On Stolen Towns, Cities as Brands, and Public vs. Private Visions

Image by Flickr user philipbouchard
Revisiting a few posts that I wrote for Next American City a couple of years ago via more recent news items:

From Neighborhoods as Brands (March 2008):  
Think about places in American cities that have a special cultural power.  Now export them to a brownfield site one or two thousand miles away...New Orleans’ French Quarter could become one of America’s most popular exports.  There could be one in Shanghai, one in Jakarta, one in Abu Dhabi, one in Zagreb, and another on the outskirts of Khartoum.  These would not be theme parks, but fully-populated, 24-hour neighborhoods selling a lifestyle of jazz, street dancing, and easy living.
More recently, Der Speigel brought us news that Chinese officials have surprised residents of the Austrian town of Hallstatt by deciding to copy the entire town back east, brick for brick. Jokes about China's lasseiz faire attitude toward Western copyrights (particularly those of the intellectual variety) got tired years ago, but this latest news feels like a fresh pain. UNESCO is, hilariously, trying to determine the legality of this--as if they'll have any power at all to stop the copy from being built. What can be done?

In a country where they're building cities faster than they can fill them, it hardly seems surprising that a few would borrow heavily from existing, well-loved places, and Spiegel notes the existence of a scattering of Euro-themed suburbs near Shanghai. But while it's one thing to choose to export a place, seeing developers--from any part of the world--up and jacking a whole town should raise eyebrows. Imagine people on the other side of the world eating in a clone of your favorite restaurant, living in the bizzarro version of the apartment just above yours, listening to the kids playing handball in a counterfeit of the park outside your side window.

Then again, try as they might, Starbucks' store designers can't make a London shop feel that different from one in Chicago. That is to say, the places that we inhabit in globalized cities are already feeling like copies of copies. If the Hallstatt story has anything to teach us perhaps it's that it's better for cities to get out in front of this trend and start marketing their strongest neighborhoods to Chinese developers as blueprints. Within China itself, developers are starting to market entire neighborhood types within the same cities--what Ad Age Global refers to as "Cities in a Box." Better for Boston that those developers specialize in Beacon Hills instead of Bunds...assuming, of course, that Boston can be involved somehow.

All of this raises the issue of whether or not the people who inhabit a place have any inherent right to its built form. Indeed, it raises the issue of whether or not a place has a right to itself, in many ways. So I'll re-pose the question from that original NAC post: In the glocalized world, does any place belong to any one group, or does everywhere belong to everyone?


Also, from A Vision For Detroit (April 2010):
If there is the political will and the financial might in Detroit to privately fund a light rail line (which would take a miracle in almost any American city, much less one with Motown’s reputation), there should certainly be enough energy to create a broad, forward-thinking vision for the region to tie various initiatives together into a narrative that the whole city can rally behind.  Detroit has everyone’s attention; now it’s time for the city to decide what story it’s going to tell.
Now, just over a year later, the WSJ is reporting that all is not well in the Motor City, as the Bing administration wrestles with the Kresge Foundation to determine whose job it is to plot that storyline. The city says that it appreciates Kresge's cash, but can do just fine developing the vision to guide its own revitalization, thank you. Kresge begs to differ, with its suburb-based president Rip Rapson arguing that new ideas from outside the entrenched political system are desperately needed.

No matter which camp you fall into, it's certainly a fascinating read. With Kresge pulling out of critical projects like Detroit Works and the M1 light rail line, it may behoove Bing to acknowledge that Detroit's record, when it comes to city-led revitalization projects, leaves something to be desired; ceding a bit of control might not be the worst thing to ever happen to the city. You could call Kresge's new-found reticence fickle, or even extortive, but if the foundation doesn't believe that the city's long-term plans will allow their investments to have a lasting impact, they have every right to withhold.

That's not to say that citizens shouldn't have a say in what happens to their city, and Kresge would do well to be as clear as is humanly possible about what it is they'd like to see happen in order to build public support. Being a private foundation does not absolve you of responsibility to communicate with the public whose lives you'd like to improve. 2¢ from an outsider.

1 comment:

Matt Hakes said...

Well written as usual. Regarding the private vs public vision of place, what do you believe are the consequences of cites like Houston, which have no zoning law or restrictions? Helpful, or does this practice contribute to a mish-mash mentality?