Charles Landry: City Making in Minneapolis Saint Paul

Landry Expectations were high for remarks by urban theorist Charles Landry, given late last week at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater thanks to program partners at Metropolitan Council and the McKnight Foundation. I shared these expectations, due in part to this article, which described Landry's focus as "the complex blend of elements that most effectively draw talented people to specific cities and regions." In my view, interesting work with immediate relevance.

True to form, Landy offered a compelling and global perspective on what differentiates successful cities and metropolitan areas from those in decline. Each region's approach is key: Is the dominant strategy an "urban engineering paradigm," or "creative city making"? Presented directly to us in the Minneapolis Saint Paul region, Landry asked: Is this a city of projects, or is the project the city?

Most of the audience, I believe, share Landry's underlying confidence that urbanization can and ought to bring about a greener, more productive, healthier and happier world. In that vein, he offered five threads found in great cities. In each case, I've offered editorial comments:

  • Anchorage: What is a region's gravity, which attracts people and ideas? The importance of robust networks of people and activity – industry clusters – can't be understated. It's true for people involved in chemistry, and for people involved in music (and for those involved in both at the same time!). See the Metropolitan Business Plan for more.
  • Possibility: What's the potential for the place? Youth development, education, and workforce development (for the young and mature) are the critical areas of possibility for a place. No urban region can thrive without investing in the young, and their potential to generate new ideas.
  • Connection and Reconnection: Beyond the need for physical connections to give community members and workers access to their most significant destinations (whether work, school, civic, religious), successful regions maintain strong bonds well beyond their borders. High rates of immigration and import/export activity, and the ability to communicate a region's message in the global arena are two examples of such ties.
  • Learning: To me, Landry's citation of the importance of learning extends beyond the realm of education, which (as I suggested above) is a cornerstone for effective regions. Learning needs also to include the degree to which governance is flexible and intelligent enough to incorporate emerging trends and past experience, in planning for the future.
  • Inspiration: Establishing shared values and shared identity are crucial, so that a region can articulate what is its inspiration. Why are we here? What do we have to communicate to the world? What is our contribution to the cultural, economic and political life that surrounds and includes us? 

Landry's framework of these five threads offered a provoking platform to consider how regions like Minneapolis Saint Paul move forward. Unfortunately, the speaker's efforts to speak in detail about the Central Corridor LRT line (and even specific sites along it) were neither specific nor reflective of context. He also appeared unprepared to discuss how manufacturing and other industry play a role as economic engines, job providers or as gateways for workers to earn good wages.

As Ed Glaeser argues in the Triumph of the City, places are powered by people, not buildings. Landry's presentation was worthwhile as a full (if high-altitude) depiction of how "creative city making," focused on harnessing talent, can craft durable regions in the 21st century.