Local Government Magazine

Peter Kageyama: On smart placemaking

Peter Kageyama: On building a sense of place LG May 2016 Featured Image

Author and international thought leader Peter Kageyama offers a fresh perspective on how councils can better engage with communities and create lovable places. 
He will be a keynote speaker at the LGNZ conference 2016 in July.

What makes cities lovable? And can a lovable city be created consciously and deliberately?

We tend to love small things about our cities: a park, a favourite spot to people-watch, our local farmer’s market, a favourite coffee shop or a restaurant. Some of these are within a city’s purview, while others not so much.

Yet the city sets the conditions where a more lovable city might occur. It does so by investing in things like beauty, art, great design and social capital. No city is loved because it fixes potholes.

In the future, will local authorities have a greater or lesser role in making this happen?

Clearly I believe it will be a greater role. Think about how today cities recognise they play a key role in citizen health. 
As things like obesity rates and diabetes have increased, cities are thinking about their role in making for healthier citizens.

Yet 10 or 15 years ago that was not the case. Today we may not think about the emotional health of our citizens but I see it as common practice in the near future.

What three pieces of advice would you give to local authorities wanting to create a lovable city or town?

Start small – Lighter, faster, cheaper projects can create momentum and a sense of possibilities.

Embrace temporary – Projects with a finite life cycle let you be more experimental and can alleviate fears and negative opinions about change.

Let citizens into the game – Cities need to encourage more of a culture where citizens feel empowered and encouraged to be city builders. If not, then all of it falls onto government’s shoulders while citizens sit back and wait for you to make the city better for them.

How is engagement changing? What can local authorities do now to best make this work in the longer term? What do they need to stop doing?

The tools for making change are now ubiquitous and immensely powerful. Citizens can organise quickly, make powerful changes and just as quickly disband.

I don’t think the fundamental nature of engagement is changing but certainly the rapidity of it has increased. Cities need to adjust to this speed, which is challenging for them.

Cities need to stop reflexively saying “no” to anything that is new, different or the least bit risky. Our risk managers serve 
a purpose but ask who runs the city.

Let’s use our creativity and innovation to find ways to say “yes” more and in doing so, not squelch the energy and enthusiasm people have when wanting to do something positive for their city.

New Zealand is still characterised by having many small settlements. How do your ideas work for them?

I believe that the types of projects I highlight – smaller, more creative and more fun – have a proportionally larger impact in small towns.

When you do something in a small town, everybody knows about it. You can see the impact of your effort – the feedback is much more direct and immediate which in turn can encourage more projects.

Could you name a city or town overseas where people’s emotional engagement with their place is being turned into tangible action?

For me, the most obvious and remarkable example comes from Detroit, Michigan. Between 2000 and 2010, Detroit lost more than 100,000 in population and was the epitome of a “dying” Rust Belt city.

In July 2013, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, trapped under the weight of US$18 billion of debt with limited options. To many it was another punch line in a long series of jokes at Detroit’s expense.

Outsiders took it as a death knell for the once-great city. But for the Detroit diehards who passionately love their decaying mess of a city, it was just another day in ‘The D’.

Detroit has its haters, and it certainly is a mess that could take years, perhaps even decades, to right. But so long as the city has people who still love it and believe in it, Detroit will never fail.

That is the nature of love – it defies reason. But it absolutely matters. If the lovers of Detroit lost faith and hope in their city, then Detroit truly would be as screwed as many outsiders believe it to be. Sometimes passion, loyalty and evidence-defying faith in something are all that carry you forward.

Detroit still has many amazing assets, including the revitalised auto industry and a toughness that comes from facing years of challenges. But one of the most important assets for that particular city – and for your city – is the love and devotion that its citizens have for it.

For many creative and entrepreneurial folks, Detroit has become a hotbed of innovation and activity. The city government was mostly broke which led to a frontier mentality amongst these artists, activists and entrepreneurs. They took over abandoned buildings and failing projects. They put new spins on them or in some cases just showed them some love.

These, mostly citizen-led, efforts have dramatically changed the narrative about Detroit from symbolising industrial decay to Rust Belt reinvention.

How come ‘placemaking’ is such a popular term? Didn’t towns and cities do that kind of stuff before? Or is ‘placemaking’ just a new term for an old concept – and, if so, what was it known as before?

I think it has replaced the idea of “city building” which has a more urban feel to it. Making better places is universal. All of us want to live in better, more interesting, more lovable places. Placemaking is not limited to cities and that appeals to many who live in suburbs, smaller towns and rural areas.

We’re holding our triennial local body elections in New Zealand in October this year. What attributes make for an ideal local government elected member?

The elected officials who have impressed me the most are the ones who start out with a passion for their community that leads them to government. They are the ones who recognise they don’t have all the answers and are willing to listen to other, smart people.

I had the opportunity earlier this year to have dinner with a small group of community leaders in South Bend, Indiana. The group included mayor Peter Buttigieg.

Until very recently, he was the youngest mayor of any American city of 100,000. He is 34. He is also a military veteran who served in Afghanistan and is a Rhodes Scholar. The guy is a rock star. But what impressed me the most was that he really seemed to listen to the other folks in the room and asked insightful questions of them and me.

What will be your key message at the LGNZ conference in July?

I will talk about emotional engagement with our places and why it is a good thing for more of us to fall in love with our cities. For leaders of those cities, I will talk about how they can create the set of conditions where more of that might occur.

LGNZ conference 2016

Peter Kageyama will be a keynote speaker at the LGNZ Conference in Dunedin in July where he will be talking about engaging communities and building a sense of place. For more information: www.lgnz.co.nz

He is the author of For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places and the follow up, Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places.

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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