The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced Tuesday that Seattle has been designated a City of Literature as part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, joining a group of 28 international cities that also includes Edinburgh, Dublin, Krakow, Baghdad, Montevideo and others.
The designation is awarded to world cities that have demonstrated a fervent interest in literature, publishing and other forms of written expression. Seattle is only the second city in the U.S. to be so named, following Iowa City (home of the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop). The local nonprofit Seattle City of Literature has been working towards this designation for several years, after an unsuccessful earlier bid.
The Creative Cities Network designates cities in seven creative fields: Crafts and Folk Arts, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Media Arts, and Music. With today’s announcement, the network now includes 180 cities in 72 countries. UNESCO, in a statement, said that “While differing geographically, demographically or economically, all Creative Cities commit to develop and exchange innovative best practices to promote creative industries, strengthen participation in cultural life, and integrate culture into sustainable urban development policies.”
So, what does this mean for Seattle? Stesha Brandon, literature and humanities program manager at Seattle Public Library and a board member of Seattle City of Literature, said that the designation will open doors for communication and cultural exchange. “Essentially what it does is that it allows us to connect with networks all over the world, in multiple disciplines, to find opportunities to build understanding through the literary arts and other arts,” she said. “We look at it as an opportunity, especially in this very divisive time, for us to help build bridges to people through the literary arts.”
Seattle City of Literature recently completed an indigenous writers’ exchange program, and Brandon said that the designation will help facilitate more of those kinds of connections.
Though Seattle might not be a center of literature in the way that, say, New York is, Brandon noted that the UNESCO selection committee wasn’t necessarily looking for size. “What we discovered was that they were interested in the entire story about how the art form impacts,” she said, explaining that Seattle’s application included discussion of “the oral tradition from indigenous people that predates white settlers here, which continues to be carried through even now,” as well as the city’s robust independent bookstore and library scene, its organizations like Seattle Arts and Lectures and Town Hall, its publishing scene and its thriving writing community. “I think all of those things together, showing the impact of the industry over time in this place, was meaningful to the committee.”
President Donald Trump’s administration announced earlier this month that the U.S. would pull out of UNESCO; Brandon said it was unclear what impact this decision might have on Seattle City of Literature work going forward. “We feel that the goals of peace and understanding through culture remain as important now as they were before that decision was made. We are steadfast in our support for that,” she said. “We’re going to continue doing our work.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Seattle is the second North American city to be named a City of Literature, following Iowa City. UNESCO on Tuesday also named Québec City as a City of Literature.