Can Cities Survive on Love Alone?

Although For the Love of Cities by Peter Kageyama was published in 2011, the book, concept and author have been gaining popularity recently by a breadth of cities and city-loving organizations. Kageyama calls for city leaders to take on the task of giving “love notes” to the community. Yes, that right, love notes or emotional capital, in the form of parks, arts, open space, local culture, play, walkable spaces. These create emotional connections and attachment between people and their cities. It is certainly well documented that a thriving quality of life, or “lovability” as the case may be, supports growth and helps people feel attached to their communities. But in the context of what this means for local governments, is Kageyama’s “lovability” theory the answer cities have been waiting for? Can cities survive on love alone? Here's my take. Lovability is not a silver bullet. Although coffee shops, dog parks and cultural events are critical to retaining and attracting residents and businesses, “lovability” is not a sufficient condition to bolster economic growth and retain/attract talent in places that are truly struggling. A community needs a baseline level of economic health and employment opportunity before quality of life becomes a driving force, i.e. no amount of dog parks can solve Detroit’s underlying economic challenges. This isn’t to say struggling cities shouldn’t strive to enhance quality of life/lovability, but they need to do it along-side the difficult work of addressing critical challenges like economic development, workforce skills, infrastructure and youth violence. Chelsea mich clock tower Chelsea, MI is a case in point for the mutual support that can exist between “love notes” and functional services. Nearly 30 years ago, the downtown association, elected officials, community banks, Chamber of Commerce, small business owners, and regulatory departments worked together to fully invest in returning its rundown downtown as the epicenter of the community. The catalyst for attracting storefronts - love notes, in the form of the the Purple Rose Theatre Company and a local restaurant. The partnership tapped Chelsea native and long-time resident, actor/musician Jeff Daniels, who founded the nonprofit theater Purple Rose. The restaurant, the Common Grill, was given space to open in an old vacant department store in the middle of the downtown. The theater and restaurant not only enhanced local culture and attachment, but brought patrons into downtown and allowed for pedestrian traffic in other shops. Create a culture of authentic engagement. Cities can do much to create lovability and attachment, but more important, how can cities tap this attachment for authentic civic engagement that drives change in the community? Through support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, NLC recently released Bright Spots in Community Engagement, a scan of communities across the country to better understand how local governments are empowering residents to advance the well-being of their communities. Creating a culture of authentic engagement involves:

  • Reaching a broad spectrum of networks and representatives from all facets of the community, particularly those not typically engaged
  • Using new tools and strategies, particularly those that tap the power of technology, i.e. open data
  • Using a range of strategies (both traditional and more innovative) to engage residents. This helps reach more populations and leads to greater sustainability
  • Knowing when to lead and when to providing more subtle leadership in the form of support and collaboration where efforts are well underway from the grassroots
  • Making the physical and digital space available for engagement (schools, libraries)

For example, in the city of Philadelphia, partnerships across sectors have led to an open data and technology initiative that has attracted the city's co-working spaces, venture funds, local foundations, emerging technologies, press and universities. "My belief is that if we keep helping these good guys [in City Hall] do good work, their colleagues will need to learn the value of partnering with engaged citizens,” noted Alex Hillman of Indy Hall, a co-working space in the city dedicated to neighborhood development. The city of Philadelphia is an active participant, serving as a convener of key stakeholders, providing access to data systems, using the mayoral bully pulpit to bring attention and lend credibility to the initiatives, and institutionalizing this strategy through the mayor’s executive order on open data and the appointment of Mark Headd, formerly of Code for America, as the city’s first Chief Data Officer. Cities across the country, like Chelsea and Philadelphia, are not only developing creative ways to help residents feel love for their cities, but leveraging this love into long term economic and fiscal impact and authentic civic engagement.