It is difficult to measure the cultural vitality of a neighbourhood. We can browse through a city’s event calendar and assess the concentration of activities in any given area. Otherwise we can rely on feelings: the buzz we feel when strolling along an avenue, passing by art galleries, co-working spaces and live events, or walking by people reading on terraces of cafeterias or chatting and taking notes while drinking their coffee. We can also scrutinize the density of cultural venues and places of sociability, giving a kind of “walkability” index to a neighbourhood. These approaches, however thorough and inventive, will always leave many cultural actors unobserved. Many activities, whether marginal or catalysing, remain hidden behind the buildings’ facades or are filtered out by the algorithms of online platforms and event calendars. To better grasp the components of a local cultural scene that can be built upon, we need a more grounded methodology. In order to understand more about such methods, I went to speak with the KÉK-Hungarian Contemporary Architecture Centre, one of the partners of the UIA-funded CUP4Creativity project in Budapest, that set itself to create a more detailed picture of the local cultural scene of the Újbuda district.
It is a late Spring afternoon on Budapest’s Bartók Béla Boulevard. The trees framing the avenue are blossoming and the sweet breeze descending from the Gellért Hill and penetrating the streets below pulls everyone out of their homes and offices for a stroll. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic whose third wave, taking its toll on Hungary, is still around, terraces along the avenue are filled up with people.
I am sitting inside the gallery space of KÉK, a contemporary architecture centre headquartered at the ground floor of a large art-deco building, typical for the area. The gallery is flooded with sunshine through its immense windows: the light reflected on the long yellow tables paints the whole interior in warm colours. The four tables, occupying most of the gallery’s main section, are foldable: on days when the gallery hosts larger events, the space is liberated and can accommodate over a hundred people in the audience. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, however, events at the gallery have been rarer: instead of large crowds, only KÉK staff and regular co-workers sit at the tables, immersed in their laptops.
Sunlight is not the only thing entering from the avenue: the gallery lives in close symbiosis with the tumult of the street, filled with the noise and resonation of each tram passing by. We are at the heart of the cultural district known as Bartók Béla Boulevard, in the inner part of Budapest’s Újbuda district. Upon its arrival, in the autumn of 2015, KÉK was one of the organisations benefitting of the district municipality’s policy: attracting cultural organisations in the area through offering municipality-owned ground floor commercial properties for lower-than-market-value rental fees. When KÉK entered a competition for this space one block away from the Technical University’s main building, it had already been an established cultural organisation, looking for a space that would help in reaching out to new audiences, and more specifically, architecture students. KÉK, joining forces with the university’s Department of Urbanism, won the competition and within weeks it gathered dozens of volunteers to renovate the space to turn the former bank office into a new cultural venue. In the six years since then, KÉK has not only become a much beloved venue for architecture and city lovers hosting hundreds of events, but also a protagonist of local culture and urban transformation: it fought hard for the Bartók Boulevard’s cycle lane to be kept, for instance.
I sit down at one of the yellow tables to speak with Bálint Köves, a project manager working with KÉK, and Barbara Bozsik, leader of the organisation’s research on Újbuda’s cultural sector. I am here to speak about the cultural mapping process KÉK carried out for CUP4Creativity, a project of the Újbuda district municipality funded by the EU’s Urban Innovative Actions programme. CUP4Creativity aims at generating new connections between cultural producers, artists, creatives, technology initiatives, businesses and residents, encouraging synergies between local actors and enhancing the creativity of residents, entrepreneurs and community initiatives. At the centre of the project lies a series of new offline and online spaces to bring together cultural actors, residents and technology initiatives. To be able to build on the existing dynamic of the district by involving its actors and their networks, however, a thorough research was needed.
The mapping process kept KÉK busy for several months. Initially, the study was meant to merely map the local protagonists of Újbuda’s cultural and technological scene, but it has gradually become more ambitious in terms of the depth of information it collects about cultural actors of the district and the relationships between them. As a consequence, the role of this research has also grown more important within the CUP4Creativity project.
The initial planning phase of the study started during the autumn of 2020. Barbara and Bálint delved deep into the methodologies of cultural mapping and explored other studies conducted with a similar focus. In this, they could rely on a similar mapping initiative carried out by KÉK a few years earlier, within the framework of the Creative Spirits URBACT project, led by the Újbuda municipality and involving KÉK as a local partner. This study mapped the cultural actors and stakeholders of the inner areas of Újbuda (Bartók Béla Boulevard and its surroundings), but had stopped short of exploring the cultural landscape of the entire district. While this analysis served as an important resource when planning the mapping process, the researchers also reviewed other cultural mapping methods, including Los Madriles, a mapping project by Madrid-based architects Vivero de Iniciativas Ciudadanas that led to the UIA project Mares Madrid or the Cultural Asset Mapping Project, an exploration of cultural community values in Austin, Texas.
Apart from facing broad methodological dilemmas at the planning phase of the mapping process, one question in particular posed a challenge to Barbara and Bálint: how to classify organisations and which entities qualify as cultural actors within the district? They gave an answer to this question with the help of Kultursistema, a methodology developed by organisations Conexiones Improbables and Colaborabora in Bilbao. “We built a classification matrix which can be used to interpret and map of cultural and creative ecosystems. This approach gave us an expanded, more inclusive concept of the cultural and creative industries” recalls Barbara.
The cultural mapping process was designed around four distinct stages. An initial desk research was to be followed by a survey sent to selected local actors, and then the gathering of in-depth data in the form of interviews as well as focus group discussions and workshops. The primary objective of the desk research was to comprehensively map all the actors belonging to the cultural sector, broadly speaking, and create a database based on publicly available information including their main fields of activity, address, website, contact information and short description. This phase of the study was three-fold. As a first step, the researchers created a typology, further dividing the cultural and creative sectors into smaller units based on the areas given organisations or companies operate in (fashion and design, architecture, audio-visual production, advertisement, culture and arts, community activities, education, IT and technology, research, etc). Secondly, they listed approximately 20,000 organisations and companies registered or operating within the district, using online and offline databases, company registers, tax registers etc. This was a somewhat delicate task: only a fraction of these listed companies had a meaningful presence in the district and even less were associated with the cultural sector. What made it even more painstaking was the fact that each organisation had to be assigned to a category, according to the areas defined earlier and including sub-categories, such as interior architecture, graphic design, software development, etc. This categorisation resulted in a final database containing about 1900 cultural organisations and companies. Collecting basic information on these entities and adding these as variables, hence, represented the third phase of the desk research.
The listing of cultural entities was done along a rather broad conceptual definition as to which organisations and companies qualify to be cultural. This was necessary, because one of the goals of the CUP4Creativity project is to connect (a part of) the local technology sector to the cultural ecosystem of Újbuda. Therefore, the mapping included tech organisations as well. “At a first glance, many of these tech companies are not directly related to the creative industry, and even less to the cultural sector,” remembers Barbara. “But we saw them as potential partners to cultural initiatives through CUP4Creativity so we added them to the database as well.” The same held true for gastronomy, a sector very present in the district and with many connections to cultural venues. “But from the moment you start including restaurants, bars and pubs, it starts to become very subjective as to what is actually part of the cultural industry and what is not?” The solution for this dilemma was to go through all the organisations and categorise them case-by-case.
After the database was created, a survey was sent out to all organisations to collect more in-depth data on their activity and their willingness to collaborate with other local actors of the cultural scene (both within and outside the scope of the CUP4Creativity project). Over 150 responses arrived from organisations in KÉK’s database, sometimes with unexpected information: “I was surprised to find that there are so many R&D companies operating here in the district, using high-tech machinery and open to collaboration,” recollects Bálint.
To enrich the quantitative information gathered through the desk research and the survey, individual interviews and a series of focus group discussions and workshops were organised with a variety of actors of the district, selected according to their accessibility, availability, visibility and perceived impact. These interviews allowed for a more nuanced understanding of the context in which these actors operate. For example, interviews conducted with local cultural venues identified important contrasts between different neighbourhoods of the district, revealing the different roles of cultural institutions in prefab housing estates and single-family house areas, for instance, or in the culturally dense historical urban tissue. These interviews and workshops also enabled Barbara and Bálint to conceive the actors mapped not only as individual units but also as elements of a broader ecosystem.
If some of the findings of the mapping process are established and offer important instructions for the work of CUP4Creativity, some of the results are still to be assembled: further focus group discussions are planned, the database needs reworking, correlations need to be identified and highlighted. The most important output of the study may be a cultural map of the Újbuda district, to be completed later in the process: a virtual map, indicating local actors according to where they operate, and linked to the comprehensive database encompassing the list of all the relevant organisations and companies associated with the culture and tech sector. If the quality of data still to be collected will allow for a more nuanced and detailed mapping of relationships between local stakeholders, the study results may also include a network graph, which could bring to light the complex connections and relations of Újbuda’s cultural ecosystem.
We finish our conversation about the mapping methodology and I stay a bit to talk about future plans related to CUP4Creativity. Before leaving the gallery, I ask Barbara and Bálint about their takeaways from this endeavour. They see their research as a learning process both for KÉK and the district. On the one hand, the methodology developed for Újbuda can be used in other areas as well: KÉK works in many areas, urban and rural, where collaboration with local stakeholders and the understanding of their goals and motivations is essential to build new development scenarios.
On the other hand, the database and map developed for Újbuda is an important asset for the district. While the findings of the research can support the configuration of the new cultural venues and help weave new connections between actors within the new digital platform to be developed by CUP4Creativity, their importance goes beyond the project: they can inform and guide the district municipality’s development strategies in the years to come.
More importantly, the study did not only aim to gather information but also to engage and activate local cultural actors. Besides understanding the cultural landscape of Újbuda through identifying a wide range of actors, the mapping process can also create a platform where these actors can interact and develop synergies, thus strengthening the local cultural scene. “If we gather protagonists in a group, a lot of information comes to the surface that might not come out of an individual interview,” explains Bálint. “Often, during these focus groups, the question involuntarily arises: ‘What should we do together?’ We can then better understand, say, what kind of collaborations can evolve locally. It might turn out that two-three actors actually want the same thing to happen in a neighbourhood and such an encounter might lead to a new initiative.”