Monday, May 09, 2005

The Science of Short Sightedness

A rather harsh view of the 'Creative Cities' initiatives sweeping the continent:

"These 'cool city' wannabes are unlikely to be anything other than 'me too' copies of hipper, more alluring places. It would make more sense for these cities to work on the basics--public safety, education, regulations, taxes, sanitation--so they could woo entrepreneurs and cost-conscious homeowners. The amenities will follow once there is a market to consume them."

While I fully agree that great cities are about 'clean and workable neighborhoods, thriving business districts, and functioning schools', the catch is that it's nearly impossible to foster - let alone afford - urban revitalization without a corresponding cultural infrastructure. I'm not talking expensive Gehry inspired art galleries or Libeskind museum's, but rather cities of vision. Cities with cohesive neighbourhoods based on progressive citizen involvement and business districts chalked with a diversity of uses and interrelationship will be the winners. It is this vision which creates excitement and manifests itself into the rebirth of cities like Berlin. Great cities are more than the basics - they're based on creativity and culture born from an active citizenry. And that is something that is certainly not manufactured from City Hall.

The author is right to acknowledge the rue that is municipal economic development today - that big ticket 'ephemeral' items invariably become the 'solution'. However, the back-to-basics 'smokestack chasing' solution suggested is just as pointless. The focus on physical infrastructure improvement as enticement over the past 30 years has ran counter to the economic realities of deindustrialization. It's this failure that spawned the recent rash of ephemeral projects in the first place. The notion that I'm going to move to Gary, Indiana solely for the cheap housing is equally farfetched.

Long-term revitalization salvation is not found in pricey sports arenas, downtown malls and prestige business parks, it's based around community synergy found in the culture, diversity and viability of mainstreets and neighbourhoods. Today's economic growth is generated by people, not Kraft, Acme Industries or the London Knights. It's time municipalities quit wasting money on expedient ribbon cuttings and get around to fostering what really counts.

Thanks be to The Eponym sightings section.

7 Comments:

Blogger MapMaster said...

Great cities are more than the basics - they're based on creativity and culture born from an active citizenry. And that is something that is certainly not manufactured from City Hall.

Terrific post. I don't always see eye-to-eye with you, but I think you nailed the Creative Cities hullabaloo to the wall with this one. I wish I had written that. May I respectfully suggest that you submit it to the London Free Press' Vox Populi section? It would be a welcome antidote to the otherwise breathless fawning over the Creative Cities proposal here in town.

When municipal politicians talk about creative cities, it's basically the same as politicians anywhere talking about poverty, God, the World Series, whatever. They're not really talking about anything they can do something about — but they get to wrap themselves up in tinfoil glory just by appropriating common sentiments. Bah!

8:30 PM  
Blogger Dick said...

Thanks for the kudos. I hereby grant you permission to use the above in any way (and context) you see fit - no reference required. It was created upon my return from a drunken night of policy discussion, and given my haziness at the time I'm not particularly attached to it.

That said, I'm not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one. I'm just proposing that municipalities ensure their revitalization efforts are based on sound economic development and return as opposed to political expediency. I have yet to unearth a study which proves conclusively that an big municipally sponsored ephemeral project 'saves' a declining area.

There are many municipal initiatives which are beneficial - and they all seem to be based around community-building and stakeholder development. In the revitalization of commercial areas, cities are much more effective if they focus on organizing and fostering business improvement areas and community associations. BIAs are locally run and promote local community participation and involvement. Equally important, they also act as viable unit to provide assistance to small businesses and commercial areas in the form of market research, mass marketing and facade improvement loans - at a local level. Distinct area character develops as Mom and Pop shops can compete on a level playing field and begin to exploit their particular - and peculiar - amenities. Great cities consist of neighbourhoods and BIAs can act as a commercial catalyst. The carrot for municipalities is incrementally improving tax assessment.

Unfortunately, politicians don't see these low-level grass roots efforts as sexy enough. They lack the instant gratification a three-year term requires and there are no ribbon cuttings involved. On the contrary, the flashiness and front page coverage a new multi-purpose entertainment facility provides is priceless.

Southwestern Ontario is never going to be Manhattan or San Fran - and it never should be. That's where London has gone terribly wrong. Rather than facilitating the involvement of people who have a vested interest in revitalization and a passion for the City, Council has dumped every last penny into a steaming generic pit at Talbot and Dundas unidentifiable from such exotic locales as Sioux Falls, South Dakota or Grand Rapids, Michigan.

1:07 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Dick: Still fighting the good fight... You might be interested in a little town called Syracuse and their apocalyptic megamall project, chronicled by notorious anti-suburban blowhard JH Kunstler here. He's bang-on with this one.

10:57 PM  
Blogger MapMaster said...

the flashiness and front page coverage a new multi-purpose entertainment facility provides is priceless

I believe you've identified the fashion that substitutes for lack of substantiveness in our local politicians — we could call it "glam-pol."

Knowing that you are responding to a right-wing nutjob, I see you are tempting me to curb my enthusiasm for chucking babies, bathwater, rubber duckies and bathtubs. But I remind myself of the electorate that consistently and unblinkingly accepts this "bread-and-circuses" type of governance — incumbents in London barely stand a chance of losing — and I feel disinclined to grant them infant-bathing privileges.

If planners were all of your calibre, maybe we should put them in charge. Here's a question — do city councils listen to planners, or do they only ask the questions that will give them the answers they want to here?

Regards,

7:26 AM  
Blogger Dick said...

I see this emergence of 'this "bread-and-circuses" type of governance' having a direct correlation to the decline of civic mindedness and involvement.
The electorate no longer care about the intricacies of municipal affairs to the extent they once did. Why? That's for another day. Nonetheless, the subsequent void has been filled by politicians who have increasing latitude as direct accountability and interest declines.

As for Councillors... it's really a mixed bag. Some are politically driven, a few ethically driven and others are along for the ride. Subsequently, some seek advice, some listen and some outright ignore. At the end of the day, all I can do is get my independent opinion out there - whether agreeable or not - after reviewing all of the facts and trying to reach consensus. Often that includes answering the questions Councillors don't want asked. It's rarely pretty... but it comes with the territory and necessary if one wants to maintain any sort of personal professional integrity. Overall, it's seldom beneficial in terms of promotion.

Hence my love of the concept of unionism. I'm not interested in getting potentially fired for offering unwanted - but true - advice. Afterall, I'm paid explicity to 'fight the good fight'.

Right-wing or not, I'd personally love to join you in the ranks of bathtub chuckers. However my democratic notions tug me back - despite the obvious lack of civic intelligence. Working the front lines everyday teaches one thing... people don't give a shit about anything until it affects them directly - and then they proceed to act irrationally. Developing civic mindedness and involvement is an important counter. It would serve to involve, familiarize and educate citizens in terms of thinking rationally about concepts, issues and impacts long before they occur... to everyone's benefit.

After that spiel, I could easily be tagged one of those sacrilege bastard incrementalists. Stay in school as long as you can, the real world is a bitch.

11:56 PM  
Anonymous Planner, or paper monkey? said...

Call me hopelessly behind the times or a true planner for posting a comment such a long time after the original remarks but… Anyone who even attempts to put planners in charge should be hung from the yardarm and brought up on charges of high treason... Spend a night in a bar with some planners and you will learn that a municipal budget in the hands of planners would turn into the best stocked bar masquerading as a council chambers you have ever seen...

Not that I don’t see wisdom in the likes of Andres Duany and Jane Jacobs but I hardly think that Sea Side or eyes on a failing main street are really going to save us now… If you ask me, the only real option is to CCP (Clear Cut and Pave) or take some truly radical action and shout it out to Ebenezer Howard with a nice garden city. Then we can listen to everybody bitch about how it takes forever to get anywhere and ask why people insist on littering in the nice greenbelts (all while flicking their cigarette buts out the windows of their cars) _end rant_

Planners were never meant to have any real control, that’s why we suggest ideas to council so that the levelheaded functional alcoholics can make the decisions and leave the Hemmingway wannabes to our philosophizing over two month old blog comments.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Dick said...

Amen brother, amen.

10:25 AM  

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