Can Cities Survive on Love Alone?

Although For the Love of Cities by Peter Kageyama was published in 2011, the book, concept and author have been gaining popularity recently by a breadth of cities and city-loving organizations.

Kageyama calls for city leaders to take on the task of giving “love notes” to the community. Yes, that right, love notes or emotional capital, in the form of parks, arts, open space, local culture, play, walkable spaces. These create emotional connections and attachment between people and their cities.

It is certainly well documented that a thriving quality of life, or “lovability” as the case may be, supports growth and helps people feel attached to their communities.

But in the context of what this means for local governments, is Kageyama’s “lovability” theory the answer cities have been waiting for? Can cities survive on love alone? Here’s my take.

Lovability is not a silver bullet. Although coffee shops, dog parks and cultural events are critical to retaining and attracting residents and businesses, “lovability” is not a sufficient condition to bolster economic growth and retain/attract talent in places that are truly struggling.

A community needs a baseline level of economic health and employment opportunity before quality of life becomes a driving force, i.e. no amount of dog parks can solve Detroit’s underlying economic challenges.

This isn’t to say struggling cities shouldn’t strive to enhance quality of life/lovability, but they need to do it along-side the difficult work of addressing critical challenges like economic development, workforce skills, infrastructure and youth violence.

Chelsea mich clock tower

Chelsea, MI is a case in point for the mutual support that can exist between “love notes” and functional services. Nearly 30 years ago, the downtown association, elected officials, community banks, Chamber of Commerce, small business owners, and regulatory departments worked together to fully invest in returning its rundown downtown as the epicenter of the community. The catalyst for attracting storefronts – love notes, in the form of the the Purple Rose Theatre Company and a local restaurant.
The partnership tapped Chelsea native and long-time resident, actor/musician Jeff Daniels, who founded the nonprofit theater Purple Rose. The restaurant, the Common Grill, was given space to open in an old vacant department store in the middle of the downtown. The theater and restaurant not only enhanced local culture and attachment, but brought patrons into downtown and allowed for pedestrian traffic in other shops.

Create a culture of authentic engagement. Cities can do much to create lovability and attachment, but more important, how can cities tap this attachment for authentic civic engagement that drives change in the community?

Through support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, NLC recently released Bright Spots in Community Engagement, a scan of communities across the country to better understand how local governments are empowering residents to advance the well-being of their communities.

Creating a culture of authentic engagement involves:

  • Reaching a broad spectrum of networks and representatives from all facets of the community, particularly those not typically engaged
  • Using new tools and strategies, particularly those that tap the power of technology, i.e. open data
  • Using a range of strategies (both traditional and more innovative) to engage residents. This helps reach more populations and leads to greater sustainability
  • Knowing when to lead and when to providing more subtle leadership in the form of support and collaboration where efforts are well underway from the grassroots
  • Making the physical and digital space available for engagement (schools, libraries)

For example, in the city of Philadelphia, partnerships across sectors have led to an open data and technology initiative that has attracted the city’s co-working spaces, venture funds, local foundations, emerging technologies, press and universities.

“My belief is that if we keep helping these good guys [in City Hall] do good work, their colleagues will need to learn the value of partnering with engaged citizens,” noted Alex Hillman of Indy Hall, a co-working space in the city dedicated to neighborhood development.

The city of Philadelphia is an active participant, serving as a convener of key stakeholders, providing access to data systems, using the mayoral bully pulpit to bring attention and lend credibility to the initiatives, and institutionalizing this strategy through the mayor’s executive order on open data and the appointment of Mark Headd, formerly of Code for America, as the city’s first Chief Data Officer.

Cities across the country, like Chelsea and Philadelphia, are not only developing creative ways to help residents feel love for their cities, but leveraging this love into long term economic and fiscal impact and authentic civic engagement.

Leading City Issues of 2012: Snapshot from CitiesSpeak.org

Jobs and the economy, sustainability, government performance, youth violence prevention, community design, and, wouldn’t you know it, beer, emerged as leading city themes of 2012.  We surveyed the most read posts of the year from NLC’s CitiesSpeak.org blog to get a snapshot of the top local issues on the minds of readers. In order of most viewed content:

  • Cities Court Craft Breweries
    Craft breweries have caught the eyes of local officials and economic developers and they are encouraging the development, growth, and attraction of these companies.   Beer photo
  • “New Urbanism”: What Does it Mean to City Leaders?
    The term new urbanism brings about visions of the constructed reality of Truman Burbank—played by actor Jim Carey in the 1998 Hollywood movie, The Truman Show.  The movie depicts Burbank’s fabricated made-for-TV life in his made-for-TV small town and was filmed on location in Seaside, Florida.
  • Economic Benefits of Green Cities
    From energy efficient strategies for buildings to increasing opportunities for recreation and tourism, cities are taking action and seeing returns on their sustainability investments.
  • Anything New in Economic Attraction?
    Business attraction has been and continues to be an essential part of economic development for many communities. In the context of difficult political, economic and fiscal realities, have economic attraction strategies changed?

In 2013, expect new content on a wide-range of issues, such as city fiscal conditions, business development, workforce development and post-secondary success, sustainable local food systems, municipal broadband, neighborhood revitalization, veterans housing, education, dropout recovery, afterschool learning opportunities, violence prevention, health and wellness, family financial stability, and local data initiatives.

Angels on Ice!

The worlds of city economic development and youth development came together for a brief shining moment last week, at the LA Live! entertainment complex in Los Angeles.  Dense new residential and commercial development in and around the complex brings verve and people well into the evening, many nights each week.

With oversize statues of LA sports heroes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wayne Gretzky looming across  the street at the hockey-strike-darkened Staples Center, dozens of Angelenos took to an ice rink fitted out for the holidays.  “Not quite Rockefeller Center, but fun,” commented a New York native on the scene.

Skating action stopped for ten minutes as City of Los Angeles Councilmember Jan Perry joined complex developer AEG in recognizing the Los Angeles Conservation Corps (LACC) and in particular its corpsmember of the year, Ibrahim Francis — on a red carpet rolled out on the ice. Huge LED screens described the many environmental and educational contributions of the LACC, the nation’s largest urban corps which works very closely with the City of Los Angeles and many other partners.

Ibrahim, it turns out, finished high school and earned two college scholarships while working with LACC.  Interviewing for an internship with California State Parks, the agency offered him a job on the spot — no internship needed!  The award and the recognition stand as testimony to Ibrahim’s hard work and to the support LACC and its partners offer to him and several hundred other young people each year.

In the photo: Tamala Lewis and Michael Roth from AEG, Los Angeles City Councilmember Jan Perry and Corpsmember of the Year Ibrahim Francis

Innovation and Cities: Reframing the Dialogue

The first installment in a series on “Innovation and Cities”

These are tough times for cities, economically and politically.  Our own research points to a period of managed retrenchment where city leaders are confronted with undesirable choices — cuts in vital services, laying off personnel, delaying needed infrastructure investments, to name a few.  But, times like these often open opportunities for innovation, to rethink the roles and structures of cities.  “Never waste a crisis” as the oft-cited saying goes.

But, what is innovation? An idea? An invention of a new practice?  The word is overused and usually lacks definition.  At the Center for Research and Innovation, our definition is that innovation is a process by which new ideas are generated, implemented in practice, and widely adopted.

Unfortunately, innovation in cities is challenged by a national malaise about the role of government or by advocates that present city leaders with trendy or fad-ish options, rather than guidance for addressing issues most likely to improve the success of cities in the future.

Not wasting the current crisis and fostering innovation in cities requires that we reframe much of the current dialogue about the forces shaping our communities. The paragraphs below briefly suggest reframing conversations and debates about a number of issues in order to provide a platform for the future success of cities.

Education and talent are oft-cited cures for economic development in cities, but too much attention is focused on attracting talent – stealing educated and skilled people from other places, rather than improving systems and growing talent in our own communities.  Too much emphasis is also placed on the notion that everyone needs a college education to be successful, when in fact there is a high demand for skilled workers with different types of advanced or technical training.

-  Nowhere is the disconnect between national dialogue and local reality more stark than around the topic of infrastructure investment. Local leaders across the country know that there is a huge backlog of infrastructure maintenance and investment waiting to be leveraged for economic development and competitiveness. Yet, national action is confounded by experts and politicians refuting the economic benefits of improving the nation’s infrastructure.

-  Some of the recent popular writing about cities offers compelling, but limited formulas for future success, suggesting certain types of cities will win, or succeed more than others.  But, if this country’s population grows anywhere near projections, cities of all types will be better positioned for success by offering a diversity of choices, in local economies, housing, and amenities.

-  An increasing amount of confusion and misinformation surrounds the word “sustainability.” The confusion often comes from efforts to define sustainability as encompassing pretty much everything.  The misinformation is more recent – going so far as to suggest diabolical international conspiracies (a notion pretty laughable to anyone who’s attended an international meeting).  But, at its core, sustainability is about cities and other actors improving stewardship of their resources – hardly an objectionable aspiration.

-  Recent dialogue about improving governance has focused on transparency, but has been too focused on efforts to make government data available on websites.  More openly available data is a small piece of improving governance.  Instead, we need to focus on strengthening local democracy and civic capacity by actually engaging the public in the process of governing.

-  Local governments are increasingly turning to interlocal and regional approaches to service delivery as a means of gaining efficiencies and cutting costs. But, as with previous movements in “regionalism,” we need to heed the words of NLC’s Bill Barnes, “regionalism is the question, not the answer” – city leaders should ask when and how regional approaches will help them solve problems.

-  Much of the attention to public sector is negative – unfavorable comparisons with private sector benefits, reports of golden retirement packages, and collective bargaining battles.  We need to reframe this debate around creating a vital public sector.  The demographics of the public sector point to a coming brain drain and many government systems are structured to chase away talent rather than attract the best and the brightest to public service.

-  Not surprisingly, fiscal difficulties facing local governments are generating increasing attention to tax and spending issues, including sky-is-falling predictions of widespread municipal bankruptcies and defaults . We need to reframe this debate, in the words of University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Mike Pagano, around creating “a new social compact” that marries realistic expectations about government capacities with citizen preferences. Long-held notions of “core services” might, when challenged, reveal new or different preferences.

Much more could, and will be, written or said about any of the debates outlined in brief here.  My colleagues and I at the Center for Research and Innovation will expand upon the thoughts above in the week to come.  We’ll also publish a related blog series analyzing 2012 mayoral State of the City speeches.  As always, we welcome your input, suggestions, and opinions.

“New Urbanism”: What Does it Mean to City Leaders?

The term new urbanism brings about visions of the constructed reality of Truman Burbank—played by actor Jim Carey in the 1998 Hollywood movie, The Truman Show.  The movie depicts Burbank’s fabricated made-for-TV life in his made-for-TV small town and was filmed on location in Seaside, Florida.

Seaside was master planned in the early ‘90s, and its design upholds the tenets of new urbanism; however, its traditional quality of life is reserved mainly for wealthy residents and vacationers.  But Seaside designer and architect Andrés Duany and his disciples have since been working to promote development that responds to increasingly harmful urban and suburban sprawl with walkability, connectivity, diversity and density.  This is done under the term new urbanism and with the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), an annual conference of scholars and students of architecture and planning in support of these efforts.

The 19th annual Congress (CNU-19) also highlighted the important place for city leaders in the new urbanism conversation.  CNU president and CEO John Norquist served as mayor of Milwaukee from 1988 to 2004 as a “fiscally conservative socialist.”  During his tenure as mayor, he supported light rail and other transit projects to ease the economic and environmental costs of congestion, but he asserted that the federal role in local urban policy was at best misguided.  At CNU-19, Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, discussed improving the quality of life for aging residents with good community design and social services in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, where he also served as mayor from 1981-1989.

NLC too acknowledged the importance of local government in enabling and funding new urbanism projects, though the term itself is seldom part of NLC’s or many city leaders’ vocabulary.  The 2011 summer meeting of NLC’s First Tier Suburbs Council was held in conjunction with CNU-19.  City leaders in attendance were on board with concepts they already see as good planning.  They enthusiastically embraced discussions of form-based code zoning, context-sensitive street improvements, and shopping mall retrofits.  But what can these city leaders bring back to their colleagues to show that new urbanism is not just another fad in an economic climate where it’s increasingly difficult to make a case for new development?

New urbanism—along with other nebulous concepts like sustainability, smart growth and livability—must be sufficiently defined in order to be effectively used.  And it must be defined in a way that resonates with city leaders, whose buy-in is crucial for such development projects.  Despite the name, the concepts that make up new urbanism are not new.  Nor are they strictly urban.  In fact, more recently, new urbanism is in the business of taking traditional urban design and super-imposing it on areas that are struggling to maintain environmental and economic value in the age of sprawl—most appropriately in the suburbs.  Therein lies the opportunity to translate the jargon of new urbanism into the language of the city leader.

New urbanism and other concepts that encourage traditional community design contribute to a strong economy and a prosperous future.  Good planning helps solve problems such as congestion, pollution and inefficient use of resources, which ultimately saves money.  In addition, it supports a built environment that encourages the public to invest and engage in its community.  While new urbanism may be about adopting a form-based code or a designing a walkable street, when translated into the language of the city leader, it’s about creating and capturing the value of a community.  When presented in this way, it’s difficult for any city leader to deny a trend that improves the economic, environmental and social value of the community.

Places and People are Keys to Thriving Cities

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.

Are cities Capitalizing on Fiction?

The latest Emerging Issues column in Nation’s Cities Weekly explores the topic of detection fiction novels that are set in in American cities.

Decades ago, American detective novels were mainly set in New York City or Los Angeles. One observer puts the proportion at fifty percent. Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe and Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald dominated the detecting field.

Not anymore. Now, murder mystery stories are set in lots of places, reflecting the vitality of local cultures, growing interest among readers in the varieties of American life, and the ingenuity of writers who are rooted in distinct places.

Local color matters and the color in a lot more places matters. For fans of this sort of entertainment, this is a great boon.

For example, Sara Paretsky’s altogether wonderful V.I Warshawski sleuths her way around some seedy parts of the city of Chicago. Phoebe Atwood Taylor‘s Asey Mayo mysteries are set on Cape Cod. The detecting among the Old Order Amish in Wayne County, Ohio is handled by a college history professor in P.L. Gaus’ novels. Walter Mosley opened a new perspective on Los Angeles with the Easy Rawlins series.

Share your favorite city or town murder mystery— or the ways your city is capitalizing on locally-set detective stories to create a sense of place or events — by entering a “Comment.”