What You Need to Know about the UNESCO Creative Cities Network

UNESCO logoIn 2015, the city of Bamiyan became the first urban center not only from Afghanistan, but from all of Central Asia, to become a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN). This unique global network fosters and facilitates cooperation between its members as they work to invest in creativity in order to drive sustainable urban development, social inclusion, and a vibrant cultural life. Read on to learn more about the UCCN’s mission and activities, and about Bamiyan’s membership in the network.

 

What is the UNESCO Creative Cities Network?

The UCCN is an international network of cities that have identified creativity as a key strategic factor in promoting sustainable urban development and are actively investing in local creative initiatives to help bring economic, social, cultural, and environmental benefits to their residents. In other words, the UCCN’s member cities place creative and cultural industries at the center of their local development plans and are interested in cooperating at the international level to share knowledge and best practices and develop fruitful partnerships.

Launched in 2004, the UCCN has seen remarkable growth over the years. Today, the network comprises 180 cities from 72 countries all around the world—from Adelaide to Zahlé—and serves as an important partner for UNESCO in implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that drive the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The UCCN covers seven creative fields, including crafts and folk art, film, design, gastronomy, literature, media arts, and music.

 

What are the UCCN’s objectives?

As outlined in its mission statement, the UCCN was created to help fulfill a number of key objectives, including the following:

Cooperation—Because knowledge sharing and partnerships are vital for productive growth, the UCCN aims to promote and strengthen international cooperation among its member cities.

Creative initiatives—The UCCN aims to support and stimulate member cities’ initiatives that emphasize creativity as an essential component of urban development (these initiatives often involve local partnerships between the public and private sectors and civil society).

Cultural production—Cultural activities, goods, and services are an important part of a thriving creative economy. As such, the UCCN aims to strengthen their creation, production, distribution, and dissemination within and beyond member cities.

Opportunity creation—The UCCN aims to develop and support creative and innovative hubs in order to broaden opportunities for cultural sector professionals and creators.

Access—For creative and cultural initiatives to make a true difference to a city’s social fabric, they must be accessible to all residents. A key UCCN objective is therefore to facilitate vulnerable and marginalized populations’ access to and participation in their city’s cultural life.

Integration—The UCCN supports the full and comprehensive integration of culture and creativity into its member cities’ development strategies and plans.

 

 

What actions and initiatives does the UCCN work on?

For maximum impact, the UCCN works to implement its objectives at both the city level and the international level. Particular areas of action the UCCN focuses on include the sharing of knowledge, experiences, and best practices among member cities; the development of pilot projects, partnerships, and initiatives that bring together the public sector, the private sector, and civil society; exchange programs and networks for artists and other creative professionals; research and studies on the experience of member cities and their participation in the network; policy creation for sustainable urban development; and other activities that build awareness of the UCCN and its mission.

 

Why is creativity important for cities?

The UCCN strongly believes that people experience culture and creativity primarily on a local level. Given that cities are, by definition, the principal breeding grounds where cultural and creative industries and emerge and develop, those cities that allow these industries to thrive are working towards a future in which sustainable development supports and enriches the lives of all citizens. Vibrant cultural sectors help to foster social diversity and cohesion, intercultural dialogue, and well-being, all of which are vital to local urban populations, wherever they may be.

 

Why was Bamiyan chosen as a UCCN member city?

Bamiyan, which was chosen in the category of crafts and folk art, has a wealth of cultural assets and knowledge that have developed over millennia, particularly during the city’s time as a hub of trade, cultural exchange, and knowledge sharing in the days of the Silk Road. Today, Bamiyan is widely recognized as a trailblazer in revitalizing traditional crafts and folk art, and it prioritizes creativity and culture as important drivers for urban renewal and social betterment. As a member of the UCCN, Bamiyan’s plans include the establishment of the Bamiyan Cultural Center and the development of an initiative to map the city’s creative industries and to identify the highest-priority needs of local creators. Bamiyan is also supporting cooperative exchanges with other UCCN member cities in the same field and directing efforts to promote the city at the national and international levels as a hub of crafts and folk art.

What Is the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership?

With a history stretching back thousands of years and a landscape full of ancient monuments and cultural sites, Afghanistan truly is a dream destination for archaeologists. However, factors like challenging environmental conditions, transportation and accessibility issues, and security concerns also mean that the country isn’t the easiest place to conduct fieldwork.

To overcome these obstacles and continue the quest to explore Afghanistan’s treasure trove of cultural heritage, a team of resourceful, US-based archaeologists is employing a surprising new tool: satellites. Drawing on satellite imagery and other geospatial technologies, the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership is uncovering never-before-seen archaeological sites across Afghanistan and forging a new path for archaeological research and cultural heritage preservation monitoring in difficult-to-access regions. Read on to learn more about this exciting project.

 

What is the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership?

The Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership (AHMP) is a three-year project that aims to use imagery from satellites and other geospatial technologies to build a comprehensive database, known as a geographic information systems (GIS) database, of archaeological sites in Afghanistan. The AHMP is based at the Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes, a department at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and is supported by grants from the US State Department and the US Embassy in Kabul. Other partners working on the project include the Afghan Institute of Archaeology in Kabul and Kabul Polytechnic University.

 

How did the AHMP get started?

The AHMP was first conceived by Dr. Gil Stein, a University of Chicago archaeologist and the director of the Oriental Institute. Concerned about the impact that years of conflict, development pressures, and environmental challenges could have on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, Dr. Stein and other cultural heritage experts met with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in 2014. Ghani, who holds a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University and served as the top anthropologist for the World Bank, called for a unified and detailed effort to discover, identify, and catalog cultural relics from the country’s past; in doing so, he emphasized how critical cultural heritage is to economic development and the creation of a strong national identity. The following year, Dr. Stein’s team received a grant from the State Department, along with access to US government satellite imagery that is typically a full order of magnitude more precise than most images that are publicly available.

 

What are the goals of the AHMP?

Some of the top priorities for the AHMP team include:

Comprehensive inventory and mapping efforts—The backbone of the AHMP project is the creation of a comprehensive database of archaeological sites in Afghanistan, both those that have already been identified and cataloged (specifically, those that are listed in the Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan, a 1982 publication serving as a primary resource for the AHMP project), and those that are previously unmapped. High-resolution geospatial datasets allow AHMP researchers to positively identify sites with exceptional accuracy, as well as offering important insights into how Afghanistan’s rapidly expanding cities and development projects are affecting areas of archaeological importance.

Monitoring site threats and destruction—Unfortunately, many archaeological sites in Afghanistan have already suffered as a result of conflict, looting, mining development, and urbanization. The AHMP aims to document and analyze the types and severity of destruction that have affected key archaeological sites, as well as examine areas where site preservation and protection efforts have proved effective. To accomplish these objectives, AHMP researchers work with time-based images, available through an online repository at the US State Department, to look at how sites have changed over time and to examine what risks might still be facing them.

Training Afghan researchers in the use of GIS technology—An important priority for the AHMP is providing on-the-ground training in geographic information systems (GIS) technology to Afghan archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists. To achieve this, scholars from the Oriental Institute worked with the GIS faculty at Kabul Polytechnic University, which has two GIS laboratories at its disposal. The goal of these training programs is to give archaeologists new tools to use in their work and teaching and to help introduce students in the urban planning and mining sectors to the importance of heritage preservation.

 

What discoveries have been made by the AHMP so far?

By late 2017, the AHMP had already made significant progress, with team members announcing that their work with satellite imagery had more than tripled the number of Afghan archaeological features that had previously been published. Some of the most exciting discoveries include the identification of 119 caravanserais—inns with courtyards—in the deserts of southern Afghanistan. Dated from the late 16th and early 17 centuries, these mudbrick buildings were important roadside stops for travelers along historic trade routes. The caravanserais are spaced roughly 20 kilometers from each other, which would have been about the distance that a large caravan could travel in a day.

Will This Amazing New Facility Put Bamiyan Back on the Map?

For centuries, the historic Buddhas of Bamiyan stood guard over the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan. These two massive sculptures—one measuring 115 feet in height, the other 174 feet—were carved directly into the valley’s sandstone cliffs approximately 1,500 years ago.

Visitors came from around the world to view these unique examples of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage. However, years of fighting and conflict took their toll on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Unfortunately, the statues were destroyed in 2001, an incident that was devastating for Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

Today, however, a bold new initiative is in development that aims to pay homage to the legacy of the Bamiyan Buddhas and to put the Bamiyan region back on Afghanistan’s cultural map. The Bamiyan Cultural Center, a project initiated by UNESCO in collaboration with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture, is intended to serve as a hub for culture and creativity in Afghanistan and to contribute to a vital national discussion on the past, present, and future of the country’s cultural heritage. Read on to learn more about this exciting project.

 

What is the vision for the Bamiyan Cultural Center?

Image by DVIDSHUB | Flickr

The Bamiyan Cultural Center is envisioned as a vital space for a wide range of activities and programs around the topics of cultural diversity, cultural heritage, and the future of cultural identity and cultural preservation in Afghanistan. The Afghan government, like many of the country’s citizens, believes that sparking conversations around these topics is an essential part of rebuilding and redevelopment efforts, and that the thread of culture and heritage is one of the most important in the fabric of civil society.

Practically speaking, the Bamiyan Cultural Center will be home to two gallery spaces (focused on Afghan archaeology and similar cultural subjects), an auditorium for live performances, a tea house, and an extensive outdoor garden. The Center will host a variety of events—from speakers and lectures, to regular exhibits, to special displays like the Kabul Photo Biennale. When it is complete and operational, the Center will benefit many stakeholders from a wide demographic, including schoolchildren, visiting scholars and researchers, and national and international organizations.

 

Who will design the Bamiyan Cultural Center?

In 2015, after being flooded with a remarkable 1,070 design entries from 117 different countries, UNESCO and the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture chose a proposal from an Argentina-based architectural team as the winning design. Carlos Nahuel Recabarren, Manuel Alberto Martínez Catalán, and Franco Morero won over a panel of distinguished jury members with their proposal, entitled “Descriptive Memory: The Eternal Presence of Absence.”

The vision of the Descriptive Memory proposal is of a generous public park that extends out to meet the rooftop of the Cultural Center, which is imagined as a sunken building complex which surrounds a public plaza and is bordered by a reflective pool. As the architectural team described in a statement, its vision was inspired by the image of a meeting place where ideas can be shared and communicated, and which highlights the impressive surroundings of the Buddha Cliffs.

Thus, rather than imposing a newly-built structure on the landscape, the team is working very much with the notion of the Center as something that is “found” or “discovered” by carving it out of the ground. This strategy ensures that the building is fully integrated into its environment. It also pays homage to the area’s ancient building traditions.

In choosing this proposal as the winner, the jury particularly praised the design’s well-conceived plan and sensitive site strategy that minimizes the structure’s visual impact; the choice of brick as the designated building material; the Center’s elegant curving passageways; and the project’s appropriate consideration of scale and feasibility of construction. The design has been endorsed by Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, who also took the opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to protecting the country’s cultural heritage through the announcement of a national program to support cultural diversity.

 

Who is financing the Bamiyan Cultural Center?

Image by txmx 2 | Flickr

Financing for the main complex of the Bamiyan Cultural Center—which has a projected cost of US $2.5 million—is being provided by the government of South Korea. The Afghan Ministry of Urban Development and Housing is supplying an additional US $1.5 million for the creation of the outdoor areas, including the gardens and public park.

 

Why is the Bamiyan Cultural Center important?

Initiatives like the Bamiyan Cultural Center, with its focus on national unity, cross-cultural awareness, and the safeguarding of ancient heritage, are hugely important elements in the broader process of reconciliation, peace-building, and economic development in Afghanistan.

In addition, the Bamiyan Cultural Center is expected to make a valuable contribution to Afghanistan’s socio-economic development by revitalizing visitor interest in the Bamiyan valley, which remains a UNESCO World Heritage Site even without the famous Buddhas. Finally, the Center will encourage local residents to participate in tourism-oriented efforts that will help grow their communities and showcase their ancient heritage.