Insights · November 13th, 2012
This book, being released first as a serial blog, is a collaboration with Dennis Walsh and this blog is Part 2 of Chapter 6. To those who made recommendations on title possibilities, thank you! Chapter 6 begins the second half of the book, which we will publish as an e-book when the serialization is completed. The book grew out of conversations that Dennis and I have had about the future of cities, sustainability, and the millennial generation. We think that these three domains, if you will, are coming together to create a new future – and just in time we hope.
CHAPTER Six – Part 2
by Dennis Walsh and Glen Hiemstra
America is a land as diverse and unique as its people. From Atlantic to Pacific, we value and respect our individuality. While change is inevitable, the destruction of a community’s unique character and identity is not. Progress does not demand degraded surroundings. Communities can grow without destroying the things that people love.
Some decry the effects of globalization on local culture or cultural autonomy. Few advocate the dissolution of differing cultural identities. But the most important question facing states and policy-makers is what to do in this increasingly competitive world environment? The impact of a trend toward sameness has been stunning.
The more one city comes to look and feel just like every other city, the less reason there is to visit. On the other hand, the more a city does to enhance its uniqueness, whether that is cultural, natural or architectural, the more people will want to visit.
American cities must re-examine their role and purpose as well as define their appeal to ‘consumers’. They must distinguish themselves from their competitors and position themselves as a recognizable brand in an increasingly international market place.
Relying on past success is no longer enough. Today, successful companies and young talented people are less likely to have hometown loyalty. They can choose where to cluster. Cities with distinctive characteristics, be they economic, cultural, environmental or life style, will attract the best companies and people.
The built environment is a key way of distinguishing one city from another. Cities have always done this, building iconic structures such as the Eiffel Tower, or promoting particular styles of architecture.
To be richly endowed, like Rome, with cultural treasures is obviously a tremendous advantage. This majestic heritage continues to attract people from all over the world, reinforcing its long-standing reputation as the Eternal City. For Rome, as with any other city of culture, history is an essential ingredient of its identity, image, and attractiveness.
But, as in life, there is the need for caution. Distinctiveness won’t solve everything, and lots of other issues matter. The more we are consumed by the idea of turning cities into world-class metropolis’s like Los Angeles or New York, the more we lose touch with our local traditions. And the more we focus on integrating our local economies into the global economy, the more we lose control over how our communities will develop. In the race to become globally competitive, valuable resources are being diverted away from meeting community needs.
This has two consequences: local politicians may be prepared to sacrifice the needs of local interest groups or communities in order to attract growth and investment, though one could argue that this has always been the case. But it also means that, with the bulk of investment coming from outside, cities are in danger of losing their distinctive characteristics. For instance, when a corporation such as Wal-Mart or McDonald’s opens a branch operation in my city, they are not trying to enhance what is unique about it, they are looking to replicate a successful formula that is relatively the same the world over.
Around the world, cities are seeking the recipe for economic success in a rapidly changing global marketplace. Well educated people, the ability to generate new ideas and to turn those ideas into commercial realities, connectivity to global markets, and multi-modal transportation infrastructure are all indispensable assets.
[Glen Hiemstra is the Founder of Futurist.com, and curator of Dothefuture.com. Dennis Walsh is a sustainability futurist from Canada best known for his work as the first publisher of green@work. Contact us through futurist.com]