Tracing the inclusion of culture as a dimension of policy in local governance, internationally and in Australia.


Culture has been an emergent consideration in public policy over recent decades. Influential documents such as the Mexico UNESCO Declaration in 1982, Hawkes’ Fourth Pillar monograph in 2001 and UCLG’s (United Cities and Local Government) Policy Statement on Culture in 2010 recognise both the significance of culture as a dimension in its own right and the impact it has on other policy dimensions, including society, economy and ecology. This article traces the inclusion of culture as an aspect of public policy, particularly in local governance, internationally and in Australia, over the last decades. The influence of the activities of UCLG’s Committee on Culture since 2002 is examined. The implications of all of this for Australian cultural policy, at a local and national level, and ultimately the quality of life of Australian and world citizens, are posited.



This article traces the inclusion of culture as a dimension of sustainable local development, through early conceptualisation, to the articulation of culture as the fourth pillar of development in 2001, and its enactment in the decade since. The work of the Committee on Culture of the United Cities and Local Government, (the international peak body for local government), in advocating for the concept of culture as a fourth pillar is examined. The history of the Committee, its current activities and future aspirations are documented. These are discussed in relation to Australian cultural policy development, particularly policy relating to the local level. The Committee’s recommendations for action by agencies and individuals who value the role of culture in development are presented, along with the implications of this action for Australians living in local government-managed communities, and for our responsibilities as global citizens.


The movement towards sustainable development

Sustainable development emerged as a concept for policy consideration in the 1970s. The well-known definition provided by the Brundtland Report in 1987 conceptualises sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations, 1987: 15). In the 1980s, this focus on sustainable development meant systematic inclusion of environmental considerations for the first time. This extended the areas in which policy for progress was active, beyond economic outcomes that had been the focus of human advancement in the nineteenth century, and social dimensions that began to be included in the early-mid twentieth century (Pascual, 2008). The concept of the triple-bottom line, in which environmental concerns are considered as having equal importance to social and economic, became well established after formal explication by Elkington in 1997 (Elkington, 1997). The UN’s work in developing countries continues largely to be based on this “virtuous triangle” (Pascual, 2008:15) of economic viability, social equity and environmental sustainability. These conceptualisations largely did not include a focus on culture, or only as a sub-domain of the social dimension.


The influence of UNESCO on culture as a dimension of public policy

Notwithstanding, culture has been evident as an aspect of public policy to some degree for decades. An early act of advocacy for the value of culture occurred in 1923 when Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh travelled to Geneva to speak to the League of Nations about the right of his people to live under their own laws, on their own land and under their own faith. Although Chief Deskaheh was not allowed to speak and had to return home, his vision was an inspiration for generations to come (Marana, 2010).

UNESCO has been the major international influence for the inclusion of culture in public policy, with some support from other UN agencies including UNDP. In the 1950s and 1960s understandings of culture expanded from a definition more linked with artistic production to one that recognised a relationship to identity. During this period, UNESCO advocated for culture, particularly in response to specific situations like decolonisation, and promoted recognition of the maxim that all cultures are equal. In the 1970s and 1980s, awareness grew of the vital connection between culture and development, and this underpinned UNESCO’s support for developing countries. In the 1980s and 1990s, the role of culture in construction of democracies became a greater focus. Priorities were the inclusion and discrimination of minorities, indigenous peoples and immigrant populations (Marana, 2010).

The UNESCO’s World Conference on Cultural Policies, held in Mexico City in 1982, was a major turning point, with new guidelines for cultural development created. The 136-point Mexico City Declaration affirmed that cultural development was both the starting point and the ultimate goal of socio-economic development (UNESCO, 1982). This was followed by the larger initiative of the World Decade for Cultural Development, instigated by UNESCO in 1988-97, which sought to encourage governments to acknowledge the cultural dimension of development; affirm and enrich cultural identities; broaden participation in cultural life; and promote international co-operation. This decade culminated in the report Our Creative Diversity produced by the World Commission of Culture and Development (1995). In this document, the relationship between culture and economy was observed, with culture acknowledged as playing an instrumental role in promoting economic progress and being a desirable end in itself.

In 1993, there was already evidence of a multi-dimensional approach to progress, with a different arm of the UN’s activities, the United Nations Human Development Programme, offering recognition of the various ”important processes… that affect people’s lives”. This included culture along with economic, social, and political processes (UNDP, 1993: 8).

In the 1990s and 2000, a move towards the revaluation of the common heritage of humankind culminated in UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (UNESCO, 2001). This identified two major aspects of diversity: the recognition of multiple cultural forms and expressions inherent within cultures, and the significance of harmonious interaction between different, varied and dynamic cultural identities (Marana, 2010). UNDP’s Human Development Report in 2004 prioritised cultural liberty, making a strong call for the need to “recognize differences, champion diversity and promote cultural freedoms, so that all people can choose to speak their language, practice their religion, and participate in shaping their culture so that all people can choose to be who they are” (2004: para 1).


Sustainable development and culture

While many of the discourses around sustainability have not included recognition of the cultural dimension, interrelationships between the two concepts can be observed in some international policy documents and conventions. The linkages between biodiversity and culture were recognised by the Convention of Biodiversity (1992) and since then by other related documents (UNESCO, 2002). Culture is also mentioned as an important aspect of (sustainable) development in policy documents of the European Commission and Council (for example, European Task Force on Culture and Development, 2007). European researcher Kagan discusses this fundamental interrelationship, in seeing sustainability as a cultural challenge, where “sustainability is not a mere question of technological innovations and more efficient resource usage,…(but) more fundamentally a cultural challenge that questions our civilisation model based on designed ‘progress’ and ‘development’” (Kagan, 2013: para 4). He suggests, instead, that we should think in terms of “resilience” (i.e. asking questions from the point of view of the future development, considering cultural diversity, biodiversity and bottom-up adaptability as goals) and “co-evolution” (of human societies with non-human systems). An early proponent of this interrelationship between the dimensions was Australian community development activist Jim Ife, whose concept of balanced development included culture along with environmental, social, economic, political, and personal/spiritual dimensions (Ife, 1995).


The emergence of a culture as a fourth pillar of development and public policy

Although culture was recognised intermittently as an aspect of sustainable development, it was not until 2001 that the concept of culture as a pillar of development that stood alongside the dimensions of economy, society and environment was fully expounded by Hawkes (2001). In his monograph, The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability, Hawkes posited that culture was both an equally important dimension of public policy as the others, and that they are all inextricably linked: every decision should be considered in the light of its impact across all domains. This second point is the aspect of Hawkes’ work that has provided to be the most challenging for policy-makers and governments. Preliminary research into cultural impact assessment (assessment on culture) undertaken by our organization, the Cultural Development Network, indicates that few agencies (government and others) consider the impact of their work on culture, although increasing attention is paid to the impact of culture (particularly the arts) on other domains. The evaluation of the economic and social outcomes of participation in the arts, for example, is much more prevalent. While Hawkes was writing specifically for a local government audience, he acknowledges the impetus of his work as sustainability advocates Yencken and Wilkinson, who had posited the concept of culture as a fourth pillar of sustainable development the year prior (Yencken & Wilkinson, 2000).

Soon after Hawkes’ publication, the French Commission on Sustainable Development issued a position paper titled “On culture and sustainable developmentwhich also recommended making culture as a fourth pillar. It concludes: “For the future of humanity, it is indispensable to maintain and develop free and varied cultural practices accessible to all. It is on this precondition that the model of a society that could be called sustainable has any meaning” (2002: 2).

At the same time, a working group of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), the largest international peak body for local government, was formed to prioritise action around the role of culture in local development. A policy statement, the Agenda 21 for Culture, was released in 2004. This was “the first document with a world-wide mission to encourage cities and local governments to act in favour of cultural development, based on principles of sustainable development, participation, peace, inclusion and diversity” (UCLG, 2004: 3). The early working group was recognised as an official Committee of the UCLG in 2005, “as the meeting point for cities and local governments that place culture at the heart of their development processes” (Pascual, 2009: 5).

The next most significant milestone for UCLG’s Commission for Culture was the policy statement of “Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development” adopted in Mexico City in 2010. UCLG’s continuing advocacy for the role of culture in local development is seen as relevant both to the developed and developing world.

UNESCO also continues to encourage the engagement of local government with culture as a dimension of relevant policy and activity. In 2006, they commissioned the UCLG to investigate the way public policies support cultural diversity at a local level. The ensuing report included four studies on local policies and diversity, from Barcelona, Canada and the US, Latin America and Europe, and UK and Australia (UCLG, 2006).

With the encouragement of UCLG, governments around the world have been adopting the four pillar concept and the principles set out in Agenda 21 for Culture to underpin their policy making. More than 450 cities, organizations and local governments have become signatories to Agenda 21 for Culture document in the decade since its inception. There is a substantial weighting towards cities in western Europe and South America amongst the signatories, but also municipalities in many other parts of the world including Africa, Serbia, Palestine, Jordan and Turkey. The availability of the Agenda in 21 languages on UCLG’s website indicates the very broad international focus of the organization.

Culture as a pillar of local policy-making in the developed world

In Canada, take-up of the principle of culture as a pillar of development, by both provincial and local governments, has been particularly strong. In 2006, the Federal Government set up an External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities to establish a 30 year vision for Canadian cities. A core recommendation of this Committee was that “community strategies should incorporate the interrelated economic, environmental, social and cultural dimensions of sustainability” (External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities, 2006: 28).

The provincial government of Quebec began the process of developing an Agenda 21 for Culture in 2011. Significant enthusiasm for this task was evidenced in the participation of 18 Government ministries and departments, 44 cities and 5000 citizens who contributed to a public consultation process (Ministry of Culture, 2011). Montreal recognises itself as the first city in the world to formally support culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development throughout its government bodies and 19 boroughs. Montreal ratified UCLG’s Agenda 21 in 2005, and consequently is “undertaking to make culture a key dimension of its urban policies … (and) is participating in a worldwide movement aimed at promoting an open, pluralistic culture” (Montreal, 2013: para ). Like the process undertaken by its provincial government, the City of Montréal’s action plan based on the principles of UCLG’s Agenda 21 for Culture was developed in a broad ranging participatory process that involved national, provincial and local levels of government. This included departments engaged with broader government issues as well as culture and business more specifically, and 1300 stakeholders of civil society (Montreal, 2013).

Similar themes are promoted by the provincial government of Ontario in the declaration that “Ontario municipalities join leading municipalities across Canada and internationally in embracing culture as a critically important part of more integrated approaches to planning for sustainability” (Municipal Cultural Planning Incorporated, 2011). They cite UCLG’s Agenda 21 for Culture as a basis for some of the policy frameworks proposed. Other Canadian municipalities are increasingly including culture as a fourth pillar of sustainability in their planning strategies. The City of Toronto, for example, takes an integrated approach, recognizing “creative and cultural resources” along with “social, economic and environmental considerations” as the “four foundations of Toronto’s success as a world city and regional economy” (City of Toronto, 2008: ). The municipality of Oakville’s cultural plan identified the priority of integrated cultural plans and cross-departmental coordination, and the intention that a cultural lens on planning should be taken. This responds to the town’s strategic goals which included recognition of the dimensions of cultural, economic, social and environmental (City of Oakville, 2008: 38).

UCLG identifies two UK cities using Agenda 21 in their urban policies: London (Greater London Authority) and Reading (Borough Council). However, a scan of policy documents from both of those cities does not provide reverse acknowledgement of connection to UCLG, Agenda 21 for Culture or culture specifically as a fourth domain. Nevertheless, in the UK, recognition of culture as a dimension of local governance is high. The great majority of Local Government authorities now have a cultural strategy (Mercer, 2006). While it is not a statutory requirement, it is encouraged, for example, through the inclusion of cultural planning as a ‘Best Value Performance Indicator’ used by the national Audit Commission. One impetus in this respect is the requirement that every local authority in England have cultural strategies linked to Sustainable Community Strategies (Mercer, 2006). Culture, along with tourism and sport is listed by the Local Government Association UK as one of the eleven areas of local government focus (Local Government Association UK, 2013). Recognised benefits of formal cultural planning in the UK include increased access to funding (Mercer, 2006). The Cultural Strategy for London Cultural Metropolis, like others examined, does not specifically mention culture as a fourth pillar of local development, but does recognise an interrelationship between culture and other aspects of development, particularly economic, but also sustainability and social inclusion (Mayor of London’s Office, 2010).


Integrated approaches recognising culture in Australian local government practice.

The conception of an integrated approach to local development and planning was evident in Australia as long ago as 1993. The ILAP in Australia – Making the Connections: Towards Integrated Local Area Planning, published by the ALGA (Australian Local Governance Association) in 1993, recommends “a holistic view of local areas, linking related physical, environmental, economic social and cultural issues rather than treating them separately” (ALGA, 1993: 5). However in practice it appears that the cultural dimension was largely subsumed within the social, and both of those were challenged in application, given the predominant economic paradigm in planning and evaluation (Roughley, 1998). The ILAP appears not to have had a significant or long-lasting impact on local government’s practices (Greg Box, Manager, Arts, Culture and Heritage, Shire of Yarra Ranges, email communication, August 16, 2013).

The Cultural Development Network has been working since 2000 to promote the role of culture and integrated approaches to local development. The potential for UCLG’s policy statements to impact government decision-making, particularly the inclusion of the cultural dimension has been a particular focus. UCLG’s engagement with Australia has included a keynote presentation from Jordi Pascual, the Commission for Culture Executive Officer at the Expanding Cultures conference in Melbourne in 2007 and the inaugural National Local Government Cultural Forum, held in Canberra in 2013. A keynote presentation was delivered by Eduard Miralles, representative of the Barcelona Provincial Council on UCLG’s Culture Commission at the Culture: A New Way of Thinking for Local Government conference in Melbourne in 2011. This event largely focused on promoting an integrated approach to local development, that includes the cultural dimension, to local government leaders from across Asia. Many delegates at that event reported that the idea of formally including culture as a dimension of local policy development was new to them. The absence of signatories to Agenda 21 from Asian countries confirms this perspective.

The national peak body for local government in Australia, Australian Local Government Association, endorsed the Policy Statement of Culture as the Fourth Pillar, on behalf of all 565 Australian LGAs in 2011. However, as yet the UCLG’s work seems not had a strong direct impact on local government policies, including those specifically about culture. Only one Australian municipality, Redland City in Queensland, is formally acknowledged as a signatory to Agenda 21 for Culture, although several others mention these documents in their policies. A survey of local government cultural policies in Victoria indicated that only two councils identified UCLG ‘s principles as informing their work. Only five specifically referred to Hawkes’ concept of culture as one of four pillars of sustainability, although many more discussed integrated approaches where culture, including the arts, was included as a fundamental dimension of policy (Dunphy, Tavelli & Metzke, 2013). The legislative framework for local government in Victoria does not yet support the inclusion of the cultural dimension, with local government required only to respond to social, economic and environmental considerations (State Government of Victoria, 2012).

An integrated approach to local development is evident, however, in other related policy initiatives. Indicator frameworks developed by state agencies about local development, such as Community Indicators Victoria and Indicators Queensland, are including culture as one of five dimensions of economic, social, cultural, environmental and civic concerns.


Culture as a fourth pillar in the developing world

UCLG’s advocacy goes beyond the developed world, with equal focus being given to the role of culture in local governance in developing world contexts, particularly the relationship observed between culture and endpoints of development such as human progress, freedom and well-being.  One example of a focus on an integrated approach, including the cultural dimension in the developing world is provided by Nurse (2006) in the context of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). He argues that culture should be viewed not just as the fourth pillar, but as the central pillar of sustainable development. At the Mauritius International Meeting for SIDS in 2005, culture was identified as one of the new issues indispensable to sustainable development (UNDESA, 2006).

UCLG’s Committee for Culture have prioritised focus on the post-2015 development agenda. This has arisen in response to the situation that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the policy statement that drove the agenda for international development between 2000 and 2015, did not include recognition of the role of culture in development, as a driver and enabler of sustainable development

The UNESCO Congress of Hangzhou in May 2013 on the role of culture in development included a contribution from UCLG’s Committee for Culture. Its Final Declaration included the recommendation that: a specific Goal focused on culture be included as part of the post-2015 UN development agenda, to be based on heritage, diversity, creativity and the transmission of knowledge and including clear targets and indicators that relate culture to all dimensions of sustainable development.” (UNESCO, 2013).

This topic was further debated at the UN in June 2013, at a high level debate on the nexus between culture and development. Recognition of the contribution of culture to development included culture as both a means and an end. In arguing the former position, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stressed the need for development that is adaptable to context in order to advance outcomes. “Too many well-intended development programmes have failed, because they did not take cultural settings into account. This must be an overarching principle for all development efforts” (Ki-Moon, 2013: para 2). In arguing for culture as an end, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova pointed out to the meeting that no one would like to live in a world without music, art or dance, or with only one language. “Culture is what we are. It is the wellspring of collective imagination, meaning and belonging. It is also a source of identity and cohesion at a time of change. It is a source of creativity and innovation” (United Nations News Centre, 2013: para ). The relationship between the four dimensions of culture, society, environment and economy was advanced by the UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser.   “A human-centred, culturally-sensitive approach to development will yield the most effective, sustainable, inclusive outcomes. Specifically, a culturally-diverse approach will contribute to economic development, promote social cohesion and foster environmental sustainability” (United Nations News Centre, 2013: para 6).

This UN meeting recommended evidence-based policy-making in the fields of culture and to inform government policies in other areas, including trade. Themes include the importance of creative industries in debt alleviation and employment, and the need for capacity building and intellectual property rights to maximise this possibility. The relationship between education and culture was observed, with education strategies that are most responsive to local cultures, contexts and needs seen to be the most likely to be effective in fostering learning and more cohesive societies. The interconnection between culture and the environment were also noted with the reappraisal and consideration of local and indigenous knowledge systems and environmental management practices in preserving and managing natural resources. These were seen as important components of policies and programmes for climate change adaptation, mitigation and disaster risk reduction (United Nations News Centre, 2013).

The UCLG’s Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments for Post-2015 represents the world-wide municipal movement. At the time of writing, this group were preparing to meet prior to the UN General Assembly where the MDGs will be formally reviewed. This was to be followed by the World Congress of UCLG in Morocco where the place of culture in the Post-2015 Development Agenda will be a focus.

Critiques and challenges for the role of culture in development

However, despite this attention, the significant efforts of the UCLG Commission for Culture, the recognition of local governments around the world and high level efforts from UN agencies, there is still a long way to go before culture is properly integrated into policy at every level. UNESCO notes that the potential of culture to contribute to sustainable development is largely untapped in many regions of the world. They believe that what is still missing is a globally agreed and shared recognition that development programmes and strategies at the global, regional and local levels should integrate culture within their goals, indicators and targets. They identify the major challenge of convincing political decision-makers and local, national and international social actors to integrate the principles of cultural diversity and the values of cultural pluralism into all public policies, mechanisms and practices, particularly through public/private partnerships.” (UNESCO, 2013).

Evidence of this challenge was observed in the lack of attention paid to culture at the UN Summit in Rio in 2102. As Pascual reports, “There was no single official event on the relation between culture and sustainable development. The official programme did not include this topic. We do not have any evidence that any official delegation to the Conference advocated for the role of culture in the Final Declaration” (Pascual, 2012: 6).

This was despite UCLG’s advocacy document (UCLG, 2012b) and representation from indigenous peoples who identified five key messages for that forum, the first of which was the recognition of culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development. This cultural pillar was seen to encompass the cultural and spiritual relation to land and nature, and the concept that life in harmony with nature can only be realised through a culturally transformed vision of sustainable development (IWGIA, 2013).

There are major stumbling blocks identified in the adoption of culture in the post-2015 development agenda. UCLG recognizes competition from other agendas including health, education, children, gender, youth, energy, mobility and climate change, that also seek specific mention in the post-MDG documents. Another impediment is the more specific resistance to culture in the development agenda because of the perception that cultural diversity can be divisive or that the arts and cultural practices can be construed as a luxury and not as core to human well-being (Marana, 2010). For example, the Fragile States G7+ group conference in Timor-Leste in 2013 did not include culture as an issue for consideration. The New Deal G7+ policy addresses universal issues such as conflict and violence, risk management, inequality and environmental degradation, without mentioning culture specifically. However these states do recommend that development take note of context (G7+, 2013).

French-Canadian commentators Dallaire and Colbert (2012) offer a critical response to Agenda 21 for Culture, which they posit might be just another strategy for the arts sector to draw more resources to itself, the same function they perceive of most cultural policies. In this, their argument essentially misses the point, in that they conflate the concept of “culture” as discussed in Agenda 21 with “arts”, when in fact the main function of these policies is to argue for a broader conception of culture, one that underpins all that is meaningful to human beings and the way meaning is made. This misperception of culture and arts being one and the same is not theirs alone, however. Even the UN confuse the two concepts, as evidenced perhaps by the choice of panellists on their interactive panel discussion on ‘The nexus between culture and development’ in June 2013. These cultural advocates were all from the arts, (Miri Ben-Ari, violinist and Goodwill Ambassador of Music for the United Nations Association of Brazil; Thomas Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Ivan Tasovac, Director of Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra and Anthony Tommasini, Chief Music Critic, The New York Times). The resistance to recognition of the cultural dimension of development might not be surprising when that argument is perceived as being only a proxy for increased funding for the arts.

The post-2015 development agenda being discussed under the rubric of the ‘World We Want’ (UNDP, 2013) also does not mention a specific focus on culture for the future development agenda, despite discussing the significant value being placed on integrated sustainable development approaches.


Australia’s role in the wider policy agenda

As people who enjoy a quality of life that is amongst the best in the world (OECD, 2013) it behoves us as Australians to take action in advocating for the role of culture in development. This might be even more compelling a responsibility for those of us who have the good fortune to reside in Melbourne, one of the most livable cities of the world. I argue that we have a responsibility not only for our own situation, where governments, including local governments increasingly include the cultural dimension as an area for their policy and action, but also looking outwards to those other nations whose citizens do not have such privileges.

UCLG’s Committee for Culture requests support for the inclusion of culture in development agendas. They recommend that local governments and other agencies involved in development advocate for the inclusion of culture in the new Post-2015 Development Agenda. They invite us to become familiar with the issues and arguments provided in the Hangzhou Declaration and promote those to our networks, civil society organisations and relevant government agencies in our own countries including Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs, and our delegation to the UN and UNDP consultations.



This paper has discussed the international movement for culture to be incorporated as an essential dimension of policy considerations for government, including local government. This drive has been led by the Committee for Culture, a division of the international peak body for local government, UCLG (United Cities and Local Government). This agency and its policy documents, Agenda 21 for Culture and Fourth Pillar of Sustainability, recognise that the inclusion of culture as both a driver and enabler of development will contribute to a better quality of life for citizens; a life that is richer, deeper and more whole.

This paper has explored how cultural policies, particularly in the broadest international policy domain and the local government context, increasingly discuss culture as an essential element of an integrated approach to policy and planning. Local government authorities around the world more and more recognise a fourth pillar or dimension of culture that influences and is influenced by all other areas of local government endeavor. A further exploration would be required to determine how much this happens in reverse, that is, whether policies initiated in other areas of local government’s responsibility in the economic, social, civic, and environmental domains, are including culture as a dimension of consideration in their decision-making more frequently.

In conclusion, I offer the recommendation that those of us driving and informing the Australian cultural policy agenda give credence to international advocacy tools such as Agenda 21 for Culture and the fourth pillar statement. If we consider these documents as both a reference point and symbol of a movement deserving of our support, the opportunity for culture to be included in policy agendas, from the most wide reaching, such as MDGs, to the most local, such as individual Council Plans for Australian local government, will be increased. This has the potential to contribute to better quality of life for all human beings and the rest of life with which we share our planet.


The contribution of James Zarucky in research undertaken for this article is acknowledged.


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