Finding Value in Local Relevance

August 25, 2016

Nancy Harris, Mayor of the City of Duluth

Oftentimes municipalities struggle to identify their own uniqueness and settle on the generic amenities and attributes that can be found in the conventional “cool” cities. Bike lanes, coffee shops, startups, microbreweries, public art, boutiques and hip restaurants are all great to have in a city, but they are the standardized urban ante in today’s market. These amenities are the civic equivalent to best practices. As Harvard business professor Michael Porter puts it, “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique matrix of value.”
More Than a Brand
There is something warm and cozy about the word “local.” Perhaps it represents authenticity, honesty and high quality. Maybe this is true because one knows the merchant or perhaps the service is easily accessible and locally grounded.
Authenticity is attractive to people and represents relevant distinctiveness in a city. Place keeping is another way to identify a city that finds relevance and value in cultural heritage and embraces the historical backdrops from which it came. Place keeping is more than a brand—it means enhancing what is local and truly understanding local context.
So, for economic reasons, it is probably a good idea for a city to do a little anthropological work to unearth its distinctiveness and identify the “mojo” that makes each place unique. Being distinctive means one must identify the relevance of an area or city and embrace the quirky, old stories and traditions of the past. Creating a unique vibe that sets a city apart from others is a competitive strategy that finds value in relevance.
“To Thine Own Self Be True”
There are unique and interesting subtleties that belong to every city. Just as Shakespeare’s Hamlet quotes from the play, each city must identify its own self and be true to its local character. Traditional city planners have been talking about “place making” for years as they work with cities to develop new and significant projects such as a town gathering area, new buildings for retail and restaurants, sidewalks, street lights and so on. However “place keeping” is actually much different in that the search is for understanding the local culture by establishing its place within the context of cultural history and what is genuinely important to the locals. Staying true to the roots that give a place its mojo is critical to a projects’ success.
There are a few places that are getting this right— embracing authentic relevancy. An obvious example is Nashville. The Music City embraced country music as its core and now the city is sometimes called “Nashvegas.” In Georgia, the city of Rockmart is a small city that embraced its location on the Silver Comet Bike Trail and is now a destination for bike riders from other states. Ashburn is the home of the “Fire Ant Festival,” and the city of Duluth markets its location on top of The Eastern Continental Divide. Learning how to bank on natural resources is a sustainable way to plan for destination locations, such as the Chattahoochee River. Duluth uses the city funded canoe launch to serve as a revenue generator by allowing raft companies to utilize the launch.
The Silver Comet Trail. Photo courtesy of the PATH Foundation.

Talking About My Generation
According to AARP, by the year 2030 1 out of 5 Americans will be 55+ and the U.S. will have more residents of Medicare age than children of school age. To embrace this shift in population yet keep the next generation in mind, it is important to plan for life-long communities. But how do city planners make sure that new projects respect place keeping and embrace local relevance? Planning for generational sustainability will add value to local communities as cities change with trends and will help to ensure leaders are balancing trends with best practices.
Cities fall into the conventional “cool trap” for a number of reasons. Part of it is the play-it-safe mentality often found in government. Anything different is sure to bring out the naysayers even if the ideas are proven best practices. In this competitive market, uniqueness is what sells, so be cautious not to reject something as obsolete. Remember authenticity has a value that attracts tourists to a city and this could range from a “farm to table” restaurant district to a music venue that adds audio identity. A city must examine its existing infrastructure to determine the best use of unappreciated structures, deprived park spaces or even the narrow sidewalks. Enhance what is local by finding what is nostalgic and revered by the locals.
Immersion and Place Keeping
Taking time to educate oneself about the culture, traditions and peculiarities of individual locales can help planners understand more than building codes, materials or ordinances. It is important to consider what is important for the people that will ultimately use the place. It’s understood that environmental impact, transportation, housing, food and water must all be considered but taking the time to think about creating spaces that celebrate local heritage, draw people together and encourage social interactions will provide places that resonate now and for years to come.
City planners and developers must emerge themselves in the community’s personality in order for a potential design to be tempered by what will be successful in the local context. People who live there, know the place intimately, have daily routines and hear other locals are important conversations. The local stories provide the matrix of values that are relevant to an area thereby keeping such place relevant. Local is Good.

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