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Urbanist Charles Landry on the Twin Cities: Reknit the urban fabric, learn to brag

Charles Landry
Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
Charles Landry leading a tour of Hennepin Avenue last year
The Line

Early in the weeklong residency of British urban strategist Charles Landry last spring exploring this region’s prospects for the 21st century, he fired a round of provocative queries to the crowd at the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in downtown Minneapolis: What is it that makes a great neighborhood, city or region in the Twin Cities? What level of openness and closed-ness do you find here? What do you find here that seems to say “Yes”? And what declares “No!”

He spent a week investigating the area’s creative potential in more than two dozen events and meetings, covering both downtowns, Frogtown, the West Bank, North Minneapolis, the new light rail corridor, the Festival of Nations, a Twins game, and meals with ethnic community leaders, neighborhood activists and business people. (The sponsors of Landry’s residency reflect a creatively rich stew of local connections: the Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), the Ethnic Cultural Tourism Destinations Collaborative, the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation, and the Hennepin Theatre Trust with support from three government bodies, the McKnight Foundation, the St. Paul Foundation, and the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.)

I checked in with Landry, who was back home in England, to hear what he thought about the Twin Cities after his first impressions had time to settle. He was generally positive, with a few caveats — and I'll get to his observations in a moment.

The DNA of 'creative cities'

First, the context in which Landry works.

Based on 40 years of consulting work for cities in his native UK, Germany, Australia, Spain, Finland and other countries, Landry — who won international recognition for his books about “creative cities” — offers advice on what it takes to succeed in the face of vast economic and cultural changes.

Interculturalism: “It’s everybody’s city,” he notes — and that includes racial minorities, low-income people and immigrants. Everyone’s creativity is necessary to securing a healthy future.  Landry stresses that it is not enough to involve only the so-called “creative class" — which account for no more than 25-30 percent of people, even in forward-looking places like Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“It goes beyond respect for diversity to making changes that bring people together,” he explains. “Cities thrive on the basis of exchanges. How do you get all people to meet, talk and communicate with one another? Rich and poor groups need to share spaces — that’s one of the issues of the 21st century.”  

360-degree perspective: We can no longer map our route to the future relying solely on the insights of a few disciplines. As evidence, he shows a sobering photo of the tangle of freeway interchanges that divide downtown Minneapolis from the University of Minnesota. “Every decision made in building this was a logical decision,” Landry points out. But because decisionmaking was left solely to engineers and politicians, the result was a mess that severed connections between two key focal points of creativity.

Connectivity and creativity: For 30 years knowledge and technology have been the locomotives of economic and cultural change, Landry notes. But with the rise of web 2.0, connectivity and creativity now play an equally important role, which fosters new ways of looking at our communities. We are evolving from a strict “urban engineering” approach to a more expansive “city-making” approach. This offers the opportunity to enrich economic development and urban design plans by incorporating a broader web of perspectives, including health advocates, artists, and everyday citizens from a diversity of neighborhoods.

“It’s very important that the community be involved with developments from the start,” he says, “so that they can have a say in what happens.”

Summarizing, Landry says, “By all this is what I mean is that Minneapolis-St. Paul will benefit by saying ‘yes’ to more people’s creativity.”

“I realize that everything I am saying is easy for me to say,” he admits — “but taken all together it also defies a lot of the assumptions and power configurations here.” Still, he predicts that regions that continue to say “No” to the creativity of their own people will pay a dear price in the coming decades.

Warning signs and indexes of vitality 

In the introduction to his Creative City Index, Landry lists the warning signs of uncreative places:  complacent, focused on past achievements, limited connections within the community, limited connections with the outside world, sticking to rules without checking if they still apply, fear of collaboration, and a refusal to let new people into the power structure.

A creative place, meanwhile, exhibits qualities such as these: people can express their talents, the exchange of ideas is encouraged, connections are easy to make, urban design generates affection, a rich variety of experiences, an efficient and accommodating public sector, lively public spaces, a welcoming spirit, and a sense of buzz.

Landry, candidly, on the Twin Cities

Local residents will likely find attributes on both lists that apply to the Twin Cities — so what does Charles Landry think about our towns?  

“Both cities have a good urban fabric, but the downtowns are a little soulless," he says. "There are lots of creative things here and I sense a lot of positive energy from the many people I met.”

“What I see happening is a massive urban re-knitting” — a lot of it addressing scars like the freeway that destroyed the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul or the wide racial gap in income and education that has grown over recent decades.

“It’s a healing process both physical and psychological.” Landry sees the new light-rail corridor between Minneapolis and St. Paul as “a major opportunity to do this urban reknitting.”

The brag factor

He observes that the Twin Cities does a strikingly poor job of letting the world know about its strengths. “No one knows that downtown St. Paul has one of the best district heating systems — unique in America. Can anyone visiting downtown Minneapolis see that it is a cycling capital?”

He warns that we should be concerned that many American cities are “much better at bragging about what they are doing — even if they are not doing as much.”

Burt more than his opinions, Landry believes the most useful thing he can offer is more questions to probe among ourselves:

  • Are the projects you’re doing just isolated projects, or are they connected to reknitting the community?
  • Are you doing enough to boost conviviality here — to bring all kinds of different people together?  How are you improving communications and connections throughout the community to achieve social, economic, and cultural benefits?
  • Are you creating tomorrow’s heritage today, something people will appreciate and want to keep?
  • Is what you’re creating today good enough for the Twin Cities? There is a lot of aspiration here — does a particular project fit the goals and culture of the community? Is this aspiration reflected in the quality of everything you build — and everything you do?
  • How can you tell the Twin Cities’ story better, and include everyone in it?

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Jay Walljasper specializes in writing about cities, travel, and social issues. He is the author of "The Great Neighborhood Book" and "All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons," and is editor of www.OnTheCommons.org.  His website: www.JayWalljasper.comA slightly different version of this article ran on the web site of Twin Cities LISC.

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