Wednesday 18 March saw the start of the most significant meeting on culture and sustainability ever organized by local governments: the UCLG Culture Summit. The Summit represents UCLG's commitment, since 2010, to promoting the recognition of culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development.
The Summit is allowing over 300 representatives from more than 50 cities to gathered in Bilbao, Spain this week, for debates on the theme of 'Culture and Sustainable Cities'.
The great protagonist of the first day of the event was undoubtedly the city of Bilbao itself. Just the night before the Summit opened, it was announced that the event venue, the Alhóndiga centre, was to be renamed in honour of the city's former mayor, Iñaki Azkuna. Mayor Azkuna passed away in March 2014 and is widely recognized as having played a vital role in leading the regeneration of the city in the 1990s.
At the opening plenary on 'Why culture and sustainable cities?' the current Mayor of Bilbao, Ibon Areso, explained the role that investment in culture, particularly in the construction of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, has had in stimulating local economic development, employment and social cohesion in the Basque capital. The host city was recognized as an inspiration and international benchmark from which other cities can learn.
The keynote speech by Daniel Innerarity, Professor of Political and Social Philosophy and Ikerbasque researcher at the University of the Basque Country provided a profound reflection on the role of culture in the search for meaning and identity. Professor Innerarity urged local political leaders and practitioners not to focus on the technical at the expense of the symbolic, calling for a move 'from low cost to high creativity'.
The second plenary on cultural rights in the city saw a provocative keynote address by UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, Farida Shaheed. Shaheed made an impassioned defense of culture as a force for change, and a vehicle for the negotiation of multiple and shifting individual and collective identities. She highlighted the vital role of local authorities in providing spaces for cultural encounters in cities, and for protecting and encouraging those whose cultural expressions make others angry or uncomfortable. The plenary saw a rich debate on the experiences of cities across the world in protecting cultural rights on the ground, with extremist violence and linguistic oppression identified as particular challenges in both Europe and the Middle East.
The afternoon saw parallel sessions on cities and cultural policies, lessons from the UCLG-Mexico City-Culture Award, and a speed networking event, rounded off in the evening by a warm reception at the iconic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.