Successful Cities Built on Own Unique Characteristics

Who would have thought a poet would be the one talking about fractals? And okay I admit it, when I first heard the word fractal I had a flashback math attack because it was such a left-brain kind of concept.

The occasion was the national Creative Cities conference and the speaker was Alice Major, Edmonton’s first poet laureate. An established poet appointed by City Council, her role during her recent term was to use her poetry to reflect the life of a city during official and informal activities.

My left brain angst eased somewhat as Major went on to explain that fractals are described as irregular, infinitely complex structures that are the same even though they may look different.  Clouds, snowflakes, lightning bolts, coastlines, and river networks are examples of fractals.

In her presentation Major suggested that even though we think of cities as fractals that look the same, they are in fact quite different and should be treated that way. Rather than being a river system where one city is connected to another, she believes we instead need to be somewhat separate in order to build on our own uniqueness and authenticity. More, she suggests, like a slow-moving swamp that nurtures and grows its inhabitants.

Major’s musings represented just some of the thought-provoking ideas presented at the Creative Cities conference about the growing importance of what it takes to ensure successful cities.

Carol Coletta, President and CEO of CEOs for Cities, a network of leaders dedicated to speeding innovation in cities, also spoke about this same need for each city to find and magnify their distinctiveness.  Each community needs, as she puts it, “To say something, say it simply, and say it over and over again”.  Knowing, really knowing, what makes your city special, leads to the sophistication, innovation and ultimate distinctiveness that makes a city a place where people choose to live.

This distinctiveness is becoming more and more critical as those with education are more mobile than ever before in history.

As cities we will have to work harder to attract and retain talent when they are young. “Place” for those age 25 to 34 years of age is paramount in their decisions about where they locate. Most typically, they will choose the place first, and then find a job. For community leaders this will mean improving a city’s livability by using and building on the assets that will attract young talent. 

What is it they’re looking for?  Research suggests they’re looking for communities that are clean, green, safe, and attractive. And, they want affordable housing and vibrant communities with distinctive neighbourhoods and energetic downtowns that will allow them to live the life they want.

The downtown factor is especially important as an emerging trend in that many young people, particularly those holding jobs in creative areas, are moving back into the central areas of cities.

One enterprising city – Pudacah, Kentucky, is now thriving having reaped the rewards of recent artist-led economic development. They did it by providing an extraordinary incentive program for 45 artists that allowed them to own properties and set up living, studio, and gallery spaces in a formally blighted, downwardly spiraling neighbourhood.

Successful cities, Coletta noted, also have strong connections. Smart, creative people need to connect with other smart creative people. Particularly for industry, this proximity to clusters is fundamental for building creativity. And it is this intentional creativity that results in innovation.

As others at the conference suggested, it isn’t simply about finding and emulating best practices. It is instead about focusing and building on what it is that makes one’s community a special place. After all, by the time something becomes an innovative “best practice” that everybody knows about, it likely isn’t a “best” practice any more.



Posted on 10-16-07

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