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Cities As Magnets For The Young

Granholm’s "cool" initiative moves urban revival to top of her agenda

December 19, 2003 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Creating Cool conference speaker Richard Florida said that walkable cities with lively cultural scenes are the ones attracting the most creative, young workers.

 LANSING — Last January during her first State of the State address, Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm turned heads when she listed “cool cities” as one of her visions for the state. In May she created a minor sensation at an annual statewide conference by donning a pair of sunglasses to introduce her “Cool Cities" initiative to the state’s most prominent civic and elected leaders.

Last week, the more than 1,400 people attending the Granholm administration’s Creating Cool: Linking Culture, Community, and the Economy conference in Lansing provided more evidence that the governor’s work to strengthen Michigan’s cities has emerged as a powerful bipartisan movement. The conference featured remarks by Gov.Granholm, senior members of her administration, and by Richard Florida, a professor of economic development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and author of the best-selling book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure Community and Everyday Life.

More than just a clever slogan, Gov. Granholm’s “Cool Cities” initiative is pumping so much political energy into her young administration that the needs of Michigan’s struggling cities and how to meet them has risen to the top of her political priorities. Not since the 1970s has the idea of urban redevelopment attracted such powerful support from a Michigan governor.

“This is about making Michigan a magnet state,” Gov. Granholm said in her welcoming remarks, and then alluded to the power of arts, culture, and commerce when they operate at the grassroots. “This is not a ‘top-down’ effort. It’s about learning about what others have done and bringing it home. . . It’s a blank canvas. You have the brushes. Let’s create a mural.”

Although the idea of cool cities has rapidly moved to a prominent spot on the policy agenda in Lansing, what has been missing is a clear explanation by the Granholm administration of what are the precise steps she needs to take to improve Michigan’s cities. That question was answered in part by David Hollister, a top Granholm aide and director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth, who announced the results of a survey conducted at 150 different “Cool Cities" forums around the state earlier this year. Mr. Hollister reported that respondents to the survey chose walkable communities, business and economic development, arts and cultural development, and historic preservation as the top priorities for making Michigan’s cities cool.

Significantly, those four priorities figured prominently in the recommendations of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, the bipartisan panel that in August delivered 160 recommendations to the administration and the Legislature about how to slow sprawl, rebuild cities, and improve Michigan’s economic competitiveness.

“Creating cool cities is central to our efforts to transform Michigan into a magnet for economic growth and opportunity,” Mr. Hollister said in a statement released after the conference. “This idea is resonating throughout the state and it's invigorating to see so many talented, dedicated people working together to create the next Michigan. It's a way to revitalize our cities, and preserve our land.”

Mr. Hollister’s announcement came at the end of a daylong agenda packed with breakout sessions detailing successful case histories throughout the state. The December 11th Creating Cool conference proved so popular that officials had to turn away 300 people.

Light Touch, Serious Business
The conference, held at the Lansing Center, at times sought to bring a light touch to the serious topic of urban revitalization. Most of the state’s cities are steadily losing jobs and population, the result of demographic and economic trends that urban leaders have been unable to reverse using conventional approaches. The influential crowd of civic, business, elected, and cultural leaders representing over 100 Michigan cities appeared eager to follow Gov. Granholm’s lead and tackle the problem in new ways, including bringing a bit of mirth to the subject: Hipsilanti, Koolamazoo, and A2Cool were just three of the fanciful, promotional, “cool cities” gambits spotted at the event.

Throughout the day speakers at the conference — sponsored by a ground-breaking combination of state agencies that included the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries, Mr. Hollister’s new department, and the governor’s office — stressed that Michigan’s communities must unleash creativity, embrace diversity, and discover and employ their shared interests. 

Several speakers identified the arts and historic preservation as the glue that can hold a community together by binding generations, races, and lifestyles into rich mosaics that celebrate rather than merely tolerate diversity. Walkable boulevards lead to restaurants, theaters, bookstores, galleries, performance halls, museums, boutiques and special events in downtowns. The eclectic mix such activity attracts is self-reinforcing, luring still more people out of their homes and offices into exciting public spaces where a true and revitalized sense of community emerges. That innovative, creative process makes both places and people “cool,” and it also makes cities thrive.

The Three T’s of Success
In the opening plenary session, author and educator Richard Florida, who Gov. Granholm called the "prime minister of cool," challenged the audience to examine why people choose the places they live in. He also shared what he termed the “3 Ts” of success: technology, talent, and tolerance.

Mr. Florida said technological advances have brought about an economic transformation that is even more powerful than that of the Industrial Revolution. “We have a growth sector and a migration that is motivating people. It happens in places that ‘get it,’ regardless of region,” he said.

He pointed out that, while many expect cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco to attract creative, youthful, and knowledgeable workers, 25 to 34-year-olds are also gravitating to unexpected locales such as Minneapolis, Mesa, Ariz.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Austin, Tex.

These are cities that have captured a significant portion of the ‘creative economy’— where half of all wages and salaries on average pay twice that of manufacturing jobs. More importantly, they are also communities that offer a range of accessible, leisure time activities and amenities when work is done. They also are cities where people can live near where they work, walk to restaurants or galleries, and shop where they live.

Mr. Florida said his second “T,” talented people, seek “challenge, responsibility and the chance to make a difference.” Communities that tap into their citizens’ imaginations, support and encourage creative approaches, and value aesthetics in even the trite and mundane will flourish economically.

Noting how Michigan’s continuing loss of 25-34 year olds to other, cooler places represents a “talent exchange that is devastating to our economy,” Mr. Florida pointed to his third ‘T,’ tolerance, and said without it young people will continue to leave.

“It has to be brought together as a mosaic center” Mr. Florida said of cities that work well. “You can motivate and mobilize the creative community with a space for diverse people and interests to ‘do their thing.’ We need to empower and enable.”

Art Is a Bridge
Another speaker, William Strickland, said using the arts to empower and enable are particularly important strategies for fighting the poverty that is so abundant in urban settings.

“Don’t give up on poor kids,” said Mr. Strickland, the president and CEO of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, a community-based arts and entrepreneurial organization in Pittsburgh, “because you don’t know where they’ll end up. The arts are a bridge for children to walk across to a new life.”

He said that, while growing up on the Steel City’s economically distressed North Side, early experiences with the creative arts changed his life. As his artistic abilities grew, so did his self-image and hopes.

Today Mr. Strickland still works in one of urban Pittsburgh’s seedier neighborhoods, where he continues to direct a program he founded that today teaches visual and culinary arts, horticulture, photography, and computer imagery to 400 at-risk youth in eighth through twelfth grade. A remarkable 80 per cent of those participating in his non-academic classes complete college. During student exhibits, arts patrons stand shoulder-to-shoulder with poor but proud parents in visible support of children’s talents — an effective and inspirational example of how tolerance and diversity can change things in the ‘hood at some very basic and crucial levels.

Next Cool Steps
A week after the conference, many of its participants still seemed to be buzzing with excitement about what they had heard. For example, Nancy Krupiarz of the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Michigan Field Office said that while she was happy that walkability placed first in the survey her view was broader than that.

“The networking with the arts community has begun,” she said. “It’s time to tie it all together: Arts, health, land use and transportation.”

And Nancy Finegood, executive director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, said she was eager to work with people around the state on restoring sagging urban environments.

“Over 1,400 people are energized about revitalizing their cities,” she said. “They now have heard and seen examples of how it can be done.”

But it was Mr. Florida’s parting advice to the conferees that best summarized the day’s discussions: “Make sure everyone is at the table — young, poor, gay, black, Latinos ... This is about the future of this country. It’s time to revitalize the American dream in every single citizen.”

Charlene M. Crowell, a print and broadcast journalist, is the policy advisor in the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Lansing office. You can reach her at charlene@mlui.org.

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