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Values and Creativity in the Art of City Making 

12-09-2015 17:35

The thing that I’m most interested in at the moment is the notion of values and valuing— and how one incorporates values into cities. As we all know, many of the cities we have are great disappointments. The way we treat our cities—you can really see it when you walk around in them—reflects our own state of mind and, of course, the ethical values that we bring into the places we construct around us.

Quite often people now use words like “human capital,” “social capital,” “cultural capital,” etc. I think all of these forms of capital are incredibly important when we judge the fate and the wellbeing of a place and a city. Obviously financial capital is only one aspect of it.

But I would like to shift the balance from the notion of capital, which is often about cost, to what is the value of things. We’ve got lots of types of value. Obviously, the exchange value of things, how useful it is, the social value, the environmental value, image value, etc. But perhaps most interesting for me is the whole notion of the cultural and historical values. And if we could make that shift, I think the places we see and live in would look completely different.

Heritage and Creativity

In my work, I’m associated with talking about creativity, and I think heritage and creativity are wonderful partners. They’re usually seen, rather stupidly in my view, as on opposite sides of the fence. As you well know, imagination is just as much in the historical fabric. That’s why we’ve often maintained the historical fabric in the changes we make today.

And in essence, the creativity part is, how can we find the conditions within which we all can think, plan, and act with imagination? And how can we imbed a culture of imagination into the way a place functions and how is it able, for example, to combine the old and the new simultaneously?

Quite often, that requires rethinking the rules system. Often when people talk about a vision of a place, they start off by asking, “What are the rules?” and then adjusting the vision to the existing rules, rather than saying, “Can we re-imagine the rules to fit in the possible vision that we may have?”

One of the problems with all of this, of course, is that we approach problems—and this is why form the notion of the creative city is so important— with a mindset that is usually etched in stone, with our settled prejudices. There’s nothing wrong with having settled thoughts. But obviously that mindset, which locks us into certain sorts of patterns, needs on occasion to be rethought, and rethought quite dramatically. Often these mindsets make us act like a tribe just following the leader, or following the other, without really considering the broader possibilities of any situation.

One of the phrases I sometimes use is, Today’s classic —today’s thing that we treasure so much—was often yesterday’s innovation. So really there is a sort of sisterhood or brotherhood between innovation, creativity, and our desire to preserve things.

For example, look at Venice. Venice wasn’t built and thought through in a business-as-usual approach. It was an incredibly bold and innovative way of thinking about how you could make, shape, and create a city to deal with the purposes of trade. So what we see in so much of the past is, of course, the intense innovative capacity.

And the same holds true today. When we’re thinking about the future or the past, quite often—even when you’re thinking about change—it’s useful to have the culture. When you look at countries and places that change well, usually they go with the grain of their culture, which then acts as a backbone that makes change easier rather than acting as a shield. So these are sort of strange and interesting twin partners—culture and innovation, heritage and creativity.

To take an example, if we look at the old workshops of the world, and think through the new workshops of the world where leading-edge experiments are taking place, often they’re located precisely in these older industrial structures. Because the pattern of age is etched into them, it gives some sort of inspiration for the future.

But let’s now move on and look at the shape of things to come. Let’s talk about cities as they are, and what they do to us, and how they do it to us.

The Legacy of “Silo” Thinking

Let’s consider what, if anything, we would have done differently now if we had another hundred years to think, and what was done back then. I think one of the key features about cities is we’re trying to keep the intimacy of the smaller place with the cosmopolitan twist and the stimulation of the bigger place. One of the central challenges for every city is to be both stimulating and at the same time have that sense of refuge.

But what we thought of back then was very much about reducing things into their fragments and their parts, which is usually seen as the “silo mentality”—the mentality of having everything in its little box and isolated. And this sort of approach, this organization culture, is one of the greatest problems in creating great cities today.

That silo mentality, that lack of having insights from other disciplines, simply doesn’t deal with the problems confronting cities today. What tends to happen is that we look at the urban elements and usually we start off with the hardware. Then afterward, not quite as an afterthought, we think of the people, which I’ll call the software. What needs to happen is a shift from hardware thinking to software thinking— because, of course, the city is greater than the sum of its parts. The architect might look at the building. The person in human services might just look at the people on the ground. The engineer—and I’m stereotyping, of course— will look at the crane, and the traffic engineer is only interested in the traffic lights and the stuff that happens near the lights, and the urban designer may claim to be looking at everything. But this is the issue that I’m addressing—this capacity to look at things together, to see the forest and the trees simultaneously.

Now the reason why I think we need to do that is, the world has changed inordinately. And for many people, it feels like complete chaos. And those changes are, of course, sometimes frightening. There is a problem about erasing memory. Consider the Berlin Wall. They tore the wall down with the speed of light, and people keep on So making the places we want requires policy handshakes saying, Why didn’t you keep more of the wall, bits of it? Why didn’t you build the new buildings around, over, through, above, under the wall rather than keeping one “museum-ized” piece as the wall? What a failure. Most people knew it even then. The Berliners knew it, but someone just went a bit mad.

That notion of erasing memory is really doing us harm. And in a sense, the loss of memory is also the loss of sanity. And that may sound heavy, but unless we can see the pattern over ages, etched through the physical structures and the places we live and work in, I just don’t know what it’s all worth.

Within that, what we’re really talking about is distinctiveness. And the distinctiveness not of McDonald’s, of which there are 32,000— which if you lined them next to each other would go from London to Glasgow (which would be a horror trip if you did that journey, but quite interesting in a sort of a postmodern way). But because cars and roads have come to dominate, that’s what makes these chains like McDonald’s work. That’s a big long conversation, another lecture. But basically, this dependence on the car is part of what is causing the death of the main streets we love.

I’m also concerned that everything is happening quicker, as you know. Shops are even called Quick. Quick restaurants. Speed. Information overload. In all of that, the issues that we need to discuss, which are so important, we cannot ever consider if the world is moving so speedily.

So we need to drag out the old thinking about how we shape and create our cities, and get out of the boxes we’re in, which are often professional boxes—get out of that silo mentality. Think differently, because perhaps thinking differently leads us to do things differently and to do completely different things. That implies reassessing what planning is about, and bringing the parts and the whole together simultaneously. It implies having policy handshakes, handshakes between disciplines that don’t normally come together.

What about the policy handshake between food and crime? I bet the person responsible for food in Pittsburgh is not connected to the person who thinks of crime. The relationship between good food and reduction in violence is absolutely clear—but we live in our islands, our silos. So making the places we want requires making policy handshakes afresh. That’s because city making is not just something that happens by chance. It’s really to do with how we think about things.

Creating Cities with Meaning

Now the greatest challenge is really the crisis of meaning and experience in our cities. We need to give the places we live in that sense of meaning.

Great places now have a different sort of priorities, and different ways of competing. There’s eco-awareness, cultural awareness, urbanity. It’s about how you keep your talent. That’s very different from the old days, when you kept your talent because you had a factory. So understanding the way the atmospheres now work is absolutely important. You can already see that I am getting into language that is emotional.

The great shifts that are required call for cultural literacy. That sense of being willing to rethink. That understanding of the difference between the complicated and the complex. Complicated things are like going to the moon. You do it in the end. It’s very logical. Complex things are like bringing up a child. It’s relational. You change. It changes as you interact with it. It is a completely different way of thinking. But that’s the world we’re in.

The other blind spots in city making are these things like emotions. I’ve never been to a planning meeting in my life where there’s been an environmental psychologist who knew how buildings affect my brain, or someone who loves emotions. Have you ever seen a planning document that says something like “love” in it instead of “bypass” (as in road bypass)?

Even though we’re global, we are still very interested in belonging. We need to identify. We need a foundation somewhere, even though we’re traveling and moving around very quickly. We need to feel that there are deeper layers of history around and that we’re not just operating in a shallow register.

We need to see that heritage isn’t only about the past. That it’s happening and being re-created as we move forward. We need to invent new traditions all the time, like the famous WaterFire event in Providence, R.I. I want to get rid of the notion that tradition is from one point on and then, after that, it was always there. We’re actually creating traditions on a daily basis. Some of the things that you think are sort of wacky now could become the traditions that we treasure in the future.

Creating Cities that Give to the World

What I’m really saying is, how can our city become the most creative place for the world? What is the city giving back? That does not mean becoming the most creative place in the world that is ego-driven and dull, that just says, “Yes, we’re very good. We’ve got lots of tourists,” and all of that. But always to ask the question, what is my city doing for the world?

I think Vancouver is somewhat for the world. It had a plan, and people often think of Vancouver as one of the great places that was strategically principled but within it was a flexibility in implementation. And what you get within that principle is the notion of mixed use—the lack of which has been destroying so many cities. That mixed use has enabled Vancouver to have both that skyscraper-y feel and that intimate feel. (I’m not pretending it’s perfect. No city is perfect.)

There’s Barcelona, which many people talk about. The thing I like most about Barcelona is that the city has a sense of democratic urbanity, of creating many spaces for conviviality which encourage people to meet. These micro-spaces are often leftover detritus that are then turned into someplace where I might have a conversation —and that is the essence of urbanity. Even within these micro-spaces there’s an element of the family-friendly city. (The problem with Barcelona, as with so many other places, is there are too many tourists coming, which is destroying the city. Sometimes you feel that perhaps things should be emptier.)

And I think the Slow Cities Movement is interesting, deriving, as you know, from the Slow Food Movement. It began when the first McDonald’s opened in Rome. Its founder, Carlo Petrini, said: I’m not having fast food; I’m having slow food, i.e., food which I understand I can cook, which I know where it comes from. So we want to create also slow cities where we understand the fabric— which is very much in the minds of preservationists—of how things came to be. And the Slow Cities Movement, which has 77member cities in Italy, is all about using typical local products, all the sort of stuff, when we think back, we really want to still have. And these cities are not backward looking and nostalgic. They’re forward-looking and trying to re-create a sense of uniqueness.

The Art of City Making

So what do conservationists, preservationists, and artists contribute to this thing finally? We need to bring together the insights of the different types of people. We need to find a way of thinking ahead, not just about, say, is there parking?, but is there a sense of seeing the past, present, and the future? We need to see clearly that a city is more than things like roads and pipes.

One really needs to do these policy handshakes—for example, linking with public health, which means creating walkable cities, because the link between car-created cities and obesity is well-established. It’s all about the art of bringing the things that are in these different boxes together. That isn’t to decry that each one of us has a specialty, but it’s about crossing the boundary of our specialization—because the problems we’re trying to solve may be at the edge, not the center, of our own concerns.

So great city making is about the art of crossing the boundaries. There are the notions of distinctiveness, of not erasing memory, of getting people motivated to be behind things, and of being innovative as well. And in the end, it’s really about, occasionally, allowing that transgressiveness to happen, and to encourage the sort of living that most people say they want when you ask them.

We know, of course, there are political priorities, but that’s not new. We need to find a way that we can discuss this together so the limited budgets can be sorted out. And we need to combine, as I said before, hardware and software thinking in a way that makes more—that makes one plus one equal three.

And, ultimately, it is about the art of telling an urban story. What is my story? Where am I going? What myths will I keep? What myths will I forget? What will I remember?

Civic creativity is the art of the public sector being more entrepreneurial within accountability principles, and the private sector more concerned with the public good. That’s what then adds value in an economic sense and an ethical value simultaneously. So it’s about the art of alignment. This is the way I think of seeing the city as a living work of art.

And finally, it’s about reminding ourselves that there are ordinary leaders, innovative leaders, and visionary leaders. The ordinary leader is this person with his head down who follows what the trend is. We want more car parking; Yes, I will provide you more car parking. The innovative leader is the person who brings a couple of elements together which are different than before. The visionary leader is the person who tells a story of the making, shaping, and the re-creation of the city you are in, where you want to become an active agent and participant.

Publication Date: Winter 2007


Author(s):Charles Landry

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