How to Make a Creative City

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Cities across the country have latched onto Richard Florida’s musings about the Creative Class — a group that includes both artists and engineers — and embarked on large scale development projects aimed at attracting this portion of the workforce. Last year for my senior thesis, I constructed a research project that would begin to answer the question: How do cities successfully attract the Creative Class?

The project took on the form of a case study which included data from in-person interviews with policymakers and stakeholders as well as the Census. The focus of my study was Roanoke, Va. It is a city located in the Blue Ridge Mountains with a population under 100,000 that also happens to be my hometown.

Over the last 15 years or so, Roanoke has seen a considerable amount of development seemingly geared towards attracting and growing a creative economy. Amenities such as a riverside greenway, a new amphitheater park, a renovated farmers market and food court, and a contemporary art museum have all sprouted up in the downtown district. During this same time, the downtown population grew substantially, with the influx coming largely in the form of knowledge-based workers.

The Roanoke City government has worked hard to couple its place-making efforts with real growth in the creative economy sectors such as software development and medical research. When Virginia Tech decided it was time to build a medical school, it chose Roanoke as its home. Accepting its first class in 2010, the school is paired with a biomedical institute that doubles as a business incubator. Still on the horizon for the city is a state-funded technology accelerator and instillation of gigabit internet.

My conversations with local leaders from government, business and nonprofits clued me in on what decisions were made to attract and retain the Creative Class in Roanoke. Comparing these insights with Florida’s writings, I was able to make the following suggestions for how to make a creative city.

Be Creative

With so many rusted-out, shrinking cities building amenities, I really wanted to know if it is possible to build a creative city from scratch. I can’t answer that after looking at just one city, but what I can say is that Roanoke’s Creative Class growth is helped by its creative advantage. Roanoke is not the most creative place. It doesn’t lead the country in technology, talent or tolerance — key characteristics of a creative city. It is, however, an urban oasis in an otherwise very rural area. There’s a natural draw of knowledge based workers to the city from the outlying areas who likely wouldn’t be able to find jobs at home.

Already being recognized as a creative city, either in the form of a college town or vibrant arts scene, is an obvious leg up in the race to attract creative workers. Highlighting your city’s creative attributes can only help to build that branding.

Build Amenities and Spaces for Creative Interaction

Business leaders are increasingly admitting that what they want most out of local government is help building up the amenities that will attract and retain the talent pool they want to pull from. This is stated over and over again in the literature on the Creative Class, which suggests cities benefit from live music venues, dog parks and coffee shops. But creatives also require a certain level of proximity and shared workspace to develop and grow their ideas. Roanoke benefits from the work of community leaders who have cultivated shared workspaces, such as the CoLab, for both startup entrepreneurs and artists.

It is important to note that amenity building isn’t a one-and-done kind of thing. In the 1970s and 1980s, city leaders redeveloped the downtown space, anchoring the district with a renovated farmers market and an arts and cultural center. Today’s projects, such as the amphitheater and art museum, are only successful because of the work of previous generations.

Develop the Arts and Technology Sectors

Artists and software engineers are two professions situated in what Florida calls the “Creative Core.” Cities like Roanoke are doing what they can to grow these sectors, but are ultimately limited by the strength of their overall economies. To its credit though, Roanoke is a very art friendly place. It is one of only a few cities in the country that devotes a portion of the city budget to public art projects. Coupling this openness with the scenic beauty that surrounds it, Roanoke has been a draw for artists over the years. Roanoke is also doing what it can to capture its part of the growing technology sector. City leaders spoke frequently about the startups that originated and have stayed in Roanoke. With the new accelerator and research center, Roanoke hopes to see even more startups develop in the future.

Recognize Your Assets and Market Them

One of the most interesting ways Roanoke is working to attract creatives and knowledge industries is through the Roanoke Regional Partnership. A joint effort between business and local governments, the Partnership has developed into a pseudo-marketing firm for the region, focusing only on the outdoor amenities. The Partnership realized that creatives and millennials love to partake in outdoor recreation and Roanoke has a tremendous amount to offer. Through its many websites and publications, the Partnership promotes these activities. Its efforts to build brand ambassadors are working. In my interviews, I was told again and again that Roanoke’s most unique attribute was its access to both the outdoor and urban amenities. While not every city is situated among rivers, lakes and mountains, every city has something that makes it special. Recognizing what those assets are and turning them into your city’s brand is essential to attracting outside talent.

To read my entire research paper, click here.

About the Author: Trevor Langan is a graduate intern with the National League of Cities.