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Becoming a City for the World

In a lifetime of studying the potential, realized or otherwise, of cities around the globe, Charles Landry has seen a world of evidence of what is possible. And as he travels from city to city, he maintains an unrelenting, intense curiosity about what makes a city tick. Or not.

While in Detroit awhile ago, Landry was struck by the fact that the thinking was all car specific. "Stand back from that," he says. "This is life, this is skill, these are all things that can be applied to life to make a car feel different," he says, and here he pauses, "or your home feel different.

Landry tells the story of the trendy Barcelona-based shoe company, Camper, and how it diversified by plunging into the hotel business. " 'Why is a shoe place getting into hotels?' people asked. And Camper said, 'You misunderstood what we’re all about. We don’t produce shoes. We produce comfort.' "

"So you don’t just produce the equipment for the inside of cars," he  continues. "You make cars that are a sensory experience." By "lateralizing" that kind of thinking you can create new possibilities, he says. "Make the home a sensory experience. Or the workplace. Take the principles applied toward cars and expand the horizon of possibilities."

That's one way for a city to achieve potential.

A New Story

An acclaimed international expert on cities and city futures, Landry says that the art of city making is about unfolding a new story of what a city is— and what it could be.

As the founder and director of U.K.-based Comedia, a cultural planning consultancy, he travels with an arsenal of inspiring slides, from the innovative use of freight containers for housing in Container City in Britain to Helsinki’s transformation from a light-deprived northern city to a luminescent showcase through artful lighting. (Not to mention amusing urban signs such as "Dog Barking allowed 4 to 8 p.m.").

"The point about these ideas is that they do spark the imagination of what’s possible," he says. And for the record, Landry believes anything is possible.

Among the many factors that make up a culture of change essential to a creative city, there is a necessary sense of transparency, seeing who is doing what, along with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, he says. But it requires more than adding something of value that’s merely economical. Landry possesses an expansive, humanitarian perspective on cities that goes beyond the typical urban planning of architecture and land use. He calls for a vision for the 21st Century city to be a city for the world, not just in the world, giving cities an ethical foundation and a value base.

An example is Bryant Park in New York City. With its successful lineup of activities, free Wi-Fi and engaging public space it appears to be "a gift" from the city, says Landry, an act of civility that encourages social capital. Campus Martius perhaps comes closest to this model in downtown Detroit.

In his latest book, Landry refers to acts of "urban kindness" such as Calgary’s program in handing out bells to cyclists instead of costly fines for not having one. The kindness reverberates, writes Landry. "It’s how social capitalism is created and, counter-intuitively, the more you use it the more it grows."

This kind of creative growth for a city can include anything from supporting start-up companies and entrepreneurs to encouraging social entrepreneurship. "What then needs to happen is to orchestrate these creative initiatives into a coherent whole. That is what city making is really all about," he says. So a city has to ask,  "Who are the orchestrators? Who is going to take the city to the next level?"

The Art of (Creative) City Making

In his latest book, Landry takes issue with the term Creative City which has become a catch phrase and is in danger of being overused and hollowed out. Being creative for the sake of creative is not necessarily good, he argues. "Linking creativity to bigger picture aims, however, gives it special power and resonance."  

Take sustainability. "Thousands of cities claim to be concerned about sustainable development; how many have radically applied such policies and gone against our inherent lines or the interests of the car lobbies and others? The strength to go against the grain today must now be counted as an act of creative endeavour."

Landry suggests that there is an art to city making which is about treating the city as a living work of art. Barcelona, where the street life is remarkably vibrant and design is deep-rooted throughout the city, is a prime example, "one of the few places where the city is a living work of art as distinct from a dead one," Landry writes in his latest book. (By dead, he refers to a city whose past overwhelms its present and whose present serves to maintain the past for tourists. Think Florence or Venice.)

Approaching your city as a work of art requires a certain type of visionary leadership, says Landry. "The ordinary leader follows the crowd. The innovative leader does a few odd things together. But the visionary leader tells the story of where the place can go and where it should go in a way that makes people feel they want to be makers and shakers and co- creators of that city."

Fortunately, power no longer resides only in political spheres and the circles of the wealthy. Today, power is more available, there for the taking. So when a city has a success in an institution, other innovative projects could follow, he says. "A small group of project champions could encourage someone over here — if they can do it so can we. And in that manner all kinds of things can be accomplished."   

It's a matter of mindset; how a city and its inhabitants think about and approach things. Like car design, for example. And when a city is down on its luck, look at the bright side: that's when opportunity beckons the most.

Creating the Can-Do Environment

While mayors are known as can-do people with the buck-stops-here mentality to get things done in a city, Landry takes a broader view of their governing potential. "It's more to do with creating an enabling environment which a mayor can initialize," he says. While a mayor doesn't necessarily have to be the one who does something, he can be positive about what's trying to be done "and I think that’s a much better way," he says.

In the case of the Container City in Britain, someone had the power to say, yes, you can build a wacky building and as a result, the place was transformed, says Landry. And here he offers a tip: If you want to introduce an unconventional concept certain to ignite controversy, experimentation is often the best way to go. In London, the Ferris wheel was initially a temporary, commemorative structure. Brits were highly critical of it from the start. But when it was time to dismantle it, they decided it was an OK thing after all and they fought to keep it. "It went from ‘Hey, we’re only doing that experimentally to Hey, can’t we do that longer?' ” says Landry. 

“I look at things in a tai chi way,” he says. “It's about energy. A place needs 10,000 people doing interesting things—not the plan. But, occasionally you need a very big plan and you need all those forces and the mayor needs to be behind it.”  

And when that happens, the message is clear: anything is possible.

Tracy Certo is editor of Pop City, Model D's sister publication in Pittsburgh.


Charles Landry. Copyright Jonathan Greene

Detroit Auto Show Concept Car

Campus Martius

Bryant Park, New York City

Busker in Barcelona, Spain. Copyright Tracy Certo

Bike Station in Barcelona, Spain. Copyright Tracy Certo



Detroit Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger


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