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 / Autumn 2010 / Issue 60(originally published by Booz & Company)


Charles Landry Knows What Makes Cities Great: Distinction, Variety, and Flow

This tradition of citizen involvement proved useful when Landry argued that paving over swaths of open space in order to expand traffic would do nothing to improve Calgary’s livability. His point of view, he says, would have been “an easy sell in Toronto, but Calgary is an oil town, a city full of engineers. It’s always going to be partial to metrics and to solutions that look efficient on paper.” And so Landry developed a process for calculating the economic costs of ugliness in terms of talent leakage, diminished quality of life, the discouragement factor for local shops, even depression.

He says, “Rather than accept the idea that the impact of ugliness or homogeneity can’t be measured, we tried to figure the cost of not considering culture, creativity, and design in any given project — we called it the asphalt currency.” And so attributes like beauty, ease of access, flexibility of use, and the promotion of civic involvement became criteria for developing the former Olympic space into a rich landscape that provided parkland, athletic fields, grounds for festivals and gatherings, support for innovative local shops, and a hub for multiple modes of transport that helped link the downtown with the residential community.

Landry is pleased that the city has continued to take aesthetics into account. He learned recently that one of the groups he worked with has been instrumental in an effort to replace the dull and unsightly traffic bridge adjacent to the parkland with a commission from architect Santiago Calatrava, known for designing the most beautiful bridges in the world. “This is a sign of a resource city being aspirational,” Landry says.

The city’s oil-town heritage is clearly being transformed as the region seeks to expand its economy beyond petroleum. Like Arab city-states with similar goals, Calgary is recognizing the vital role that cultural icons play in branding a region. But because of a networked culture put in place by a creative bureaucrat, the push to attract such icons does not necessarily need to come from the top. The symbiosis between an active citizenry and a bureaucracy able to accommodate new ideas exemplifies the systemic creativity that Landry seeks to promote.

What Makes a Hub

Landry believes that innovation flourishes in places and in organizations that provide people with multiple means of connecting. Just as the psychological state known as flow heightens an individual’s ability to generate new ideas, so do infrastructures that facilitate flow across boundaries enable people to bring forth new products, ideas, and services. Since Calgary, Landry has begun to evaluate the success of a given project in part on the basis of how many new links or connections within a community have been forged in the process of working on the project.

He points to a highly successful venture in Mantua, Italy, where he was charged with helping the city recapture its sense of history and distinctiveness. Since the town had ancient roots as a publishing center, Landry advised the civic leaders to begin by supporting a series of book festivals. Involving a wide network of people in the effort resulted in an unusual number of entrepreneurial ventures linked to books, with the result that Mantua has emerged as a center for quality book publishers, printers, designers, editors, and dealers. As a hub, the town now serves as a place where people seeking to establish themselves in the field can access a global network of professionals who share their interest.

Becoming a hub for this industry has made Mantua far more attractive to talent. Carol Coletta, president of CEOs for Cities, notes that talented people today gravitate to places that they perceive to be hubs. Coletta defines hubs — organizational as well as civic — as sharing four key characteristics. They facilitate a robust talent churn, they offer tangible support for innovative ventures, they provide the physical ground where people can connect across divisions and cultures, and they offer an undeniable sense of distinctiveness.

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  1. DeAnne Aguirre, Laird Post, and Sylvia Ann Hewlett, “The Talent Innovation Imperative,” s+b, Autumn 2009: Why companies that compete on the global stage must, in light of today’s changing workforce, rethink the way they manage people.
  2. Richard L. Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (Basic Books, 2002): How the creative ethos is increasingly dominating society, and how it is changing everything from our values and tastes to our choices of where to live.
  3. Charles Landry, The Art of City-Making (Earthscan Publications, 2006): An analysis, aided by international case studies, of how to reassess urban potential so that cities can strengthen their identities and adapt to the changing global terms of trade and mass migration.
  4. Charles Landry, The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators (2nd ed., Earthscan Publications, 2008): Revised version of this influential text, which shows how to think, plan, and act creatively in addressing urban issues, with additional examples of innovation and regeneration from around the world.
  5. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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