The idea of ‘creative cities’ has gained prominence amongst urban planners and policymakers who often now find links between economic development and the ‘soft’ attributes of cities. While definitions of the ‘creative industries’ and the ‘creative class’ continue to be contested, many key urban policy actors continue to focus on developing strategic programmes and policies to boost ‘creativity’ and economic growth. In this article we review recent attempts to implement creative city ideas across five Australian state capitals. Following the analysis of interview material derived from contact with 100 key community and policymaker actors, we first develop a typology of approaches to creative city ideas: concerted action, engagement and strategic drift. We then move on to consider how the idea of the creative city provides a simultaneously criticized yet powerful organizing device that informs local strategies in relation to prosperity. Our analysis highlights a series of connected consequences around four key issues: (1) arts projects and gentrification; (2) housing affordability; (3) revanchist strands to public space management; and (4) relative rates of social investment. We find that the rhetoric of universal social potential accompanying creative city ideas continues to overlook those unable to participate in this new economy, as well as those who are more actively excluded.