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Charles Landry on The Art of City Making

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’s possible. And if his visit to Pittsburgh was any indication, he maintains an unrelenting, intense curiosity about what makes a city tick. Or not.

In his few days in town this past spring, the author of The Creative City and the Art of City Making explored tirelessly, questioned endlessly and photographed everything from city lofts and underpasses to the roof of the convention center where this Pop City interview took place. Although duly impressed by the largest green building in the world, he was mystified why the dramatic rooftop, offering its stellar, sweeping city views, wasn’t more of a public space. Clearly a case of unrealized potential. “Where are the people and the café tables?” he asked, raising his voice. But charming Brit that he is, he did so with a mannered dignity, and in a fetching accent.

A New Story

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

In his talk at the Children’s Museum, in conjunction with the Charm Bracelet Project which aims to link the many cultural gems on the North Side, the author focused on creative change in cities worldwide. He showed scores of inspiring slides, from the innovative use of freight containers for housing 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.

What it takes is a "culture of change" and "a necessary sense of transparency -- seeing who is doing what -- along along with a strong entrepreneurial spirit," he says.  But when it comes to realizing a city’s potential, it also requires more than adding value that’s merely economical.

The founder and director of the U.K.-based firm Comedia, a cultural planning consultancy, 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.

Bryant Park in New York City exemplifies this kind of thinking. 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 to encourage social capital. Similarly, Schenley Plaza in Pittsburgh would qualify, the transformation of a parking lot into a green oasis, with free Wi-Fi, live music, children’s carousel and attractive kiosks.

Another, smaller example cited in Landry's latest book, The Art of City Making, is an act of “urban kindness” such as Calgary’s program in handing out free 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.”

From supporting start-up companies to encouraging social entrepreneurship, the art of citymaking includes projects and initiatives in a wide range of sectors. “What then needs to happen is to orchestrate these creative initiatives into a coherent whole. That is what city making is really all about,” Landry summarizes and then he questions. "Who are the orchestrators in Pittsburgh? Who’s going to take the city to the next level?”

A City for the World

Barcelona is a prime example of a city that was taken to a higher level and is now what Landry calls "a city as a living work of art." With its vibrant street life, deep-rooted sense of design and noted quality of life, it is what he refers to as a city for the world. But achieving that elevated level of creative city making requires a certain type of visionary leadership. 

“The ordinary leader follows the crowd,” says Landry. “The innovative leader does 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.”

In the end, being a co-creator and getting anything done in a city is about power. But power isn’t what it used to be, residing largely in political spheres and the circles of the wealthy. Today, it is more widely available to everyone who is motivated to get it and use it. So when a city has a success in an institution—he names the Mattress Factory and points north to its location—other innovative projects could follow. “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,” he says.

Just like a company has R&D to stay ahead of the game, so does a city, argues the author. “You need things like the Mattress Factory and you need to be positive about it,” he suggests. “But not everything has to be the Mattress Factory. That’s like your R&D. The alternative sector is often the driver to innovation.”

While mayors are known as can-do people with the buck-stops- here mentality to get things done, 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. 

“I look at things in a tai chi way,” he explains. “It’s about energy. A place like this (that is, Pittsburgh) 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.”

With all the new economy activity in Pittsburgh, it could become a massive incubator, he suggests, especially if incentives and regulations—a five year tax break, for instance-- are formulated to help its creation. 

What it comes down to, he says, is a matter of mindset; how a city and its inhabitants think about and approach things. While the steel industry in Pittsburgh is long gone, the present generation has still been shaped by it through their parents, resulting in lingering old-way thinking and a “glass ceiling for their ideas.”

Letting go of the old and embracing the new paves the way for new solutions. “It’s a wonderful experimentation ground which could combine innovating the old and the new,” Landry says. 

Tracy Certo is editor of Pop City.


Charles Landry lecturing at the Children's Museum

Charles Landry overlooking the Allegheny River and the Three Sisters bridges

Art Luminaire light projection during the Three Rivers Arts Festival

Carousel in Schenley Plaza

The 'T' light rail, Downtown

Mattress Factory

Listening to Jazz at Agnes Katz Plaza

All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene

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