Study Review on the Role of Festivals in Society and Culture

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Research Question
  • Festivals, Mega Events and the City
  • Literature Review
    Cities and Events
    Festivals in Culture-led Urban Regeneration
    The City as Stage


Festivals have been present in people's life for ages. They are a replication of the broadly understood human culture (Falassi, 1987). In the arena of urban international competitiveness, cities try to raise their profile by constructing facilities and entertainment contexts to organise and host these festivals and mega events somewhere or the other, annually or over a varying period of time so as to add image to its current value. Tourism administrators use such tourism products to promote their city as a corporate brand which in turn has led to a remarkable increase in the number of urban festivals in recent decades which could as well as be compared to a “fever” or a “quick fix”.

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Individual festivals differ in their degree of ‘place dependency’. Some are closely connected to the cultural infrastructure, whereas others have hardly any relationship with facilities, activities or events occurring in the city (Boogaarts, 1992). The outcomes of cities’ engagement with these festivals and mega events, however, remains little understood, particularly in social and cultural terms.

The objective of this dissertation is to study the give-and-take relationship between these urban festivals and the city and to argue how cities are increasingly using cultural events to improve their image, inspire urban development and attract visitors / tourists and investment opportunities. It concentrates on the understanding of a how a festival affects a place and most importantly investigates about what a place can do for a festival.

Research Question

What impact does the reciprocal relationship between festivals/events and the city have on

  • the formation of a temporary community (i.e. among festival goers)?
  • the permanent community which lives at the festival location?


To what extent does place really matter for a festival / mega event, its visitors and its host city itself in the instance of an Indian city like Delhi?

General events in Delhi include extremely planned urban and cultural festivals like the Republic Day Parade and unplanned activities such as political events and processions. Events have both international and national stages such as the International Trade fair held every year, Asian Games of 1982 or the Commonwealth Games held in 2010. The city of Delhi in general has certain parts of the city planned to accommodate these events while some are just adapted into spaces for use by/during these events thus leading to our question about how much does place really matter for a festival to be a success?

Festivals, Mega Events and the City

Literature Review

In recent years, culture has become more instrumental in representing ideas and practices, sites and symbols of any city all over the world. Festivals represent these notions of the people and their lives in a city (Falassi, 1987). This very idea leads towards a certain craving for eventfulness creating a sense of a ‘festival city’ which has directed the cities of today to face two choices. They can either develop to meet the challenges created by the pace of global change, or they resist the impulse for transformation and stagnate. At a time when economic systems are no longer predictable, in order to remain competitive, cities are turning to strategies that focus on their own innate resources – their histories, spaces, creative energy and talents. Pressures of globalisation and problems caused by economic restructuring, as well as the need to establish new civic identities, have prompted cities to utilise ‘cultural’ assets and resources in an attempt to become distinctive, to regenerate the urban fabric and to create economic, social and cultural prosperity (Palmer & Richards, 2010). Thus, the cities in response to these complexities of gaining ‘attention’ develop schemes to attract investors, visitors and other stakeholders by creating the ‘Urban Spectacle’. Promoting itself as an evidence of a ‘symbolic economy’, cities establish and market the mega events and spectacles as a mark to the urban development and revitalization strategy. No city believes it is too small or too complex to enter the market of planning and producing events.

Entire cities have transformed themselves or have been created to replicate a stage where these events can be held can lead to the eventual ‘festivalisation’ of the city. Major examples can be drawn from the European countries where an entire organisation has been established to coordinate the idea of ‘festival cities’ and the growing prominence of these events. The European Capital of Culture is a city designated by the European Union for a period of one year during which it is given a chance to showcase its cultural life and cultural development. A number of European cities have used the City of Culture year to transform completely their cultural base and, in doing so, the way in which they are viewed internationally (UNECC, n.d.). ECOC is an example of the European Union’s progressive shift from an almost exclusive focus on the creation of common market instruments and regional development, into more localized city-based initiatives (Liu, 2014). As far as the Indian context is considered, Allahabad hosts the Kumbha Mela over a cycle of 12 years. This mass pilgrimage needs a 2-hectare temporary settlement to be established to accommodate 80 – 100 million people over a period of 55 days. Allahabad itself has a very rich and varied history, of which the mela is only a small part. But the history of the city played a pivotal role in the development of a mela to a mega pop up city (Pandey, 2013). This method of interaction between the inhabitants of the towns and cities with the built and unbuilt environment has contributed in the commencement of a new ‘pop up urbanism movement’ that seeks temporary initiatives to transform vacant spaces into vibrant up beat destinations. Other cities already calling themselves ‘eventful’, often through their promotion as ‘festival cities’, include Dubai, Reykjavik, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague, Singapore, etc.

Cities and Events

Cities are slow processes in general, built over long periods of time and oriented historically and strategically. There are times when a city witnesses a catalyst in its development process. As important cultural practices, festivals have a long-established association with cities. It is thought that the first festival took place in Athens as long ago as 534 BC, in honour of the God Dionysus, the patron of wine, feast and dance. Then, as in all subsequent centuries up to the present era, festivals have played important social roles both in public and private, religious and secular spheres (Quinn, 2005). Every city has a distinctive representation moulded by the visions of the successive rulers over the span of time. The role of ‘ritual in everyday life’ was amongst the major forerunners in shaping the event spaces such as the Greek Agora, the Roman Forum, the Kingsway in the Lutyens’s Delhi or the chowk road connecting the Red fort and the Jama masjid or the Mecca Pilgrimage.

Further development of cities increased the continued celebrations and was important in everyday life. They were important in distracting people from the harsh reality of everyday life, and occasionally in upsetting the established social order. Rituals and cultural practices became a share of tactics used by political leaders to support their own positions of power, placing themselves at the centre of an event (Palmer & Richards, 2010). With the onset of globalisation and concepts of urban re-generation or re-vitalization, the civic nature of the cities gave birth to a new set of cultural landmarks or landscape along with a brand-new assembly of cultural events and festivities all together. This marked the movement from the traditional customs to the newly structured urban life.

Evans (cited in Palmer and Richards, 2010) states the fact that with eventual industrialisation and improvement in urban scape, the festivals, fairs and megaevents of the medieval times were located in a much more formalised space and urban setting with the development of the industrial city and the urban, the festivals and fairs of the medieval city were located in more formalised spaces in the urban fabric –the marketplace, the streets and the theatre. The authors also state that festival soon became the mark of rest and relaxation. As the city of culture began to become a more mature concept, the communities started crafting their own events and commemorations, many aimed to counteract the impact of popular culture events. The major question that aroused while considering this specific non-linear growth in eventfulness and festivalisation was why events became increasingly important in the first place for the city and its people?

The events strategy for Edinburgh (Graham Devlin Associates, 2001) argues that ‘cities, governments and the private sector have all invested in creating, sustaining and developing a wide range of festivals in order to reap a number of benefits’. These include:

  • Improvements to the quality of life in the city;
  • Creative activity;
  • The growth of audiences;
  • The creation of partnerships;
  • Recreational and educational opportunities;
  • Economic and social benefits;
  • National and international

Festivals in Culture-led Urban Regeneration

Cities all over the world have stressed more on the policies cultural re-vitalization for the past 20 years, a shift that reflects the centrality of culture in promoting an urban renaissance. R. Gold and M. Gold discuss in (Joseph, 2012) that city planners around the world get an opportunity for rapid urban development and regeneration at a large scale in mega event planning. For instance, the Barcelona Olympics of 1991 saw a paramount shift in mega event planning, where city planners focused on the legacy that the event leaves behind and its impact on the city. The sustainable urban development of the city of Barcelona catapulted it to one of the top cities of Europe in a matter of years. Following this success of the Barcelona games, mega events organizations such as IOC, Commonwealth Federation, FIFA etc. began focusing on the legacy plan for bidding cities for determining bids for such mega events. An understanding of the various legacies of the events on the city are essential for evaluating the success of an event. (Joseph, 2012)

Legacy of mega events impact various fields of importance such as Economics, transportation, IT, Infrastructure, Education, Environment, Living Conditions, Hospitality, Tourism, Marketing and varied other social developments and encouragements in urban regeneration. ‘Regeneration’ has been defined as the renewal, revitalization or transformation of a place or community as stated by Evans and Shaw (cited in Joseph 2012). The author also cites Roberts and Sykes and discusses how urban regeneration can be defined as a comprehensive integrated vision and action which leads to the resolution of urban issues and which tries to bring lasting change in economic, social, political, physical and environmental condition of a region that has been changing over a course of time. Acting as megaevent and festival city gives the city planner a unique opportunity to advertise itself to the world, an excellent opportunity to attract a good share of investment in both private and public regions and generate urban development.

In the case of the Olympics, urban regeneration evolved in 4 different stages:

  1. Through construction and improvement of sport infrastructure and public physical infrastructure (1896-1980)
  2. More economical and rational and private sector led models of Olympic regeneration management (1980s)
  3. The development of holistic and city-wide models of regeneration. (Barcelona 1992)
  4. Adoption of ‘Barcelona model’ at the same time paying attention to the environmental Implications of hosting the games. Legacy planning became an important component (Sydney 2000). (Joseph, 2012)

An analysis of the literature and existing policies suggests that a festival can serve as a show¬case, a creative destination and an attraction for visitors. Here, these functions are used to construct a tripartite typology to frame the role of festivals in urban policy (Aalst & Melik, 2012).

First, the festival can serve as a showcase for a city and destinations can be branded by festivals as discussed by Derret (cited in Aalst & Melik 2012). When linked to a certain loca¬tion, a festival delivers the city with a particular image. For this reason, ‘many cities have seen in festivals a sort of “quick fix” solution to their image problems’ (Quinn, 2005). Although urban festivals rely on place-differentiation and place-specific characteris¬tics, they often offer similar and homogenized expe¬riences and become ‘formulaic’ (Evans, 2001).

Second, the festival can serve as a creative desti¬nation or a breeding ground for talent. Festivals provide an opportunity for specialization and may attract an audience with special tastes. Specific festivals attract visitors of specific taste. Altogether, these conditions can turn festivals into meeting places for creative people – the audience, the mak¬ers and the producers. In addition, festivals can spark a renewal or reinforcement of the existing cul¬tural infrastructure and boost other cultural devel¬opments within the city (Boogaarts, 1992).

Thirdly, these events can be an important factor affecting both the temporary community formed i.e. the visitors and the permanent community that lives in the festival location. Tourist account for the largest part in the festival setting as they are the once who take advantages of these programmes, who spend and invest in the economy and who knowingly or unknowingly become a part of the cities community. Cities often conduct festivals that are intrinsically able to showcase the ideologies of the people, the administrators and the city at large. These ideologies and practices differ from place to place and hence the distinction between competing cities is visible. The economic impact on the host city in any case undergoes a multiplier effect and is not contained only within the boundaries of the programme but also spreads into other domains such as infrastructure, hospitality and marketing.

All of this commercialism has both positive and negative impacts which the actors involved should be aware of before on setting the programme as this could involve severe cost overturns, failure of marketing, over predicting the visitor count and poor infrastructure availability to support the event. One such example of planning disaster in the name of providing accountable legacy was the edition of Commonwealth Games held in the capital of Delhi in the year 2010. New Delhi played the host to the third largest multi sporting event in the world. To accommodate the much-hyped spectacle, a bunch of urban infrastructure and sporting facilities were done. The city underwent a surgical procedure with the help of the public funding invested in the physical infrastructure to showcase itself as a ‘world class’ city with a deep and meaningful historical background. Almost $17 billion was spent by India, a developing country ranked 127 out of 177 in the Human Development Index, for the CWG 2010 (Joseph, 2012).

The City as Stage

Festivals have a long-established association with cities. This has been noticed in the visible and promoted identity and image of the city. The impact of festivals and what it can do for a place has been well documented, but little research has been done on the importance of places for festivals. Getz (cited in Aalst and Melik 2012) states that the festival and host destination can become inextricably linked over a long duration of time. Festivals can keep building upon its existing reputation over years and can become an intrinsic part to the host’s city identity.

They can be totally exclusive to a location. However, the level of place dependency differs. Although many festivals are based in major cities, some are not. These are called placeless festivals. (Aalst & Melik, 2012)

While meaning of places with regard to the image of festivals, attractions and destinations are important, understanding the meaning of place to tourists’ experiences and the role of place in consumer behaviour deserves attention. (Mcclinchey & Carmichael, 2010)

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