Around the world, cities are seeking the recipe for economic success in a rapidly changing global marketplace. Indispensable assets in a post–industrial economy include: well–educated people, the ability to generate new ideas and to turn those ideas into commercial realities, connectivity to global markets, and multi-modal transportation infrastructure. Another critical—but often forgotten—asset is community distinctiveness.
If I have learned anything from my career in urban planning, it is this: a community’s appeal drives economic prosperity. I have also learned that, while change is inevitable, the destruction of a community’s unique character and identity is not. Progress does not demand degraded surroundings. Communities can grow without destroying the things that people love.
In 2010, the Knight Foundation teamed up with Gallup pollsters to survey 43,000 people in 26 cities (where Knight-Ridder had newspapers). The so-called Soul of the Community Survey was designed to answer questions such as: What makes residents love where they live? What attracts people to a place and keeps them there?
The study found that the most important factors that create emotional bonds between people and their community were not jobs and the economy, but rather “physical beauty, opportunities for socializing and a city’s openness to all people.” The Knight Foundation also found that communities with the highest levels of attachment also had the highest rates of gross domestic product growth and the strongest economies.
Place is more than just a location on a map. A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics – visual, cultural, social, and environmental – that provide meaning to a location. Sense of place is what makes one city or town different from another, but sense of place is also what makes our physical surroundings worth caring about.
Author Wallace Stegner once said, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” We all need points of reference and orientation. A community’s unique identity provides that orientation, while also adding economic and social value. To foster distinctiveness, cities must plan for built environments and settlement patterns that are both uplifting and memorable and that foster a sense of belonging and stewardship by residents.
Planners spend most of their time focusing on numbers – the number of units per acre, the number of cars per hour, the number of floors per building. In the future, they will need to spend more time thinking about the values, customs, characteristics and quirks that make a place worth caring about. Unfortunately, many communities are suffering the social and economic consequences of losing their distinctiveness.
When it comes to 21st century economic development, a key concept is community differentiation. If you can’t differentiate your community from any other, you have no competitive advantage.
Capital is footloose in a global economy. Natural resources, highway access, locations along a river or rail line have all become less important. Education, technology, connectivity, and distinctiveness have all become more important. Joseph Cortright, a leading economic development authority and president and chief economist of Impresa, a consulting firm specializing in regional economic analysis, says that “the unique characteristics of place may be the only truly defensible source of competitive advantage for communities.” Likewise, Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class says, “How people think of a place is less tangible, but more important than just about anything else.”
Unfortunately, the subtle differences between places are disappearing. Today, if you were suddenly dropped along a road outside of most American cities or towns, you wouldn’t have the slightest idea where you were because it all looks the same, including the building materials, the architectural styles, the chain stores, and the outdoor advertising. Technology and the global economy make it easy for building plans drawn up at a corporate office in New Jersey to be applied over and over again in Portland, Phoenix, Philadelphia or a thousand other communities. Over the past 50 years many of the world’s cityscapes and townscapes have gone from the unique to the uniform, from the stylized to the standardized.
In recent months, there have been several surveys published, such as Zipcar’s “Future Metropolis Index” and Fast Company‘s “Most Innovative Cities” list, ranking cities based on sustainability, innovation and efficiency. Some of the factors that were evaluated included the number of green buildings, the percentage of hybrid cars and the number of patents issued. These are all important, but sustainability is about more than new technologies. At its most basic, “sustainable” means enduring. A sustainable community is a place of enduring value. Doug Kelbaugh, the dean of the University of Michigan School of Architecture, put it this way, “If a building, a landscape or a city is not beautiful, it will not be loved; if it is not loved, it won’t be maintained and improved. In short, it won’t be sustained.”
Distinctiveness involves streetscapes, architecture, and historic preservation but as Cortright points out, it also involves cultural events and facilities, restaurants and food, parks and open space and many other factors. “Keep Austin Weird” is more than a slogan; it is a recipe for economic success. A distinctive city is a city that the young and well-educated want to live in, that boomers want to retire to, and most certainly a city that people want to visit.
According to The World Bank and the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism is the largest industry in the world. Tourism is about visiting places that are different, unusual and unique. The more one city comes to look and feel just like every other city, the less reason there is to visit. On the other hand, the more a city does to enhance its uniqueness, whether that is cultural, natural or architectural, the more people will want to visit. It is no accident that Paris – a city that looks and feels different – gets 27 million visitors per year, more than any city on the planet, according to Lonely Planet.
Arthur Frommer, one of the world’s leading travel experts and founder of the well-known travel guide company, says that among cities and towns with no recreational appeal, those that preserve their past continue to enjoy tourism. Those that haven’t, receive almost no tourism at all. Frommer has been quoted as saying,“Tourists simply won’t go to a city that has lost its soul.”
In the future, planners will have to help communities adapt to change while maintaining or enhancing the things that they value most. Lyman Orton, the principal of the Orton Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization which supports community development, calls this “heart and soul planning.” It is both a process and a philosophy. The process seeks to engage as many people as possible in community decision making. The philosophy recognizes that special places, characteristics and customs have value. Given all this, I believe that one of the big questions for cities in the future will be: Do you want the character of your city to shape the new development, or do you want the new development to shape the character of the city?