Culture as a domain of local government policy and practice internationally

Frameworks for human wellbeing and development are increasingly holistic, connecting all aspects of human experience and the natural world. Such frameworks include a model of integrated community development offered by community development theorist Jim Ife that has six categories: social, cultural, environmental and economic, civic engagement and personal-spiritual well-being (Ife, 1995). Other holistic approaches include Clammer’s ‘vision of integrated development in which social, economic, cultural, political, spiritual and environmental elements are holistically related’ (2012, 53), and the Circles of Sustainability model applied in many developed and developing countries that acknowledges culture, politics, economy and ecology as interlinked dimensions within a larger framework of social sustainability (Global Compact Cities Program, 2013).

The concept of culture as a domain of human activity that should be recognized in public policy has been formally recognised since at least 1982, when the World Conference on Cultural Policies in Mexico City developed a series of principles to govern cultural policy. This conference came to a definition of culture as ‘the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs’ (UNESCO, 1982). This rhetoric developed up until the turn of the century, culminating in the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity in November 2001 that articulated that ‘as a source of exchange, innovation and creativity, cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature. In this sense, it is the common heritage of humanity and should be recognized and affirmed for the benefit of present and future generations’.

The idea of culture as a fourth pillar of sustainability was articulated by Jon Hawkes in 2001, in a monograph focused on the local government context (Hawkes, 2001). This idea has since been promulgated by the Committee for Culture of the international peak body for local government, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG). UCLG’s Policy Statement on Culture, acknowledging culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development, was adopted in November 2010, adding a fourth dimension to the three already existing pillars of economic viability, social inclusion and environmental balance for local government.

This approach ‘addresses the relation between culture and sustainable development through dual means:

  • firstly, the development of the cultural sector itself (i.e. heritage, creativity, cultural industries, crafts, cultural tourism); and
  • secondly, ensuring that culture has its rightful place in all public policies, particularly those related to education, the economy, science, communication, environment, social cohesion and international cooperation’.

The statement posits that ‘the world is not only facing economic, social, or environmental challenges. Creativity, knowledge, diversity, and beauty are the unavoidable bases for dialogue for peace and progress as these values are intrinsically connected to human development and freedoms’ (UCLG, 2010).

Local government entities around the world are increasingly considering culture as the fourth dimension of public policy as part of their remit, along with social, economic and environmental considerations. UCLG’s directive for local government in engaging with culture, Agenda 21 for Culture, has been adopted by local governments internationally, with more than 200 cities now signatories. New Zealand, for example, adopted culture as one of the four dimensions of well-being that local government must report against between 2002 and 2012 (Dalziel, Matunga & Saunders, 2006).

UCLG’s Policy Statement on Culture is significant for local government in Australia because it connects the activities of Australian local government with councils across the world, that are informed by and connected with shared goals regarding the role of culture in local development.  Engaging with policy from an international body strengthens the capacity, knowledge and impact of all parties.


Read more about culture in local development here.


Clammer, (2012). Cultural, Development and Social Theory: Towards an Integrated Social Development, London: Zed Books, 2012.

Dalziel, P., Matunga, H. & Saunders, C. (2006). Cultural well-being and local government: lessons from New Zealand, Australasian Journal of Regional Studies, 12(3), 267-80.

GCCP (Global Compact Cities Program) (2013). Circles of Sustainability’ Urban Profile Process. Accessed 14 April 2014. Available at:

Ife, J. (1993/2002). Community development: Community-based alternatives in an age of globalisation (2nd ed.) Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education.

Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (2016). Cultural Planning for Local Authorities. Istanbul: Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts.                Retrieved from:

UNESCO (1982). Mexico City Declaration on Cultural Policies. Paris: UNESCO.

UNESCO (2001). Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. Paris: UNESCO.

United Cities and Local Governments (2010). Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development. Barcelona: UCLG.

United Cities and Local Governments (2016). Why must culture be at the heart of sustainable urban development? Barcelona: UCLG.
The report, co-authored by Nancy Duxbury, Jyoti Hosagrahar, and Jordi Pascual, was developed as a contribution to the positioning of local and regional governments at Habitat III through the Global Agenda of Local and Regional Governments for the 21st Century. This event was held in October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador, during which a “New Urban Agenda” was adopted.