External forces always shape the social construction of ‘the local’. In this article we offer a framework for understanding how external players and strategies reconfigure the social and symbolic character of local culture for new investments and new populations. We aim not only to propose a theory of urban cultural processing by nonlocals—what we call ‘urban cultural terraforming’—but to identify pressure points for local groups to make claims on or even commandeer reshaping local culture. Using two cases, casino development in a deindustrialized city and state-designated cultural districts, we illustrate how ‘cultural terraformers’ use identifiable strategies (e.g. colonization of local sentiment, re-creating partnerships and respatializing) to change local culture, and how groups struggle to avoid marginalization.