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


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

Landry’s work is aimed at augmenting each of these characteristics, with a special emphasis on claiming distinction. “People don’t feel rooted — in an organization or a region — unless they have a clear sense of what makes it different,” he observes. This is the underlying reason, he feels, that culture must play a defining role in regions that are intent on drawing talent. Culture is a richly symbolic means of establishing distinctiveness in a complex interconnected system. It’s precisely the desire for distinction that leads a city like Calgary to commission a Calatrava.

Of course, creative individuals have always gravitated toward hubs in search of sufficient scope to exercise their talents. Successful hubs historically have been either great trading centers (London, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, New York) or vibrant frontier outposts (Sydney, San Francisco, Mumbai) that throw diverse people together in an open market. By providing a common ground for interactions that would never occur in more bounded circumstances, hubs offer a mechanism for generating, distributing, and leveraging wealth in the service of fulfilling evolving forms of human need. Although the primary market for many enterprises has now moved into virtual space, people still seek out physical harbors that they perceive will support their ability to make connections, access resources, and make a mark. As creativity becomes more broadly vested, more and more contributors will seek to establish their value in hubs.

Landry also notes that as the mainstream global economy expands to include more cultures, more cultural zones claim centrality by organizing around hubs. This is why such cities as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Mumbai, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sao Paolo gain ever more importance in the global system, even as established cultural centers such as New York, Moscow, Paris, San Francisco, Frankfurt, and London remain viable and vital. All these hubs dominate communications and commerce within their cultural zones, and help integrate smaller cities into the global system. Because their importance serves a cultural role, Landry says, “They do not increase their value by becoming more like other hubs, but by emphasizing what is unique about them.”

But distinctiveness requires constant refinement. As Landry points out, “Regions in the global economy must constantly move higher on the value chain if they are to remain economically attractive. A manufacturing center such as Taiwan tries to move from mass production to inventing goods and services that provide a larger knowledge component. Oil producers in the Middle East use sovereign wealth funds to invest oil revenues in research centers so they can keep their best people and develop their talents. Third-tier cities today — Dubai is a good example — recognize they can’t remain in place but need to keep honing their strength as a travel and entertainment hub that links East and West. A second-tier city, like Paris has become, knows it must seek a higher rung or risk becoming a museum — a great place to visit but of declining economic importance. A first-tier city like London has to constantly maintain its edge or it will lose talent to places that offer greater livability along with cultural power.” Although this competitive jockeying can be reduced to caricature in website lists of continually changing “cool places,” the imperative behind it reflects real concerns.

Landry maintains that hubs thrive when social and physical infrastructures are fluid enough to support experiment, serendipity, and invention; they decline when infrastructures become rigid. Rigidity occurs when cultural or legal restrictions hamper development (consider the decline of New York shipping), when diverse populations are pushed out (think of African cities expelling Indian traders in the 1970s and ’80s), or when the physical environment becomes so cumbersome that people no longer wish to negotiate it (think of traffic in Cairo). To sustain energy, urban hubs must attract a broad mix of players: investors, entrepreneurs, culture-makers, patrons, developers, researchers, shoppers, support professionals, visitors. Hubs cannot flourish (nor can they really be hubs) if they draw from a limited pool. This, Landry believes, is why a creative class strategy often fails to spur sustained development, as do master plans that look to technology parks or giant shopping arenas to inject economic juice.

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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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