Loveable Cities

Interview from Detroit – April 7, 2011

While in Detroit to speak at the Rust Belt to Artist Belt conference, the Detroit Regional News Hub interviewed me.  The News Hub is a not for profit, grass roots news agency that is helping to bring the unheard stories about Detroit to the forefront.  I sat down with Jeremiah Staes and we discussed Detroit, talent and how 719 people could change the city!

Crime & the Lovable City

Last month I presented to the American Planning Association via their national webinar series. I got to speak about lovable cities to several hundred planners from all over the United States. It was a real honor.

During the Q&A session that followed I was asked about the impact of crime on the relationship that we have with our city. I noted that crime, despite our best efforts, an inevitable part of the makeup of cities. I also noted that some places, like Detroit, wear their crime badge with a sense of pride and toughness. My friend Eric Cedo of Detroit says that real Detroiters get robbed and it is part of the deal.

But I have been thinking about crime and our relationship with our cities ever since.

In the book I noted:

Cites exist in a state of constant flux influenced by the accumulation of positive acts and deficit acts. When a homeowner fixes a broken step, or a pedestrian places trash in a recycling bin—positive act. When someone breaks a window or throws a cigarette butt onto the sidewalk—deficit act. When the tide of deficit acts grows, we see the larger manifestation of those tiny acts in the decline of streets and neighborhoods; the edges begin to fray, and the slow slide towards shabbiness and decay begins. Unchecked, negative acts accumulate and add up to blighted areas that may never bounce back. When positive acts accumulate, the opposite occurs: areas thrive and blossom like well-tended gardens and nurtured children.

And there is clearly a difference in the degree and nature of some acts:

All joys and all negatives are not created equal. Clearly there are degrees of acts (being mugged, for instance, is a far more negative experience than seeing rubbish on the sidewalk), but generally the old adage of one joy dispelling a thousand worries has merit in experiences with cities.

Upon reflection I don’t want people to think that I am understating the impact of certain crimes on our relationship with our cities. Crime is a violation – of our person, of our property. And when it occurs our community gets some of the blame for it. Crime is a failure of our civilization and thus our cities. So when someone is mugged, the result may be more than a lost wallet – it becomes a loss of trust between citizen and city. In relationship terms it is that breach of trust that comes when someone we trust hurts us.

The solution is not just more police and surveillance cameras. The solution is in perpetually filling the “love bank” with deposits big and small. By filling that account we can weather the rainy day that is a crime and still have enough love for our city so that we don’t up and leave.

T-Shirts: Holding Hands With Your City

In 2010  I was researching the book on what makes kinds of markers indicate love or an emotional connection with our cities.  I came upon STL Style out of St. Louis and several other similar companies who were making local themed t-shirts aimed at their local citizens.  These I thought were fantastic examples of a “public display of affection” for you city.  When you wear an STL Style or Rubber City Clothing (Akron) shirt you are proclaiming your affection for your city. ( Also check out Fleurty Girl from New Orleans and Detroit Lives.)

New t-shirts now available at STL Style

About a month later I was attending the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE) conference in Cleveland.  As I looked through the list of attendees and their affiliations I noticed Jeff and Randy Vines from STL Style.  These were the guys I had written about and here we were, far from our respective homes, coming together because of our passion for cities!  Of course I introduced myself and we immediately connected.

So when I started thinking about doing a t-shirt that would coincide with my book, Jeff and Randy were the obvious connection.  This shirt, which we designed together, embodies the idea of love of cities.  When we connect with our city on an emotional level, amazing things can happen.  We see when children, plants, pets or even objects are loved, they thrive.  We need to nurture our relationship with our cities and find again that which we love about them.

A Love Letter to Syracuse

In For the Love of Cities, I write about the Philadelphia Love Letter project by artist Steve Powers and the Philly Mural Arts program.  With the success of that project, other cities have been asking Powers to work with them.  Here is his latest work in Syracuse.  Note in the video how he uses a community engagement process to really understand what people love about their city.  And the result is wonderful!

Can Robocop Save Detroit? YES!

It started on Feburary 7th when a guy from Massachusetts tweeted to Detroit mayor Dave Bing that Robocop would make a great statue for the city, kind of like the Rocky statue in Philadelphia.  Mayor Bing politely tweeted in response “There are not any plans to erect a statue of Robocop.  Thank you for the suggestion.”  Too late, a meme was born.

The idea spread like wildfire and soon a  Facebook group was created by Detroiter John Leonard.  The idea sparked Imagination Station founder Jerry Paffendorf to launch a KickStarter project to raise the money to actually build the state.  They set the goal of $50,000 by March 26th to fund the project.    A website was launched – and on February 16th the New York Times featured the story.  As of today (February 19th), just 12 days since that fateful tweet, over $59,000 has been raised on Kickstarter by2187 people.  Several sites for the statue have been offered and the project has galvanized supporters of Detroit from all over the world.

I wrote about Jerry Paffendorf in For the Love of Cities regarding his Loveland Project.  Paffendorf had previously purchased 3000 square feet of land in the city and had begun to sell it off to people an inch at a time.   The “inchvestors” were symbolically buying into the idea of Detroit and taking a piece (a very small piece) of ownership of the city.  But his idea resonated with hundreds of inchvestors who bought their stake and “moved into” these virtual neighborhoods at the website.  The funds raised by Loveland are being used to support other community projects, including the Imagination Station,  a clean-up project that is turning two abandoned homes in the shadow of Detroit’s Central Station into public art space.

Some have suggested that this is a colossal waste of time and resources.  One article called it “irony run amok” and some a concerned that a Robocop statue will dilute and devalue the public art that is already in the city.  Paffendorf told the New York Times “Sometimes it takes a RoboCop to show a different way to do things.  My hope is that it sets an example and puts this kind of funding on the map, so when people see big problems, they can think, ‘If crazy people raised $50,000 for a RoboCop statue, we can certainly raise more to take on something bigger.’ ”

Is one statue going to save the Motor City?  No, of course not.  But what this project represents – grassroots, Internet fueled efforts by people who love the city – THAT can save the city.  Take this one small success, where they get people to invest a little bit of their money and time in the city.  They network with each other and realize they are not alone.  In fact there are many more of them out there than perhaps they ever thought (over 2100 supporters on Kickstarter and 7400 fans on Facebook).  This success gives them confidence to try again and perhaps do something bigger (or more serious) next time.  Repeat this ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times and that is real change.  So to those that think this is a silly distraction from the city’s real problems, I say it is exactly the type of silly distraction Detroit and many other cities need.

Public Spaces & Falling In Love With Your City

I heard an interview on NPR the other day with author Ariel Sabar who wrote a book about couples who had met and fill in love in New York’s iconic public spaces.  The book, Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York, explores the critical and often overlooked role that our built environment plays in our emotional lives.

Sabar notes that some places are better designed for interacting, for people watching and for making eye contact with others.

“So the things that matter are, if a place is beautiful, if it gets your pulse racing and your adrenaline flowing, if there’s something interesting to look at, whether it’s a juggler or a street musician, then it’s the kind of place where strangers are more likely to sort of think favorably of one another and to strike up a conversation. And so, you know, there’s something to be said for going to a museum where you’re surrounded by beautiful objects because the people inside will also seem more beautiful” said Sabar to NPR’s Michel Martin.

In For the Love of Cities I note that we are “social creatures… endlessly fascinated by watching each other. Increase  the  people  watching  potential  of  the  city,  and   you  increase  fun  and  overall  satisfaction.”  Because we want/need to see each other, public places that are designed to facilitate that connection innately make us happy.  We respond to them, we are drawn to them.  Indeed it is these places that we say we love about our cities and value disproportionately in the sum total of place.

Sabar concluded that “we do need to care about our urban parks and squares and gathering places. Because this is where, you know, people engage. This is where community is built. This is where democracy happens, democracy with a lower case d.”  He pointed out that in Egypt, the central focus of that human revolution was a grand public square.  An extreme example but it underscores the importance of these places in community engagement.

When polled or asked as part of a focus group, people will tell you the standard litany of what they want from their city – safety, a decent education system, transportation and lower taxes. Psychologists have noted that we are really bad judges of what we think makes us happy.  We say we want safety, education and transportation and on some level we do (and we need them).  But what I believe we really want, at our core, is connections to other people and meaningful engagement.  And that comes from “silly” things like public parks, squares, public art, playgrounds and dog parks.   No one falls in love with a place because someone fixed the potholes.

“Imported from Detroit”

Watching the Super Bowl yesterday I was really struck by one ad in particular. It was officially for Chrysler Motors but if you saw it, it was actually more an ad for the City of Detroit and I think, by extension an ad for the American spirit.

The ad features Detroit native Eminem and Chrysler’s latest luxury car. The voice over speaks of the past generations and of community identity: “That’s who we are. That’s our story. Now its probably not the one you’ve been reading in the papers, the one being written by folks who have never even been here and don’t know what we’re capable of.” The add goes on to say “We’re from America. But this is not New York City. Or the Windy City or Sin City. And we’re certainly no one’s Emerald City.” Then in dramatic fashion Eminem turns to the camera and says “This is the Motor City and this is what we do.” Powerful stuff.

This is about re-inventing our narrative. The media, particularly traditional media is obsessed with loss: murder, death, crime, scandal, the latest crisis and another thing for us to fear. Negativity sells. Detroit has been caught up in that negative narrative. That is not to say that the there are not deep and significant problems in Detroit – clearly there are. But there is something else going on there too.

Out of this crisis is a toughness, resiliency and a sense of opportunity that I have come to know through my friends and colleagues in Detroit. That story needs to told and it needs to be heard by the whole country. If Detroit can embrace its identity – the good, the bad and the ugly of it and build upon that authenticity, then that becomes an example for every community that is trying to figure out its place and its purpose in the 21st century.

Cities like Detroit define us a nation. As much as New York City or Los Angeles may dominate our perceptions of culture and identity, at our hearts we are a middle class nation that believes in making things.  Detroit epitomizes that identity and their success or failure is all of our success or failure.  We are all Detroiters.

TEDx Tampa Bay – 2011

TEDx Tampa Bay, the locally produced TED event for the region returns in April to the new Salvador Dali Museum in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida.  This year’s broad theme – “Synthesize, Mobilize, Humanize” will feature presentations from around the region and the country. Peter has been selected to present at this year’s event and will talk about lovable cities.  For more info –

The “Curious Class”

You don’t just fall in love with your city, it is a process. And at its most basic level it starts with curiosity and the possibility of discovery. I was in Las Vegas a few weeks ago when the new Cosmopolitan Hotel was opening and it was designed around the idea of curiosity and discovery. Check out the “curious class” here!

LCD screens in the hotel lobby

LCD screens in the hotel lobby

Five story chandelier in the Cosmopolitan Hotel

Five story chandelier in the Cosmopolitan Hotel