Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Century of the City

Photo Credit: Flickr/davidsteltz

My latest piece is online over at Design Intelligence. It’s called “Century of the City.” It’s a good overview of some of my key themes from the blog, including the need for cities to differentiate themselves and forge their own distinct path, why cities should be true to their native soil at cultivate their terroir, the ability of cities to adapt to change as a core competency, and some provocations on thinking about the notion of disposable design as a better approach than design for the ages.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

While cities may specialize in different economic niches and have a historic legacy that gives them a unique built environment, they increasingly have turned to the same standard issue playbook for their development: boutique hotels, upscale housing, generic offices, international fashion labels, celebrity chef restaurants, and above all, starchitecture. The sameness of so many of these cities can be readily seen by flipping through the likes of the Wallpaper travel guides to various cities. On many pages, one would be hard pressed to determine what city is being discussed without looking at the spine.

All of this suggests the likely reality: The resurgence of so many cities was less a result of anything they did than of changing consumer tastes and macroeconomic forces. Global cities are an emergent property of our economic system. They are its artifacts as much as the architects.


For cities below the first rank, being different can be difficult to manage. These cities want to make it into the “cool kids club.” Like people going from high school senior to college freshman, their new aspirations and lower status makes them feel inadequate. They are desperate to fit in and prove their bona fides to the upperclassmen, so they self-consciously imitate the signifiers of their desired tribe. That high school letter jacket gets stuffed into the closet for years to come. It’s an embarrassing relic of what they think they are leaving behind.

But we mature in life, we grow more comfortable in own skin. We start to realize who we are and what matters to us, what our role is in life. While we never lose the desire to fit in with a tribe, we learn to find our own path as well. So too cities need to balance the need to learn from others with the self-confidence to chart their own destiny and not to be ashamed of their heritage.

Check it out.

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Civic Branding, Strategic Planning, Urban Culture

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The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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