I love cities. They’re magical places.
Perhaps because I grew up in a rural area, I’ve always been fascinated with cities and finding out what makes them tick. Why do some cities succeed while others fail? What works and what doesn’t? When faced with a moment of challenge, why do some cities rise to the occasion and others fall by the wayside?
Because I’m from the Midwest, I’m most engaged by America’s “everyday” cities–the large, medium, and small metropoli in the heartland and beyond that most Americans call home. I’ve spent my personal and professional life learning how cities work and searching for answers to the socioeconomic problems that have beset many of them since the latter half of the last century.
True Urban Sustainability Is Achievable
America’s cities are the the bedrock of the nation’s social, cultural, and economic well-being. They’re also the places most Americans call home. For the good of their regions and the nation as a whole, they must, and can, learn to be sustainable. That means demographically and economically as well as environmentally. By discarding failed stereotypes and strategies from a very different age that no longer work today, and adopting instead progressive principles across an integrated set of domains that reflect today’s realities – including architecture and design, arts and culture, civic branding, economic development, the global economy, historic preservation, land use, education, regionalism, strategic planning, talent attraction, technology, tourism, transportation, urban culture, and sustainability – and which are tailored to the local environment, cities can create unique regional strategies to guide themselves to success.
Painting a New Urban Portrait
I believe in the future of America’s cities because I do not believe in outdated ideas that have long suggested some urban areas such as those in the country’s Midwest heartland to be beyond repair and unworthy of real attention–or affection.
I believe we can get there if we stay true to a set of foundational principles to guide us.
* God has called us to be part of His redemptive work in the world, and commands us to “learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.”
* Cities are about people, not just buildings. You can’t love the neighborhood if you hate the neighbors.
* Great cities, like great wines, have to express their terroir. There is no one-size-fits-all model of urban success. Our cities are as diverse as their citizenry. To succeed, they need to express their own essential and unique character.
* It says something powerful about a city when people vote with their feet to move there, to plant their flag, to seek their fortune. There is no more telling statistic about a place than in-migration. It’s important to know if people are moving into or out of a city–and why.
* Moreover, new blood isn’t just nice to have, it’s essential. In an ever-more globalized, rapidly changing, competitive world, a city’s best interests are not served by being populated with people who’ve never lived anywhere else.
* People want to live in a city whose civic aspirations match their personal aspirations. You can’t have a life-sciences industry without life scientists, for example. To attract talented and ambitious people, cities need to have civic goals and aspirations to match.
* Brain-gain (attraction) is far more important than staving off brain-drain (retention). Talent hubs like Silicon Valley and Seattle didn’t get to be that way by retaining their home grown talent. They did it by hoovering up everybody else’s talent. They smartly outsourced the expensive part of producing the brains to other cities.
* But it isn’t just about the best and brightest, either. Attracting the educated is important, but cities are also where the poor come to become middle class, where immigrants come to build a better future for themselves and their families. Their needs must be taken up, too–and equally.
* Design matters. Just as you can tell a lot about someone by the way they maintain their home, you can tell a lot about a city just by looking at it. When a city doesn’t care about itself, it’s evident on the very streets. As the Bard said, “For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
* A great city needs great suburbs. To pull our cities up, there’s no need to tear our suburbs down. To be successful in the modern era, its important for every part of a metropolitan region to thrive and bring its “A game”.
* “Building on assets” is a trap. The only reason we have any man-made assets in the first place is that previous generations of leaders didn’t follow that strategy. Only building on assets is a strategy about defending the past, not embracing the future. It is the spending down of our urban inheritance. Yes, leverage assets, but also add totally new things to the pot for future generations.
* Don’t try to beat other cities at their game. Instead, make them beat you at yours. Cities are unique – yours included. Instead of fretting about measuring up to the planet’s elite metropoli or trying to emulate them, cities should figure out their unique strengths that other places can’t match.
* To figure out what those unique strengths are, cities ought to look at their problems and challenges from the most unexpected, non-traditional angles. Invert the world. Stand those problems on their head. Yes, look at the facts on the ground, the things you can’t change but that you think are holding you back. Then brainstorm for all you’re worth to identify ground-breaking, unusual, or simply as-yet unconsidered ways to reposition civic weaknesses into substantial strengths.
* We need to look forward, not backward. There is no more corrosive force than nostalgia. We should know where we’ve come from and what we stand for. But we can’t become imprisoned by a yearning for an imagined past that never really was.
* We need to embrace a 21st century vision of urbanism. Urbanism – Yes, but trying to copy Greenwich Village 1950 is not the answer. To find it, we must boldly re-imagine the possibilities of what a city can be and bravely identify what works today-and what doesn’t.
* We don’t know where this ride is taking us. We’re at a pivotal time in America’s urban history. So much is changing, and more change is yet to come. For our own sake, we should not assume that we’ve arrived where we’re headed, or that we have the answers. If there’s one thing we should take away from the urban planning failures of the past, it is a strong dose of humility
Believing in the Greatness of America’s Everyday Cities…Again
America’s everyday cities have long gotten the short shrift from this nation’s urban thinkers. That’s unfair. During our founding centuries, many of the urban areas that pepper the middle of America were considered at the forefront of economic greatness. There is no reason to believe successful futures are foreclosed for U.S. cities anywhere, of any size.
True, cities are maddening, complex beasts. Large or small, they defy simple explanation or categorization. They are individually as unique and flawed and wonderful as human beings in general. Building them and managing their day-to-day affairs is an art as much as a science. To do it right, you have to understand the rich complexity of and deep interactivity of the people, structures, systems, customs, and history that together make cities what they are.
And one more thing. You have to believe in greatness. Not just in the potential greatness that every medium-sized American society has locked deep inside. But in the greatness that has always been America’s cities. This nation has spent far too much time examining what’s wrong with our most common urban areas.
Let’s start celebrating what’s uncommon about them. That’s the real secret to sustainability. Finding what works right now, what’s unique, what’s wonderful–what’s great–about America’s heartland cities, and using that as the basis for crafting wide-ranging strategies for groundbreaking improvement is the best way forward.
In fact, it’s the only way forward. Helping that happen is what makes me tick. I’m bullish on America and confident in America’s cities, and I know that’s an optimism based in real-world possibility. I think the best days of many of our cities can be ahead of us, not behind. The future of America’s cities has yet to be written.
How great is that?