating CDs.
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12 European Urban and Regional Studies
initiatives. Half of the operating districts coordinate
and often promote activities of different cultural
organizations, for example by building networks
across museums, libraries or heritage sites, favoring
the exchange of information, and supporting heteroge-
neous initiatives. For example, the CD in Trento and
Rovereto promoted a tourist city card for local trans-
port, museums and shopping. CDs in Bologna provide
leadership and supervision to 56 municipalities, over
250 cultural organizations and hundreds of associa-
tions. The South-East CD in Sicily offers different itin-
eraries across the UNESCO site of Noto, renowned
worldwide for its baroque architecture (Le Blanc,
2010). In Lombardy, CDs funded by Fondazione
Cariplo also engage in cultural planning. They explic-
itly set goals, resources and shared plans for creating
CDs in a time frame.
Italian CDs do not generally undertake techno-
logical innovation as a mission. In fact, only five dis-
tricts have been focusing on the technological
dimension applied to cultural heritage restoration,
preservation and display. Four of them are localized
in the main Italian heritage cities (Rome, Florence,
Venice and Naples) and gather different local admin-
istrations, universities, private and public companies
acting as regional meta-districts without enforcing
specific territorial boundaries. Similarly, in the
Southern Italian town of Crotone, the CD activities
started in 2005 with the establishment of a consor-
tium concerning the preservation and restoration of
archaeological sites. The project, co-funded by the
ERDF (European Regional Development Fund), the
Italian government and private companies, was con-
cluded in 2009 with the successful achievement of
all the proposed actions: this was also certified in a
final report delivered to the regional government of
Calabria.
Notably, half of the sample (34) is constituted by
non-operating districts. Most of them were inactive
at the time of the survey, either because their project
had been abandoned or failed – for instance, the
DiCE regional project in Veneto, or most of the CDs
in Sardinia. The only evidence of their existence is
often a study or a report, which can confirm that they
were planned but never formally established.
According to the former promoters of non-operating
CDs, although projects were based on feasibility
studies, business plans and regional strategies, they did
not reach the start-up phase because they were not able
either to raise sufficient funds or to become financially
sustainable. This occurred in, for example, L’Aquila, as
explained by the local authority manager:
The idea of the district was abandoned slowly after the
EU funded the feasibility study. A worktable discussed
the financial opportunity of the Regional Law 22/2005
but lately the project was dismissed. According to my
opinion, the Law is weak and poor in contents, not
favouring the institution of any district. (L’Aquila CD
– Local Authority Manager; translated by the authors)
Other interviewees reported similar stories.
Further to different feasibility studies commissioned
by Trieste County between 2006 and 2011, the CD
project was abandoned because the application for
EU funding did not succeed. In Faenza, the CD was
attached to the launch of an international festival of
contemporary art. After three editions (2009–2011)
the local authority stopped funding the initiative,
which seemed unable to involve adequately the local
community and generate an economic and promo-
tional return for the city. Sardinia, an island rich in
cultural heritage and festivals, has debated CDs for
10 years, but most of the planned CDs are still not in
operation. Similarly, in Calabria four different CD
projects have been elaborated and presented, but they
never reached the implementation phase. The short
life cycle of most of the above projects suggests
blurred policy design and ineffective planning.
Activities, governance and communication:
what do CDs actually do?
The survey identified twelve main activities that
potential or actual CDs are expected to deliver on a
regular basis (Table 3), assuming that a single CD can
engage in more than one activity. In the Italian con-
text, CDs predominantly function as cultural hubs by
coordinating a wide variety of cultural activities cen-
tred on the same catchment area, but without any
explicit specialization. The formal establishment of
such an institution clearly responds to the need to
coordinate different and sparse local agents, providing
them with a more effective communication and pro-
motion strategy. Operating districts are particularly
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Nuccio and Ponzini 13
oriented towards communication, education and
research, while the prevalent domain is concerned
with the preservation and restoration of cultural herit-
age, especially with reference to the built environ-
ment. In addition, tourist information, guided tours
and educational activities are primary services pro-
vided by many CDs. Similarly, CDs focusing on envi-
ronmental and natural landscapes are widespread all
over the country and can be explained in the light of
Italian regional morphology, which is quite varied.
Some districts are also involved in the design of
museum and heritage networks linking small organi-
zations in order to use common resources efficiently
and promote economies of scale (see, for example, the
dense cultural network in Biella).
Equally shared among CDs is the care for local
material culture and folklore, reflected in the organi-
zation and promotion of traditions that might refer
to, for example, popular folk events or to religious
festivals. It is interesting to note that activities related
to food and wine, which represent a sizeable share of
Italian cultural industries, are not very common
when associated with a formal CD denomination.
Furthermore, even visual and performing arts show
only a limited representation in CDs, very few of
which have focused on arts festivals or archives,
libraries, and literature.
Some CDs have a formalized institutional dimen-
sion, but for most of the sample the relationship
among stakeholders is based on weak linkages and
informal agreements. The local authority or the
organization promoting the CD usually takes the
role of managing institution (Table 4). Data show
that the smaller the local authority, the higher the
risk of failure for CDs: municipalities and provinces
have been very proactive in launching projects, but
less effective in making them survive and work. For
17 non-operating CDs it was not even possible to
locate any governing or funding body. Other institu-
tions often taking the leadership in CDs are local
associations or agencies working in the field of local
development, whose main challenge is to find
resources to finance cultural projects. This is prob-
ably the reason why bank foundations played a cen-
tral role in supporting CDs because in about 50% of
the surveyed CD initiatives they are the principal
funding body (Table 5).
Most of the bank foundations that financed CDs
in our database are part of ACRI, whose institutional
activity concentrates on eight domains (Culture,
Education, Social Assistance, Research, Charity and
Volunteering, Local Development, Public Health,
Environmental Protection). Between 2003 and 2005
ACRI launched two editions of the programme
‘Sviluppo Sud’ and allocated about €26 million with
regard to 57 CD feasibility studies in Southern Italy,
of which only three continued their activity. Since
nearly all Southern Italian regions are eligible, the
original objective was to match these resources with
the ERDF, but most of these projects did not reach
the implementation phase.
Fondazione Cariplo is the largest bank foundation
in the country and stands out for its significant dona-
tions to cultural activities and, among the several pro-
jects, one specifically dedicated to the cultural districts
in Northern Italy (Barbetta et al., 2013; Ponzini et al.,
2014). This project is aimed at promoting economic
growth in Lombardy by capitalizing on local cultural
heritage. The main objective is ‘to pioneer a process
geared to create new opportunities for economic,
employment and social growth by leveraging the local
heritage and natural resources’.4 In particular, from
March 2009 to September 2010, six cultural districts
were established in Lombardy, investing about €20
million (Valle Camonica, Province of Cremona,
DOMINUS- Oltrepo’ Mantovano, Regge dei Gonzaga,
Monza and Brianza, Valtellina) and triggering a further
€30 million of public and private matching funds.
Online and offline communication can reveal
much about the real extent of activities of CDs. In
our sample, 22 CDs have an official website, as
specified in Table 6, which typically provides news
or an analysis of the underlying project. In addition,
a dedicated website increases the chances of at least
one social network being used (about 65% of dis-
tricts that have a dedicated website are also con-
nected through social media).
About half of the identified districts did not have
their own website, however, and they relied on their
funding bodies to manage their communications; the
remainder of the districts (26%), the vast majority of
which are non-operating, display the information
regarding their activities on other digital sources.
Checking the first 200 results on Google allowed us
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14 European Urban and Regional Studies
to measure the degree of popularity and recognition
of a single CD. According to this list (see Table 7)
the CDs funded by Fondazione Cariplo and the
recent project by Regione Marche attracted most of
the references. In the Google Search Engine the
notion of cultural district in Italy was often linked to
articles and documents that elaborated on the theo-
retical framework, but it was difficult to find URLs
linked to operating CDs on the first pages of the
results.
Discussion: three major problems
with Italian CDs
The results of the survey highlight three recurrent
flaws in Italian CD policy: weak specialization in core
district activities; limited participation of local com-
munities; and lack of a strategic governance model.
Most CDs in our survey are presented as a unique
area of excellence, where the existing cultural herit-
age is an opportunity for development because it is
supposed to exploit not only the cultural and creative
industries but also the entire local productive fabric.
In fact, despite totally diverse economic, social or cul-
tural conditions, a comparison of feasibility studies
and planning documents of CDs suggests that their
aims and objectives all appear to be similar. Terms
such as ‘integration’, ‘coordination’, ‘cluster’ and
‘synergies’ occur frequently in relation to cultural her-
itage and tourism, but without neither distinctive con-
tents nor strategies for their implementation. In
particular, geographical boundaries are vaguely
defined or simply administrative and the alleged idi-
osyncratic specificity emerges indiscriminately either
at a regional or provincial or municipal scale.
We could not find any particular specialization in
the cultural and creative industries, whose excel-
lence has usually been developed in other urban
areas (Milan, Turin, Rome, etc.). When they are
planned cinema, visual and performing arts, and lit-
erature they are typically event-based and oriented to
attract visitors and media attention over a limited
period. Isolated efforts to set up a new brand hub of
excellence, such as the contemporary art festival in
the CD of Faenza, collapsed after a few seasons. In
contrast, established festivals in areas affected by
CD projects, such as Festivaletteratura in Mantova
or TaorminaFilmFest and Taormina Lirica, seem not
to need any further promotional effort and thrive on
their international networks and loyal audience.
Most of the activities concerning museums and
cultural heritage focus on tourist services (hospital-
ity, promotion, guided tours). Tourism is the only
economic value chain which seems systematically to
offer opportunities of economic development, as
with the CD in Valle Camonica and the South-East
CD in Sicily, and – very revealing – both of the
UNESCO World Heritage sites.
In most of the cases, the very brand ‘cultural dis-
trict’ has found a moderate appeal for cultural organ-
izations and local authorities in those areas which
cannot claim any major attractions and exclusive
characterization as a tourist destination or which
have weak tourism infrastructures. As a conse-
quence, the projects mentioned above are often com-
posed of a simple map or survey of resources
organized around exact themes: the archaeological
CD in Salerno is promoted by the local agency for
archaeological sites and museums; the CD of holy
treasures in Apulia is promoted by the local church;
and the CD above the Madonie mountain in Sicily is
sponsored by the local natural park. Even these few
examples show a limited effort to innovate and
expand synergies with diverse economic or social
stakeholders, at the risk of pursuing path-dependent
development policies.
A second recurrent finding reveals the low degree
of engagement and participation of local communi-
ties. In most cases the CD has been conceived as a
mere marketing device aimed at delivering leisure
and cultural services to visitors, especially in remote
areas or marginal territories not included on tradi-
tional tourist itineraries. These CDs try to coordinate
the provision of cultural services, but do so without
critically considering the local needs and the regional
demand, as mentioned by the director of a museum
in Lomellina:
Our region is marginal and cannot compete with Milan
or other major amenities to attract people. Bringing art
exhibitions and events in Vigevano is not enough. First
of all, we should encourage our community to discover
and communicate their own territory and its cultural
activities. (Lomellina CD – Local museum Director;
translated by the authors)
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Nuccio and Ponzini 15
Only in a few cases were informed stakeholders
perfectly aware that the key action is to convince
people to live and work in a CD area. An officer of
the local development agency in Sardinia underlined
the major risk of emigration threatening its region:
The aim of the Consortium is to raise territorial
awareness. For this reason, we have developed several
initiatives such as network of associations or training
courses targeting young people. Indeed, the problem is
that this particular rural area is not attractive for young
people so our final goal is to provide broad opportunities
of jobs and leisure for them and attract entrepreneurial
investments. (Marmilla-Sarcidano CD – Local
development agency; translated by the authors)
However, our mapping exercise could not find
substantial evidence of effective participation and
grass-root mobilization.
Urban competition is, it seems, totally underesti-
mated. Following a well-known pattern of creative-
driven local development (Florida, 2005), CD
programs often assume that co-locating and cluster-
ing some cultural amenities is sufficient to keep tal-
ented people and attract tourists and investments.
A third relevant shortcoming of CD policy refers
to governance. While industrial districts rose in a
spontaneous way from a favorable socio-institu-
tional base and were the result of unplanned actions
of a plurality of agents, CDs can be seen as the
impulse of political agencies appointing cultural
heritage as the strategic axis for local development.
In fact, the governance is often devolved as an
empty institutional box or totally not recognized by
other stakeholders, as was stressed in some of our
interviews.
Although they presented a regional research, here a
proper district does not exist. We try to coordinate
cultural activities and favour agreements across
municipalities. Simply naming it cultural district does
not ensure effective synergies across organizations and
local authorities. (Treviso CD – Local authority
manager; translated by the authors)
The district was intended as an innovative mode of
governance, which is experienced in trying to share
local resources, first of all immaterial capital of ideas,
skills and encoded traditional knowledge to make
territories and business compete and hence develop. In
fact, our institution is not formal and today the
Consortium SBCR has the great merit of managing the
service network of local libraries. (Castelli Romani CD
–SBCR manager; translated by the authors)
If the literature generally supports a top-down
institutional model (Santagata, 2002), the obstacles
that arise in implementing many projects seem to
demonstrate that such an approach is not very effec-
tive unless the territory has already developed an
extensive cultural policy network. Considering the
ability to generate impact for the local communities,
similar strategies for CDs obviously cannot be
implemented in diverse places, inasmuch as strate-
gies themselves should be specifically designed tak-
ing in to consideration the peculiar cultural assets
and background of each territory. On the contrary,
the funding approach by bank foundations and other
public bodies is sometimes scattergun, aimed more
at satisfying the local constituency rather than gener-
ating long-term improvements of CDs and monitor-
ing their achievements.
Paradoxically, the only strategy for CDs to
become quickly operative is to conceive the cultural
heritage value chain based on three recurring steps,
namely restoration of built heritage, opening event
and related educational activities. This is evident for
example in Valsassina, where:
…the district project did not pass to the final phase
because it was judged premature by Fondazione
Cariplo, However, the territorial Museum that was at
the core of the district hypothesis was financed by
different organizations and it is currently under
construction. It will give a flavour of how the future
cultural district might work in our valley. (Valsassina
CD– Local Development Agency; translated by the
authors)
Although safeguarding the tangible heritage is a
positive policy according to our values, it seems per
se quite far removed from the intended purposes of a
CD. In such a limited perspective, evidence regard-
ing CDs raises more costs than opportunities of
development and has deterred more substantial
investments in self-sustaining economic sectors and
cultural industries.
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16 European Urban and Regional Studies
Conclusions
Our survey of 68 Italian CDs offers sound evidence
with which to evaluate the effect of this cultural pol-
icy over the past 15 years. The Italian case is, we
would argue, clearly relevant with regard to the inter-
national debate, because of the primary position
Italy’s cultural heritage enjoys and the ground-break-
ing works in industrial and cultural district studies. It
shows long-term, extensive and varied experimenta-
tions that can cast light on a number of cultural policy
and regional economy issues. In the light of the
Italian tradition of industrial districts, one can see the
initial aim and vision for Italian cities and regions to
develop spatial agglomerations that specialize in the
arts, cultural heritage and creative and cultural indus-
tries. Equally, CDs represent an advanced version of
the industrial district model in the knowledge society,
where institutional and innovative cultural-driven
factors (Sacco et al., 2009; Santagata, 2002) become
strategic sources of competitive advantage. Given the
small extent of specialization and innovation, neither
the unusual and heterogeneous localization nor the
informal governance model mapped in the 68 CDs
match with the actual policy outcome.
This paper has shown that the phrase ‘cultural dis-
trict’ has been adopted as an umbrella label for analy-
ses and policies that are extremely heterogeneous in
terms of purposes, geographical and demographic
scale, and localization, but relatively standardized in
their core activities, political and organizational
arrangements, and source of financing.
First, the location of Italian CDs revealed an
unexpected geography and demography. Even if
one could expect most regions to have some CDs,
because of the rich and geographically-spread cul-
tural heritage of Italy, we could see that 19 out of 20
Regions had at least one CD and about 50% of the
Italian territory and population has been covered by
CDs. Most CDs we have mapped are centred either
in rural areas or in small and medium-sized cities,
but not overlapping the traditional pattern of Italian
industrial districts. This unexpected localization is
due only in part to the fuzziness and adaptability of
the concept to quite different circumstances. De
facto CDs generally exist in larger cities, but either
they do not use, nor do they need, this label for mar-
keting, or they are otherwise too complex to be
politically and spatially organized, despite the fact
that they actually perform CD activities (e.g. Milan’s
product design or fashion districts). In addition, we
know that in Italian rural areas or small and medium-
sized cities it is easier for policymakers to build
consensus with limited resources for cultural policy
with the unproven vision of, for example, a tourist
boom. Unfortunately for the country’s development,
this could disperse substantial resources in mostly
symbolic policy, which is relevant for a mobiliza-
tion of diverse actors and operators of one sub-
region, political discourse and local identity-building,
but which risks giving rise to undue expectations,
being economically unsustainable in the medium
term, or to having extremely weak economic and
social effects (Calcagno et al., 2012; Leriche and
Daviet, 2010). In other terms, the geographic analy-
sis of the application of the actual label of ‘cultural
district’ does not necessarily correspond to the loca-
tion of existing or potential CDs but can refer solely
to the political will to gather and enrol different
actors in such a policy.
Second, core activities are not particularly inno-
vative, being very much focused on tangible cultural
heritage and tourism and seldom interacting with
manufacturing or cultural industries. Although the
prevailing governance model is top-down, with little
participation of local communities, the institutional
dimension is typically informal and tries simply to
improve the coordination of local cultural policies
and activities.
According to our analysis it can be seen that the
impact of the ‘industrial CDs’ (Santagata, 2002,
2006, 2009) was limited and few ‘metropolitan CDs’
were explicitly trialled. The failure rate is impres-
sively high and nonetheless policy makers are still
willing to adopt this solution. We should reappraise
the CD as a ready-made policy concept, especially in
a time when several public and non-profit organiza-
tions are starting new programs for CDs in Europe
and beyond (Chapain et al., 2013). The high fre-
quency of and diversified attempts at implementing
CDs in Italy show the limited effects of culture-
related development in generating effective govern-
ance models and fostering innovation. This first
extensive mapping of failed or abandoned CDs
should also be a reference, perhaps a warning, with
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Nuccio and Ponzini 17
regard to other national policies for cultural clusters,
districts and quarters. In this sense, we do not sug-
gest a narrower or ultimate definition for CDs.
Instead of suggesting the formula for detecting or
creating ‘true cultural districts’, we expect that the
international debate could undertake more critical
comparisons of different national and local
approaches as well as meanings for CDs, their activi-
ties, dimensions, geographies, etc. One can easily
recall the lesson by Markusen (2003) regarding the
risks of such ‘fuzzy concepts’ or the even more criti-
cal ones by Belfiore (2009) and Zan (2006) on the
rhetoric of instrumental cultural policy. We acknowl-
edge that the richness and eventual ambiguity of the
term CD can be generative, but nonetheless we
would suggest adopting a more cautious and critical
attitude in our debates.
Finally, we must note that almost all CDs are
based on cultural supply-side rationales, which are
supported by both the public or non-profit sectors,
and have mostly been designed following the exper-
tise of cultural policy makers and regional planners.
In fact, politicians typically hired experts and aca-
demics for scientific advice and cultural endorse-
ment, but only rarely did they directly involve cultural
creative operators or carried out thorough impact
evaluations and management control on their activi-
ties. In our view it is not possible (and it would be
unfair) to simply blame politicians, because Italian
scholarly debates and prominent figures in the con-
sultancy business backed all the initiatives labelled as
CDs without much criticism. Even if we have found
notable exceptions5 to date, we have no evidence of
medium-term sustainability and positive effects of
the CDs, nor does it appear as a priority in either the
research agenda or public debate. Despite the fact
that data are available at the national level, criticism
of this fuzzy policy concept is presently quite rare in
Italy. The answer to the problem with the ungrounded
diffusion of policy solutions does not rely on a more
‘correct’ formula (in this case of CD), but in an
increased expectation of responsibility from experts
and the political system of which they are part. We
believe this paper can start to show the inconsisten-
cies and problems related to the implementation of
CD policy in different national contexts, given the
relevance of Italy for culture-led initiatives in general
and cultural districts in particular. Ironically, we do
not expect this ‘uncomfortable knowledge’
(Flyvbjerg, 2013; Rayner, 2012) to circulate immedi-
ately among Italian decision-makers and public
administrators, who – we would argue – need it the
most, given the fact that experts and consultants
informing them are self-interested in providing a
ready-made solution rather than reflective and criti-
cal understanding.
The problems we have identified and discussed
call for a serious reappraisal of the CD policy in Italy
and also deserve further attention and systematic
quantitative and qualitative research in other coun-
tries and regions.
Acknowledgements
We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and
Editor of the journal European Urban and Regional
Research for constructive comments and critiques. In
addition, we thank an anonymous referee of a different,
top-ranked regional-studies journal, who reacted quite
strongly to an earlier version of the same paper. This
review and its ‘inappropriate and intemperate lan-
guage’ (as described by that journal’s Chief Editor’s in
his letter of apology to us) caused us to think that this
paper might be quite uncomfortable for some academ-
ics who acted as experts or consultants in one or more
CD policies in Italy. We hope that the evident problems
reported in our paper will not simply be denied by (evi-
dently self-interested) researchers, but critically con-
sidered in cultural policy making in Italy and in other
countries.
Notes
1. One of the few exceptions of a systematic sur-
vey refers to the analysis of cultural district policy
which is promoted by the USA carried out by
the NAAA (http://www.nasaa-arts.org/Research/
Key-Topics/Creative-Economic-Development/
StateCulturalDistrictsPolicyBrief.pdf); this survey
does not analyze individual CDs.
2. See: Regione Abruzzo, Regional Law n. 22/2005 and
Regione Marche, Regional Law n.4/2010.
3. Last checked on 15 Feb 2015.
4. http://www.fondazionecariplo.it/it/progetti/arte/dis-
tretti-culturali. Last checked 15/02/15, translated by
the authors.
5. See Barbetta et al. (2013) on the ongoing initiative for
CD impact monitoring by Fondazione Cariplo.
at Università di Torino on May 4, 2016eur.sagepub.comDownloaded from
18 European Urban and Regional Studies
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