Cities: Be Who You Are — Only Better

To All City Leaders, Urbanists, Activists, Citizens, and “Would-Be” Energizers of Places,

'Movement' Dancer in Detroit's Hart Plaza

A couple of the interesting things that I get to do in my role as CEO of the Michigan Municipal League is to travel to interesting places and meet some extraordinary people. Just in the past month or so I have had the pleasure of spending time neighborhoods throughout Detroit, St. Louis’ Delmar Loop, Sixth Street in Austin, Downtown Traverse City, and Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.

These are all great places with lots of character (and characters), an array of assets, and energy in the streets. The people who I have the pleasure to meet with are also jewels for the community whether it be the activists in St. Louis, entrepreneurs in Detroit, or big business types in DC. They all bring something hyper-local to the conversations about the future of a street, or a neighborhood, or a city.

Traverse City Cherry Festival

WARNING! So here comes the self-help part of the blog. Traveling to other places, or simply learning about them, can be intoxicating. Upon returning home it’s easy, and understandable, to see why many of us want to shout “We can do that here!” or “If we only had ____ things it would be great.” I know I have done this many times before.

Learning from the experiences of other places is paramount to moving your own community forward. When visiting or researching be sure to take lots of pictures and ask questions of others like 1) Who was involved?; 2) What was the strategy?; and, 3)How has it changed?

Dupont Circle Farmers Market

However, we must fight the urge to re-create our own places using the exact same formula that worked somewhere else. Every place is a bit different. People are diverse. Histories are unique. And expectations for the future are all over the map. While some people view these differences as a burden to moving places forward in an efficient manner (Yes, I am talking to you, state economic developers/central planners of sameness), I believe that it is precisely these differences that make an area special and provide a true gateway to the future. I’m not sure that Austin’s homespun music scene would thrive in DC or that Detroit’s gritty entrepreneurial culture lends itself to the Traverse City landscape, but their stories and lessons can provide change agents in those towns with a strong basis for moving their own locally driven causes forward. The numbers clearly back up these assertions about the importance of a community’s authenticity, too.

So go ahead and travel. See it all. Study your neighbors just down the road and your competitors clear across the globe. Ask questions of them. Learn from their successes and from their failures. Then carefully tailor this information into your own unique vision to make your community a greater place to live, learn, work, and play.

In short, be who you are — only better.


— This post was written by Dan Gilmartin for the Michigan Municipal League’s Economics of Place blog.


The Delmar Loop in St. Louis

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