I was speaking with a group from the Alliance for Innovation today on a webinar and was challenging them to think about ways of adding fun to the mix of our various projects. I mentioned the idea of a neighborhood clean up which is a good, solid community project but not necessarily thought of as ‘fun’ in the traditional sense. So based on the current season, I opined that maybe we could mash up a Trick or Treat event with a neighborhood clean up and make the later a more fun and engaging event. Seems like a natural fit. If any communities out there have done something like this, I’d love to hear about it!
Last week my regional alternative press held their annual “Best of the Bay” awards. Creative Loafing highlights everything from Best Dining Adventure (Locale Market in St. Pete) to Best City Council Person (my friend Darden Rice) to Best sign of intelligent life in South Tampa (Cass Contemporary Gallery). The awards are an awesome, highly creative and a fantastic snapshot of the things we (mostly) love about our community. So I was very honored that CL awarded me the designation of being “Best Friend of Cities”.
In our work, in our lives, we want to be known for something. And I think it is especially nice to be known as a friend. Think of that designation. One of the finest things we can say about a person is that he or she is a friend. So I take the title with a great deal of appreciation. My friend and in many ways mentor, Charles Landry, set that standard for me years ago by his example.
Landry is the English author of many books, the most well know being the seminal “The Creative City”. He is a global citizen who has worked in hundreds of cities all over the world. I first met him in 2004 and recall thinking that his work and career were something that I wanted to emulate. Charles calls himself a “critical friend” to cities; someone who cares deeply about places and can see them with a clarity and truthfulness that is sometimes hard for locals to muster. Think about it – a real friend will tell you when your shoes and belt don’t match. A real friend will tell you when you haircut is bad. A real friend will tell you when you are wrong. Landry is that critical friend to the places he works with and that is something I have tried to emulate.
As the “city love guy” part of my job is to be relentlessly positive about places. I find the bright spots, the love notes and the things that make an emotional impact on people. I do try to look at the bad as well and not ignore the most challenging aspects of the cities I visit. But as a friend, I love you despite the flaws. In fact, I think I love your places because of the flaws. It is in the flaws that we strive to become better and to rise to the challenge building something. As a best friend, I’d like to think that in good times or bad, I am someone you want to see, connect with and maybe just commiserate with. A best friend sometimes just listens. So thank you Creative Loafing for reminding me of what my job actually is and how lucky I am to have it.
Last week saw a massive amount of coverage marking the 10 year … ‘anniversary’ is the wrong word – memorial of Hurricane Katrina. The stories of triumph and tragedy reminded us how rebuilding the Gulf Coast, New Orleans in particular, became a national cause. And the view ten years on is mostly positive. Schools and homes have been rebuilt, systems and infrastructure has been updated and people, though not all, have returned to New Orleans. Over and over again you heard stories that emphasized people’s love for the city. I wrote in For the Love of Cities, how New Orleans at that writing (2011) was the most exciting city in America because of the influx of people, ideas, money and passion that was rebuilding a great American city. Today New Orleans remains a work in progress but clearly on a different and higher path than the one it was on before the storm. New Orleans has become the benchmark of how love of place can sustain a place even in the worst of times.
New Orleans is not singular in this love affair with place. Every place has people that love it and it is those people that can be the difference between failure and rebirth. New Orleans captured so much of our national attention in part because of its size but also because of the size of its reputation. So many of us had visited New Orleans and partaken of its food, music and culture. We had watched Super Bowls and Su
gar Bowls from the Super Dome. We all felt New Orleans, at least a little bit. Other cities did not have that benefit when they were challenged by disasters.
I think of two cities yet there are so many more. I have been fortunate to work in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Joplin, Missouri over the past few years. Each city was rocked by a disaster, flooding in Cedar Rapids in 2008 and an EF5 tornado in Joplin in 2011. Each city received an initial outpour of sympathy and support. Federal funds flowed into each and rebuilding began. But neither city resides in our broad national consciousness the way that New Orleans does. Rebuilding those cities fell upon the shoulders of their citizens – the ones who loved their place. People like my friends Amanda West and Andy Stoll in Cedar Rapids and Jane Cage in Joplin. Their everyday heroism is the story of the vast majority of our cities everywhere. People who make the conscious choice to show up, to raise a hand to help where they can and perhaps most importantly of all – not leaving.
Every city has people that love it. If you are reading this, chances are you are one of those people. You may not realize it but your are rarer and more valuable than you think. Cities everywhere need more people who love them because when we love something, we go above and beyond for it, we forgive shortcomings and we will fight for it. Cities everywhere need more people who do more than pay their taxes, spend their money and obey the law. That should be the minimums in our relationship with our places. And sometimes it takes a disaster or threat to shake us out of our everyday malaise and remind of us of the important our places, but I hope we can find a bit of introspection and perspective in the clear light of a sunny day.
I am very excited to meet Dr. Ray Oldenburg this coming week. Oldenburg is the author of The Great Good Place, which began the conversation about the importance of “third spaces” like coffee shops, cafes, parks and public gathering spaces. My friends at St. Petersburg Preservation are bringing him into town for a lecture and were gracious enough to arrange for us to meet.
Place makers today take for granted the idea of the importance of the third space – that which is not home or work. Yet when Dr. Oldenburg first published his book in 1989, this was a revolutionary as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone or Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class. Third spaces today are seen as key drivers in successful places because of the social interaction they engender, the equality of status they convey upon citizens and the general good feelings (love if you will!) they create. Yet less than a generation ago, these things were thought frivolous and ‘nice to have’ but not necessary. How far we have come and we have pioneers like Dr. Oldenburg to thank for the great places we now enjoy.
What makes cities lovable? Why do we connect emotionally with some places and not others? And why does that matter? Author and consultant Peter Kageyama loves cities. Big cities, small cities, villages and small towns. He thinks he has found the “secret sauce” of what makes cities successful and it is those same people who love their cities. Those ordinary citizens who somehow go above and beyond typical levels of citizenship and do extraordinary things for their places. Not because they paid to, but because of their desire to make things happen in their hometown.
This is significant. Colorado approved statewide legislation to allow ride share programs such as Uber. These types of amenities are becoming “must haves” especially for the mobile, young professional crowd. These services are typically fought by traditional cab and limo companies but consumers obviously love them. The first state domino has tipped and you can expect many more to follow. Interesting how Colorado seems to be leading on lots of issues!
Much like the change of heart seen over pedestrian only Times Square, New Yorkers apparently love the one year old bike share program. Decried by some as ugly, dangerous and even totalitarian, the success of the program should embolden other communities to look at their own implementations.
A giant water slide in the heart of Bristol, England is the brain child of artist Luke Jerram, previously known for his street pianos project. Some may recall that Grand Rapids, Michigan did a similar project in 2010spearheaded by Rob Bliss, who went on to produce the famous Grand Rapids Lip Dub in 2011.
City Trends for 2013 – Part One: Positive Trends
A few weeks ago I was speaking at the New York Conference of Mayors. As part of the gig I was asked to partake in a panel discussion at the end of the event and the topic wasurban trends we had been seeing over the past year. It got me thinking about what I had been seeing over the past 12 months or so and to look forward to 2013. Here is a synopsis of what I said:
Some Positive Trends
DIY Spirit – The urban do it yourself spirit shows no signs of abatting. In fact it seems to be picking up steam as it expands beyond the expected urban laboratories of San Francisco, New York and Detroit into places like Raleigh, Dallas and Orlando. Kickstarter and other online crowdsource funding platforms have fueled many of these projects as well as new models such as the Awesome Foundations that have made giving circles hip. Cities have started to get into the crowd sourced funding as withnessed by the launch earlier this year of Neighbor.ly which is essentially Kickstarter for cities.
Backlash Against the Car – Studies are showing the young people are falling out of love with the car. Buyers between the age of 18 to 34 make up just 11% of the auto market, down from 17% in 2007, and even drivers licenses issued to 20-24 year olds is down from 92% in 1983 to 81% in 2010. To this age group the car is more encumbrance than symbol of freedom. As they flock back to urban centers where parking spaces are scarce and parking fees are high, the bike, the scooter and even the skateboard become highly appealing.
And look at the current crop of cars that are targeted towards young people – small, stylish, hybrid or entirely electric. Parking spaces that were designed for big sedans or even bigger SUVs suddenly seem like lots of wasted space. When these smaller cars become the norm, what interesting things might we do with some of that reclaimed parking space?
Small is the New Big – A few years ago, I kept hearing “Green is the new black” as people and places got religion about issuesaround the environment and sustainability. Every city started to ask if they should have more recycling and LEED certified public projects. That is still a powerful and very important trend but the economic crisis of the past few years has slowed or curtailed many of those projects. And in the wake of those fiscal challenges we are seeing a huge increase of smaller, faster and cheaper projects. Crowdsourcing platforms (see above) have gotten small amounts of money into the hands of really creative people who can stretch a buckto unknown lengths. Part of this is the lack of formal organizational structures to many of these projects.
Without official status, offices or full time employees, these groups are smaller, highly social and often passion projects that fill strange gaps. For example, in Edmonton, Alberta a group called Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton has a bicycle based juicing machine that travels to peoples’ backyards when they have more fruit than they can use. And the juicing machine was the result of a crowd-sourced fundraising effort!
Coming next – the negative trends.
Today is the five year anniversary of the passing of Tony Wilson, the English TV & radio personality who was key figure in creating the Manchester music scene in the late 70’s through the 80’s and beyond. (Check out the 2002 movie “24 Hour Party People” for a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Wilson and the Manchester scene.)
Wilson was a “co-creator” as I describe in my book; a creator of the content that makes cities interesting, fun and lovable. Wilson was not an official city maker, like a mayor or councilman, but his impact on the city was no less profound. He was an unabashed lover of Manchester and it showed in his work as he championed local music and artists and founded the famous Hacienda nightclub that launched the “Madchester” scene to the world.
I only met Tony once, in 2006. While I was visiting Manchester, a mutual friend arranged a lunch meeting and I was just giddy with the prospect of talking to him. I even brought a first edition 12” single of New Order’s Blue Monday. His label, Factory, had produced it and famously, the cover artwork was so complex and expensive, they lost money of every record sold. He smiled and told the story behind it and even signed it for me.
That day we talked about the unique role that music plays in creating identity for cities. He talked about how a scene cannot be forced, but how cities can help facilitate the success of their local musicians and artists. Things like support for local venues that play original music or little things like rehearsal spaces where bands can make as much noise as they want. He also talked about his annual music conference, called In the City that he and his wife had been producing. It had become a SXSW type event where bands showcased to industry in the hopes of being discovered.
Tony clearly loved Manchester, and the city had come to love him as well. His passion projects, Factory Records and The Hacienda had become central to the identity and the mythology of the city. Tony was a central node in what made Manchester a great city though he was not an official city maker. When he passed away in 2007, Manchester lost a great champion and “lover” of the city.
Every city has people like Tony that truly love their community and go way above and beyond ordinary citizenship and make their city better, more interesting and more lovable. The problem is that we think Tony Wilsons just happen. They magically appear like rare gifts for our cities. And because we think of them like gifts, we actually don’t plan on how to use them or on how to create them. We need to be intentional in our efforts to make more Tony Wilsons for our places. We do that first by recognizing the co-creators in our midst and treasuring them the way we value an anchor business or institution. Then we can ask how our communities might support and amplify what these co-creators are already naturally doing.
Tony Wilson was a rare champion for Manchester and he can never be replaced. But he can be renewed if we encourage others to manifest their emotional engagement in their places by doing something for those places. Step up, make some music and make a difference.
In May we conducted the Loving the Circle City workshop for the young professional associations of Indianapolis. Over 150 participants came up with many great ideas and insights into their community. Below is the time lapse of the visual recording done by Michelle Royal.
One of the $500 prize winners from my Grande Prairie, Alberta workshop made their project happen. Congratulations!
We had a great time in Muskegon, Michigan in early June. Fantastic to return to a city we visited a year ago and see all the amazing things they have done, including this Love Muskegon campaign. More later!
On 11/11/11 it was my honor to be a speaker at the inaugural TEDx Iowa City event. For a first time event, they knocked it out of the park with a great venue, cool stage and a wonderful array of speakers; local, national and international!
In the book I write about how city themed tattoos are the equivalent of “marrying” your city. A tattoo, like a marriage, is a near permanent commitment and whenever I see people with their city etched into their body, I know that person has a special relationship with their place. And perhaps none more so than Katie O’Keefe of Cleveland.
I wrote about her return to her hometown of Cleveland from New Jersey. “I wanted to come back and make a difference in my city… in the end, Cleveland is my true love” she said. In writing the book, I had several people tell me I had to meet Katie and try as we might, we could only connect via email and Facebook. That changed this week as I finally got to meet her in person at aSaving Cities event in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland.
Katie’s love and enthusiasm for her city shines through even more powerfully in person. We talked about how she will often sing to the city as she rides her bike to work and how she likes to blow kisses to Cleveland. Being around such passion and commitment is inspiring and she has a catalytic effect on whoever she encounters.
And the story has an even happier twist. She introduced me to her boyfriend Sam, whom she met after he approached her and showed his sleeve tattoo of Cleveland that is almost the twin of her ink! If it happened in a romantic comedy, you would say “c’mon!” that is too hokey. But they met because of their mutual love affair with their city.
For me the lesson is that more of us should be willing to publically declare our love for our cities. Perhaps we are not ready to get the tattoo, but we can all find some way to express that love and commitment through our words and actions. When we do, we are likely to find many sympathetic and similar voices. And then we know that we are not alone and might find not only comfort and support, but potential allies in future actions to improve our communities.