A short talk with Davide Ponzini: “Passion and critical approach for exploring new frontiers between urban and cultural policy research”

Blog: Voices and Viewpoints
Verfasser: Lidia Varbanova - Datum: 27 Mai 2011, 16:41

Davide Ponzini received his PhD in Urban Planning from Politecnico di Milano, where he is currently Assistant Professor (Ricercatore) of Urban Planning. His research activity focuses on planning theory, policy tool analysis, urban and cultural policy, heritage preservation, spectacularization of contemporary architecture and of the urban environment. In 2004 he was Research Affiliate at Yale University, in 2006 International Fellow in Urban Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in 2008 Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, and in 2010 Visiting Researcher at SciencesPo, Paris. He has been recipient of several scholarships and research grants, issued by Universities, Foundations and Public Institutions. His research work has been published in international scientific journals (Urban Studies, Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, Cities, European Planning Studies, International Journal of Heritage Studies and others). Co-author with Pier Carlo Palermo of the book Spatial Planning and Urban Development, Springer 2010. And of a forthcoming book: Starchitecture. Scenes, Actors and Spectacles in Contemporary Cities.

1. Your first degree is in music, why then did you decide to complete a second bachelor degree in urban planning, and to undertake an academic path in this field?

Since my early years at Politecnico di Milano and at the Conservatory of Music of Milan, I have been mixing different passions for music and for research. Part of my research is dedicated to studying cultural policy and its many urban implications. Currently I keep developing my competence while nurturing my cultural passions!

2. The topic of your PhD thesis was “Strategic Interpretation of the Process of Privatization of Cultural Heritage and the Arts in Italy”. Could you share with the young researchers what did you learn during the period of undertaking the research and writing the thesis? What kind of difficulties and obstacles were on your way?

As I mentioned, my research path partially derived from my education in music. In Italy public opera theaters were privatized in the late 1990s. In some cases private board members pushed these institutions into complex operations that had relevant urban impacts and eventually benefitted the private decision makers’ real estate properties. Similar trends appeared later with reference to museums. Drawing on the analysis of the national policy for privatization and on the study of local cases of implementation, I suggested to think this process over and to promote urban projects that included both public and private partners of cultural institutions and that were consistent with strategic and shared objectives of the city hosting the cultural institutions.

The main results of the work were elaborated in my book Il territorio dei beni culturali. Interpretazioni strategiche del processo di privatizzazione dei beni e delle attività culturali in Italia, Carocci, Rome, 2008. I also published several articles, among them:

  • Ponzini D.(2010), “The Process of Privatization of Cultural Heritage and the Arts in Italy. Analysis and Perspectives”, International Journal of Heritage Studies, Vol. 16 no. 6, pp. 508–521.
  • Ponzini D. (forthcoming), “Territoire et politiques du patrimoine culturel en Italie: tendances et instruments” in Saez G., Saez J. P. (eds) Politiques culturelles 21, Débats et enjeux en Europe, Editions La Découverte, Paris.

I don’t have one simple message about my PhD experience… I wish I had one. I can say that I learned many small and big things about developing and articulating research activities that are relevant both for theoretical discussion and for policy making. I learned how to craft research projects and I was lucky enough to find a good balance between guidance and autonomy at the Department of Architecture and Planning of Politecnico di Milano. Also I had the great chance to get in touch with important research centers, such as the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University, The Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the Center for Heritage Studies of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. These were crucial both for referring my PhD research to broader networks and fields of research as well as for disseminating the partial and final results of my work.

The difficulties were (and they still are) mainly related to the dramatic conditions of the Italian research and high education system. I think there are high quality research centers and universities (in specific fields, international data and rankings confirm this) while public funding has been systematically decreasing, without significant measures for differentiating high or low profiles.

Also, I found difficult entering some academic arenas that are too conformist and self-referential, both in the field of architecture or urban planning and in the one of policy analysis. What one can read in mainstream international journals is sometimes over-codified and without significant relationships to the significant theoretical improvement as well as to the policy making practice. Academic career and research grants tend to depend more and more on the quantification of one’s work in term of how many papers and how many citations, despite the fact that the contents and style of publications can be meaningful only to a very limited academic community. I think research innovation cannot be reduced to these parameters only. For sure there is a need for well crafted and implemented research, but I am not convinced that the current rules and regulations of the academic journals are the only way for increasing knowledge accumulation and informed policy making, especially in the urban or cultural policy fields.

3. In your opinion, are research methodologies and tools in the cultural policy field very specific? Do they have unique features?  

I do not think so. Cultural policy is a blurred field for public action rather than a scientific discipline. In this field researchers are just a specific sort of actors, playing with peculiar knowledge and information resources and sometimes demonstrating the ability of framing public problems in more convincing or efficient ways than others.

If one conceives cultural policy is a discipline, he must admit that a credible epistemic foundation or substantial improvement seem difficult in current conditions. Approaches and paradigms that are not consistent one to the other coexist without questioning their rationales and implications. Scientist and positivist approaches discuss cultural policy trends in terms of quantitative analysis. Radicals and post-structural scholars do not feel the need of positioning themselves in contemporary times, nor do behavioral nor old institutionalist approaches.

Frankly I must say I don’t think I am a cultural policy specialist myself. Nonetheless, I took the chance in several publications to explain the reasons why a critical and pragmatic approach was relevant for the kinds of researches and policy inquiries I intended to undertake.

4. One research interest of yours is “urban systems of cultural production”.  Why are you interested in this topic? Do you look at it from the point of view of sociology, public administration, economics or culture, or a synergy between all these? Give an example.

Cultural clusters’, districts’ or quarters’ relevance in urban economy is widely recognized, despite the fact that the economic and geographical debate about how to measure their economic impact is not unanimous.  In urban policy making, the main assumption adopted to support spontaneous or purposely designated cultural clusters, districts or quarters claims that urban economy and society benefit from the presence of such cultural productions or institutions, inducing positive spillover, regeneration and revitalization effects. The assumption can be easily found in many European and American programs. In contrast to these positions one can find some conceptual and practical criticisms: economic models explain the spatial organization of cultural institutions and their positive externalities well, but the urban policy implications of these models are not direct and their understanding is not yet mature enough to harness them. It is not proper to consider a cultural cluster, a district or a quarter as an explicit policy instrument for local economies or urban revitalization. In this sense, the above mentioned descriptive concepts need to be reconsidered in order to be relevant to urban policy making, and in particular to understand if cultural policies for clusters, districts or quarters can directly or indirectly impact neighborhoods and cities or even if they can significantly impact cultural production and consumption.

I studied a number of cases in cities of Europe, the USA and Asia: see these papers as an example:

Once again, I do not believe that the comprehension and solution of complex urban and cultural problems depend on specific disciplines or the right mix of them. Together with my Swedish colleague Mattias Legnér, I had the chance to collect and edit some critical contributions on this topic in the book

Cultural Quarters and Urban Transformation: International Perspectives, Legner M., Ponzini D. (eds), Gotlandica Forlag, Visby.

A selected group of economists, geographers, policy analysts and urban planners such as Graeme Evans, Simon Roodhouse, Ronan Paddison and Randall Mason, discussed from different viewpoints a set of intertwined issues, basically questioning some mainstream assumptions through well-informed research and proposing new perspectives for research and public action regarding these cultural and urban issues.

5. As you are an Assistant Professor of Urban Planning (at the School of Architecture and Society of Politecnico di Milano, Italy) do you find it difficult to teach “offline” in a conventional classroom with a generation which grows up with online technologies and have a very different approach towards accumulating and disseminating knowledge? Do you use e-learning methods in your teaching?

I definitely do use plenty of online technologies. Some part of the education experience has been easier since the diffusion of online technologies, but some other can be restrained. I believe that teaching requires developing face to face relationships with students that go well beyond ex cathedra communication and reading assignments. Most of the interactive learning and maieutic practice which I develop in class would be impossible by using the current internet technologies.

6. Young researchers often have a problem to make their research work visible, especially in well recognized academic publications. As you have published quite a lot, what would be your advice to emerging researchers?

I guess you already noticed my position. I believe that, in Europe at least, internationalization of research and education is today unavoidable. Researchers are called to build common ground and eventually to compete in an international arena. In this sense I sincerely appreciate the work the European Cultural Foundation has been doing for years through the Young Cultural Policy Researchers Forum, the Cultural Policy Research Award, the LabforCulture and many other initiatives. Also I think some passion is required for keeping working hard and be creative in exploring new frontiers of cultural policy research. I started from music and cultivated my interests while critically studying the city and cultural policy.



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