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Places and People are Keys to Thriving Cities

May 19, 2011

Efforts at “place making” have seldom been so visible in both federal policy and local initiative.  But author Edward Glaeser in his popular work Triumph of the City, suggests that a focus on place is truly, well, misplaced.  “Invest in people,” Glaeser advocates, because at their best cities are job-creating engines that put talent to productive use and magnify human creativity.  In a lovely play on words, he suggests that cities have overbuilt infrastructure resulting from an “edifice complex.”

Certainly the factor of human collaboration is the powerful value of the city.  Ideas and energy swirl among people in a dense urban space fostering miracles of insight and innovation. This is precisely were Glaeser plants his flag; on the importance of education and ultimately on skills.

But skills and creativity are portable.  The talented are footloose.  Therefore, what qualities of urban life bind creative and talented people to a particular place?  Assuming its relatively simple to learn what people want, the next logical question for policy makers is to ask how do you build, rebuild or improve one particular place in order to hang on to the talented people?  Put another way, how do you build and sustain a community that people want to remain in rather than drive through?

No two things on earth are exactly equal.  Not people, nor plants, nor sunsets nor least of all cities.  The city as an institution may have several features that transfer across time and place, but the individual cities themselves are as unique as snowflakes.  In that uniqueness lies the power of place.

A team of thoughtful architects, designers, scientists, journalists and social justice activists at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York are grappling with many of these same issues.  They seek to answer the succinct question, “In what kind of city do we want to live?”

To this end, the Guggenheim and automaker BMW are working together to create the BMW Guggenheim Lab.  This collaboration is intended to be a multidisciplinary platform to inspire the creation of forward-looking designs and ideas for urban living.  The Lab is envisioned to be an urban public think tank, performance space, lecture hall and community center all rolled into a compact carbon-fiber movable structure.

There are bound to be some surprises that result from the investigation by the Guggenheim team.  But it is reasonable to assume that a debate about investments in people or places – in the built environment or human capital – will confirm that this is not an either/or proposition.  For cities to truly thrive both kinds of investments are required.

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