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Man about town
Creative City guru Charles Landry speaks at the Morris Center
Charles Landry

CHARLES LANDRY IS ONE of the coolest people you probably have never heard of.

The English social scientist and author was an expert on fostering a creative economy long before the much more well-known Richard Florida wrote his first best-selling book about it. Unlike Florida, Landry does not speak of a “Creative Class” per se, but rather of “the Creative City.”

Since the founding of his consulting firm, Comedia, in 1978, Landry has worked with hundreds of clients in nearly 50 countries, finding solutions to common urban problems such as job growth, economic and racial diversity, immigration, and homelessness.

Landry speaks in a free appearance Tuesday, July 8, at the new Charles H. Morris Center in the revitalized Trustees Garden area. He spoke to us by phone last week from the U.K.

Why do you speak of a creative city instead of a creative class?

Charles Landry: I did my first work around this notion in ‘89, which was really to do with cities restructuring, and you therefore had to think sort of sideways. I started that work in Glasgow, which was one of our classic industrial cities that was declining dramatically.

The thing we focused on at the time was the new industries coming up, what I suppose you’d call the “creative economy” — design, film and related industries and so on. After awhile I then wrote the first book, The Creative City, in ‘95, and essentially what I wrote at the time was that the Creative City is a place which provides the conditions where people can think, plan, and act with imagination. You need to be creative in how you deal with homeless people, things like that.

Why cities are interesting is, I think we know what a creative individual is, and what a creative team is — how you deal with mavericks, and so on — because there’s now a whole literature on that. But in a city all of this comes together, doesn’t it? And how you therefore create an environment, a milieu, or an ecology is incredibly important.

How does everything fit together? I’m interested in that simply because it’s a greater challenge than just saying what makes a creative team or a creative individual.

So what makes a Creative City?

Charles Landry: Some people think when you say “Creative City” it means a place with many artists and a lot of strung arts fabric. Clearly in an age which, certainly in Europe, is much more secular, arts and cultural institutions like museums often act as places of refuge and reflection. In the European context, since most people don’t go to church, they might go to a museum. Clearly that’s one definition, but you can’t really call that “the Creative City.”

Some people think having a strong creative economy with lots of designers and all of that, filmmakers and so on, makes a creative city. New York may have ten percent of its people working in that field, in Savannah you may have six percent. But there are another 90 percent of people doing stuff of some sort or another.

Richard’s thing includes bringing workers, scientists and those sorts of people as well. And in his calculations it may be 25 percent of the population. But that still leaves another 75 percent.

The Creative City in the way I’ve described it has always been where ordinary people can make the extraordinary happen if given a chance. Because you also need to be talking about roads, parking lots, what do the buildings look like, all of that infrastructural stuff. So you need things like creative administrations, an imaginative bureaucracy to enable all these things to flow well. To isolate class is to me slightly limiting.

There has been a backlash against the whole creative class thing, that it just fosters a different kind of elitism.

Charles Landry: One of the big dilemmas of the 21st century is precisely diversity. How do different people live together? With mass mobility, with less loyalty of each individual to the city, how do we share space and create common futures?

For me it’s double-edged, because I was doing my own thing and then Richard came along and that to some extent helped popularize what I was talking about (laughs), but in effect narrowed down what people thought it meant. Rather than the broader things, which I encapsulate in a few words: Ordinary people can solve problems in imaginative ways, which is what I’m really saying the creative city is. It’s an empowering notion.

In Western civilization, hasn’t the definition of a great city always been where art, commerce, and enlightened leadership come together? Vienna, Florence, London?

Charles Landry: Yes, I agree. And you could put it another way: Can you think of a great city that didn’t have a strong cultural fabric? The answer is probably no. All I’m saying is you also need imaginative solutions to the day-to-day problems we all have.

In some quarters there’s a sense that we just need more tourists and then we’ll be “creative.” How could Savannah brand itself as a truly great city rather than just a tourist attraction?

Charles Landry: The problem with tourism is that the tourist doesn’t really give anything back other than a bit of money, and in the process often destroys the vitality of a city, and it becomes ossified. That is the big danger of cities that are attractive.

Great cities are those that can absorb tourists, where tourism is just a subsidiary aspect that isn’t really dominant. So tourism is in fact quite dangerous to some extent. Tourism is a double-edged sword, definitely. It can destroy a city just as much as it can get it in liftoff position.

Some of the most creative cities are interested in actually reducing the level of tourism, like Barcelona. The tourists are eating up the city. They’re using the public space, the facilities, and all that, and that’s all they’re really doing. They’re not contributing to the vitality of the place, unless you use a limiting definition of vitality, that the restaurants are a bit more full. So tourism is the easy way out, but not necessarily the answer.

For me, the best tourist is the one who has something to do there, for example a trade link. Someone with business to do within the city. The most interesting thing is to be in Savannah and doing a project with someone in Savannah, and therefore being a tourist in that sense.

When you link that to branding — I rarely use the word “branding,” I say “building a reputation” — how do you build a reputation for a city? Then you don’t need to say we’re attracting tourists, the visitors will come in any case because they have some business to do there.

You stress the importance of diversity, but in Savannah diversity tends to mean only black or white. What advice do you have for the strongly bifurcated, racially-split city?

Charles Landry: When we did the project called The Intercultural City, which is about that problem, we really talked about a couple of things. The first is acknowledging conflict, that it is a conflictual situation. And that in terms of your policies, you need to find ways of jointly finding ways of co-creating the city. Ultimately it has to do with economic opportunity. Tension goes down when economic opportunities are equally shared.

In America, the private sector plays a much bigger role than in Europe. What can a local Chamber of Commerce do to foster a creative city?

Charles Landry: One of the big things about interculturalism is that business to some extent has been driving that, because they know as they globalize, that in the end having a diverse workforce in broad terms is better than having a homogenous workforce. In general one can say that globalized businesses, in thinking about themselves, are the ones being most forthright about mixing population groups together.

So what can a Chamber of Commerce do? I suppose much of it is initially an advocacy case, isn’t it? That’s what they do initially to show the economic evidence for going in that direction. I’m not sure they can do much more, because they can only pull people together, can’t they?

What message do you hope to bring here when you speak?

Charles Landry: Basically I’m going to say there has been a way of looking at cities and putting cities together which I call the “urban engineering” approach. That’s basically the hardware, getting the roads done, and that sort of stuff. But that leaves out the software of the city, of how you make places that encourage people to meet and do all of these things, which is what makes a city work.

I’m going to contrast the urban engineering approach to city-making — where road engineers and real estate interests crudely define how the city’s put together — versus what I’m calling “creative city-making,” which is very much about having a bigger picture view of a city.

Many American cities build roads, for example, rather than streets, a road going from point A to point B and you don’t care what happens in between. If I say to you, name me a great city, and you think about it — and Savannah in that sense has some of these features — you’ll see that it’s built around great streets. If I say Paris, you immediately think of streets. I think many cities in America have lost the art of doing that, because individual interests have determined how the city looks and feels without a bigger picture view of what the city looks and feels like as a whole.

That’s going to be one of my main themes, followed by how bureaucracies can be creative in trying to blend and pull these interests together. In Savannah it could have been easy to just knock all the buildings down and put up a few skyscrapers. Each of those individual projects may have made more money in contrast to a small, maintained building.

However, if you look at the city as a whole, in fact it was a bloody good choice that you didn’t profit-maximize on each site. Because the totality of Savannah has much more value than had one just let private interests decide how the city worked. So you’re a brilliant case study to some extent of what I’m talking about.

Charles Landry

When: 7 p.m., Tue., July 8

Where: Charles H. Morris Center, Trustees Garden, East Broad & Bay

Cost: Free