On Tuesday, the Greater Halifax Partnership hosted urban expert Charles Landry as part of its “Building Our Future” lecture series at the Westin Nova Scotian. An urban strategy consultant and author of The Creative City, Landry has a straightforward message: to thrive in today’s world, cities need to nurture their capacity for creativity by linking their existing qualities as a place to a broad, inspiring vision of the place they could one day become. “Creativity” has become a major buzzword in discussions of urban politics across the country and further afield. Supporters of “creative city” strategies see them as a way of building a competitive advantage in an age of liberalized trade and footloose investment; detractors see them as a feel-good glaze on increasingly reckless business-as-usual. Whatever their merits, at a time when the “new economy” is in tatters, and frameworks for a new new economy are being debated in communities and all levels of government, ideas like Landry’s are likely to find a receptive audience.
What makes creativity so important, Landry argued in his lecture, is its role in today’s urban economies. With most factory jobs long since shipped off to the Third World, the remaining dynamic sectors of First World economies are based on creating things, not making them. The creative industries, he suggested, take the “knowledge economy” a step further: they take existing knowledge and create something new with it. The basis of this production, then, is not natural resources or big manufacturing plants, but the creativity of engaged people. In creative industries from biotechnology to graphic design, it is talented people that companies are built upon and that they search for. Summing up a now-familiar theory, Landry explained that economic development today depends, not on luring companies or investment directly, but rather on attracting and retaining a creative workforce. And creative people, he concluded, want to live, more than anything else, in great places.
What makes a place great, then? Landry’s presentation emphasized some general points. He contrasted images of people walking and biking on downtown streets with images of hulking, traffic-clogged highways. The former, he likes. He juxtaposed nature scenes from Peggy’s Cove with photos of nearby big-box stores and sites of future big-box stores. Nature, he said, is an important part of the emotional, sensual experience of really great places. He distinguished, finally, between architecture that invites the interest of passerby and architecture that says “no!” in its overwhelming scale and alienating physique. Fenwick Towers and the Aliant Building, he was not the first to remark, are bad buildings, while the heritage retail buildings along Queen Street and the Bishop’s Landing condominiums are positive examples. “Every building must earn a right to be downtown,” he argued.
What most of Landry’s images point toward is the importance of street life. “In a sentence,” Landry suggested, “a great city is great streets.” Streets, he explained, are the basic unit of the city, the foundation upon which a truly creative city is built. Streets are the places people share, and the places where people encounter one another as fellow residents. Great streets not only attract creative people from elsewhere, they also inspire creativity in those who are already here. Scanning through images of shoppers and other pedestrians on Barrington Street and Spring Garden Road, Landry argued that vibrant street life needs to be the first priority of today’s city-makers. “With every new development,” he said, “we need to ask: is this creating a [great] street?”
While it is hard not to like pleasant, vibrant streets, some critics take issue with the downsizing of politics in strategies like Landry’s to the furnishing of nice places to walk and shop. Jamie Peck, an urban theorist at the University of British Columbia, argues that creative city strategies have become a standardized and anemic response to a situation in which governments have given up their former, broader role in society. Instead of pursuing goals like full employment and fair wages, governments (especially city governments) simply try to out-market other places in the competition for elite workers. Instead of spending money on eduction and social programs, governments constrict their financial allocations to beautification projects and new amenities for the geographically fickle. The “creative city,” argues Peck, is largely an aesthetic twist on decades-old laissez faire politics.
And yet, perhaps in response to past criticism, there was at least a hint of something bigger in Landry’s presentation. He has advised cities not to mimic Austin or San Francisco, but to focus on what makes them special. He arrived in Halifax three days early to get to know it -- still too little time, he admitted -- and to work with city officials to identify the city’s existing strengths. For inspiration and useful ideas, he suggested that Halifax might still look elsewhere, but that it should focus on “climactically similar” cities like those in Scandinavia. Perhaps not surprisingly, Landry’s examples here included places that not only have cold winters, but that have suffused their Nordic social and ecological priorities into the built environment: one image showed a carbon neutral office complex; the next showed an artsy residential development in which pay-what-you-can social housing was mixed with pay-what-we-tell-you market housing so surreptitiously as to make class divisions -- and perhaps class stigma -- seem to disappear.
Ultimately, there are two sides to Landry’s advice. The first is to focus on streets. The second, more challenging suggestion is to situate practices of city-making in a common “values framework” that includes social fairness and ecological viability. Cities need to have a purpose, Landry advised, not just enable people to make money. “We need to be creative places for the world, not just in it,” he explained. “We need to make cities that embed a culture of creativity so that we can all be more creative.” The big question, in this case, is whether this requires governments to step in and implement policies and programs -- from education to social housing -- that will steer urban processes in a broadly positive, purposeful direction. If the answer is yes, then Landry’s strategy for cities of the laissez-faire present has the surprising feature of calling for, even requiring, a substantially different future.