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Opportunity is local (Or: You can’t buy a new economy)

Pittsburgh's brand may be rusty, but like every city, it has its bright spots / Photo: Brendan Crain

Pittsburgh’s brand may be rusty, but like every city, it has its bright spots / Photo: Brendan Crain

“At the heart of my argument,” writes Jim Russell in his response to last Wednesday’s blog post, “is the fact that [Placemaking] initiatives are intrinsically place-centric. Instead of place-centrism, I’m looking at talent migration through a lens of people-centrism…I’m convinced that placemaking is useful, but not for talent attraction/retention. People move for purposes of personal economic development.”

Focusing on talent attraction and retention is what leads to gentrification, the phenomena that people who voice concerns about Placemaking are most often trying to avoid. There is an oft-voiced belief today that there is a finite amount of talent and creativity available in the world, and that cities must compete to draw creative people away from rival communities in order to thrive. But truly great places are not built from scratch to attract people from elsewhere; the best places have evolved into dynamic, multi-use destinations over time: years, decades, centuries. These places are reflective of the communities that surround them, not the other way around. Placemaking is, ultimately, more about the identification and development of local talent, not the attraction of talent from afar.

A key difference in definitions here is that what some would call ‘place’, I (and others) would call branding. There’s an oceans-wide gap between those two things. “Young, college-educated talent is moving from decaying Pittsburgh (brain drain) to cool, hip Austin (brain gain),” writes Russell, explaining the Creative Class concept. “It’s a place-centric understanding of talent relocation.” In fact, what he’s describing is a brand-centric understanding. Pittsburgh’s brand is rusty (heh); Austin’s brand gleams with the silvery-green gloss of techno-optimism. But to categorize entire cities as singular places gets you nowhere at all. Pittsburgh has its bright spots, and Austin has its warts.

Looking at cities from what Jan Gehl calls the “airplane scale” is what allows proponents of cut-and-paste urbanism to do what the Modernists did, using lifestyle instead of architecture. Rather than suggesting that the city be reorganized into tower blocks amidst grassy lawns, today’s one-size-fits-allers call for cafes and artisan markets. They are presuming that the city as a whole will benefit from the indiscriminate application of a specific set of amenities. It won’t. Neighborhoods need to define their priorities for themselves; in so doing, they often discover that there are untapped opportunities to grow their own local economies, without needing to import talent from elsewhere. Even if your city’s brand is busted, your community is still capable of re-building itself. As Jane Jacobs once argued, “the best cities are actually federations of great neighborhoods.”

"The best cities are actually federations of great neighborhoods." -- Jane Jacobs / Photo: Brendan Crain

“The best cities are actually federations of great neighborhoods.” — Jane Jacobs / Photo: Brendan Crain

When cities jump into the talent attraction death match arena, they often wind up losing to win: they spend millions of dollars on insane tax incentives to woo corporate headquarters and factories; they drop millions more on fancy amenities that haven’t really been asked for, in the hopes that (since it worked elsewhere) each bauble will magically cause a crowd of American Apparel-wearing, Mac-toting graphic designers to materialize out of thin air; they sell their souls in order to “create” jobs that are, in fact, merely shifted over from somewhere else.

If “people develop, not places” as Russell argues, economic development and gentrification are one and the same. If your strategy for improving local economic prospects is to drink some other city’s milkshake, you won’t get very far. It’s economic cannibalization. To really grow an economy, opportunity has to be developed organically within each community, and that requires that people dig in and improve their neighborhoods, together, for the sake of doing so–not convincing Google to open a new office down the road.

As Aaron Renn put it in a recent post on The Urbanophile, “We need to be asking the question of what exactly we are doing to benefit the people without college degrees beyond assuring them that if we attract more people with college degrees everything will be looking up for them. We need to sell ideas like transit in a way that isn’t totally dependent on items like ‘enabling us to attract the talent we need for the 21st century economy.’ If I read half as much about providing economic opportunity and facilitating upward social mobility for the poor and middle classes as I do about green this, that, or the other thing, we’d be getting somewhere.”

Places aren’t about the 21st century economy. They are about the people who inhabit and develop them. They are the physical manifestations of the social networks upon which our global economy is built. Likewise, Place-making is not about making existing places palatable to a certain class of people. It is a process by which each community can develop place capital by bringing people together to figure out what competitive edge their community might have, and then working to capitalize on that edge and improve local economic prospects in-place, rather than trying to import opportunity from elsewhere.

Decades ago we, as a society, detached people from place. We decided that places should be shaped based on theories and ideas, rather than the needs of people who already lived, worked, and played there. The development of people and places is the same process. If we keep trying to separate the two, our cities will remain divided.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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