This article contributes to current debates on the use of culture in urban regeneration through a case study of Roubaix, a former industrial town located in the metropolitan area of Lille (northern France), where local policy-makers have proactively used culture in urban regeneration strategies. The article analyses the 'political construction of the trickle-down', i.e. the explicit mechanisms promoted by local actors to ensure that cultural investments benefit vulnerable social groups through job creation and cultural democratisation. The case study demonstrates that cultural investments do not trickle down to deprived and marginalised populations without strong, proactive forms of political and public intervention at various scales. Even in the case of Roubaix, characterised by significant political commitment and professional efforts, socio-cultural barriers remain very difficult to overcome. Addressing such barriers is often beyond the remit of local planning and urban regeneration professionals.
The long-term social impact of culture-led regeneration remains something of a mystery. Broadly defined, there is an overriding assumption that culture-led regeneration has a trickle-down effect insofar as it enhances the quality of life of the wider community. However, the key word here is 'assumption'. (Bailey et al., 2004, 47)
The key focus here should [...] not be on whether cultural investment works, but on the degree to which it works for diverse social groups. (Miles and Paddison, 2005, 837)
Investments in large-scale cultural infrastructure and cultural events are now widely accepted across European cities as a key component of, and vehicle for, urban regeneration and local economic development. Yet the mechanisms and processes through which such investments translate into economic and social impacts are often not well understood. The extensive academic literature published over the past 15 years on the role of culture in urban regeneration has demonstrated that positive linkages between flagship cultural projects and 'urban regeneration' objectives are by no means automatic, that evidence on the effectiveness of the 'trickle-down effect' of such investments is often lacking, and that in some cases negative socioeconomic impacts may even occur. This article contributes to these critical debates by analysing the extent to which local political and cultural actors construct specific mechanisms in order to ensure that cultural investments benefit specific social groups, thereby contributing to economic and social regeneration goals. In the article the label 'culture' is used to refer to cultural infrastructure, cultural events and activities which are (i) the object of public intervention (through direct funding or other forms of support and promotion) and (ii) explicitly integrated into the policy discourse on urban regeneration. 'Urban regeneration' describes a set of area-based economic, physical, environmental, social and cultural interventions led by public authorities (in partnership with other actors) to address various manifestations of urban decline in a particular locality.
The analysis is based on a case study of Roubaix, a town located in the Lille metropolitan area in Northern France, in which municipal elites have mobilised 'culture' explicitly and proactively as a means to achieve economic, social and urban regeneration goals in a city heavily affected by the consequences of deindustrialisation. This case study draws from qualitative research conducted by the author in 2006-07 as part of a larger project funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which investigated the extent to which the interests and needs of vulnerable social groups have been taken into account in recent urban regeneration strategies in three European cities (Colomb, 2007; Cadell et al., 2008). The article does not seek to assess quantitatively the impacts of cultural investments on economic growth in Roubaix, but rather focuses on what could be termed 'the political construction of the trickle-down', i. …