For the Love of My City

Kageyama providing the keynote address at the Main Street Now conference in Milwaukee, May 2016.

Peter Kageyama delivered perhaps the most powerful keynote address I’ve ever heard at the Main Street Now Conference in Milwaukee this past May 2016. Following his talk I was so moved that it was difficult to put in to words the impact he had on me. So after his talk I read his two books — For the Love of Cities (2011) and Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places (2014). They were full of examples of people making more lovable cities — some of which I was familiar with and many that were new.

Kageyama begins with words of inspiration from Italian-born Canadian poet Pier Giorgio Di Cicco about the the love we have for each other and our communities, and “of the importance of beauty and of arts and culture to a city.” Or as Di Cicco put it himself “Arts and culture are what make a city fall in love with itself” (2011, p.3). Much like the inspiration DiCicco’s words provided Kageyama when he heard them for the first time, Kageyama’s work had a similar impact on me.

At its essence, Kageyama suggests cities need to make themselves easier to connect with emotionally by making themselves more lovable. He then presents this powerful expression of needs:

“We need examples of positive relationships to help us better model our own. We need to be reminded of what it means to have a relationship with a place. To help us fall in love with our cities again, we need to see others who are in love with their communities” (2011, p.6).

Throughout For the Love of Cities and its sequel he provides a laundry list of features present in a lovable place. Just a few of these include:

  • Free wifi
  • Local specialty food
  • Independent bookstores
  • Local music scene
  • Public pools
  • Interesting water fountains for kids to play in
  • Bike friendly
  • Walkability
  • Rituals and traditions
  • Public art
  • Positive graffiti

The key to “increasing the love” and creating emotional attachment to places is paying attention to little things and for making “love letters” as Kageyama calls them. During his keynote in Milwaukee he provided several examples including the Lawn On D — a playground for adults in Boston, MA; an artist from Seattle who makes messages appear on sidewalks only when they are wet using hydrophobic coatings; and a wonderful movable ice sculpture that encouraged kids and adults could creatively play.

The people responsible for making places more “lovable” are a special group he calls “co-creators” or those he calls “the great ‘lovers’ of cities” (2011, p. 163). These people are the most engaged, or as he describes: “They are the ones who are truly ‘in love’ with their community. They make things happen. They inspire others to get in the game. They educate people. They connect people. They are tastemakers and trendsetters…” (2011,p.163).

As our story goes, we didn’t find ourselves in one of the 20 Most Lovable Cities as Kageyama identified. (For those curious of where they are, the list follows: San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Washington DC, Boston, Denver, New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Orlando, Albuquerque, Chicago, Kansas City, Austin, Salt Lake City, Charleston, Grand Rapids, Gainesville, Ann Arbor, and Milwaukee (2011, p.111)). Instead we found ourselves in a place where Richard Florida said you might find “real entrepreneurs,” or, as he explained: “those who want to build something new, sometimes pick ‘frontier locations,’ places where they can mold the environment to help them reach their desired goals, like the tech pioneers of Silicon Valley in the late 60s and 70s, or Hollywood’s early moguls” (p. 187). Now, to be fair, I never envisioned myself to be a tech pioneer or mogul, though I did find myself on the frontier both literally and figuratively. My town of Middlesboro is located on the opposite side of the Cumberland Mountains which at one time represented the westernmost boundary of Colonial America. At the foot of our downtown is the Cumberland Gap through which Daniel Boone blazed a trail and nearly 250,000 followed on their journey west. And it is here where I demonstrated the potential of the ideas that Kageyama suggests.

Daniel Boone let the way for 250,000 settlers passing through the frontier on their journey west.

We began taking proactive action in Middlesboro starting in 2013. Around that time a strategic plan for the downtown was created with extensive community input. Following on its heels was a market analysis, preservation plan, and philanthropic fundraising plan. With this robust planning framework in place, all that was left to do was implement. We started doing that during our first Better Block Middlesborough event in 2013. Over a weekend more than 100 volunteers carried out two-dozen temporary interventions to improve a single block. Joining us was a colleague Mike Lydon from Street Plans Collaborative. Years prior he proved himself a fantastic co-creator for another project on Long Island where we worked with Billy Joel and community volunteers on a similar project.

Better Block Middlesborough video, October 2013
Our Better Block events in October 2013, May 2014, and June 2016 were catalysts for community change.

As the video and photos show from pop-up shops, to parklets, to sharrows, to mobile vendors, to reopening a theater that had been closed 30 years and screening It’s a Wonderful Life, we demonstrated the power of local people to make their place better. Or, as, Kageyama calls it, to make “love letters” and increase the emotional attachment people have to their place.

Our pop-up shop The Palace has become a place for co-creators to get together.

Building on that success we went on to transform other vacant storefronts with our pop-up shop The Palace where the work of over 70 Appalachian artisans is on display and where they are being helped to launch businesses through an innovative partnership with our community college and workforce investment board. This has also become a popular community gathering place for our “co-creators” to get together and take action to bring about a better future for our town.

A vacant gravel lot was transformed in to a community gathering place with live music with support from the Levitt Foundation.

A vacant lot across the way was made in to a place for live music through generous support from the Levitt Foundation. We took a gravel parking lot, laid down dirt and 4,000 feet of sod, and brought premiere acts from all over the country to perform. The second year of programming starts July 30 and can be seen here.

The importance of small things didn’t escape us either. We borrowed from Candy Chang, an artist from New Orleans, and applied her “It’s Good to be Here” sidewalk stencils, as well as the “Before I Die…” project. Recently we’ve embraced local food and urban agriculture more and more, assisted by our selection as a “Local Foods, Local Places” grantee and thanks to additional assistance from the USDA that has brought full-time staff through AmeriCorps VISTA to help develop our local food economy over the next year.

Bringing it full circle and borrowing from Rem Koolhaas who called his groundbreaking work Delirious New York a “retroactive manifesto” on the development of New York, in many respects Kageyama’s work is just that for me as a way to describe the significance of my own life and work. All along I’ve intuitively known the importance of love, creating an emotional attachment with place, telling stories with authenticity and power, and mobilizing fellow co-creators to get results. Thanks to Kageyama I now have a shared language as well as a call to arms for how to bring change about. I am further emboldened too that national organizations such as the National Main Street Center, Project for Public Spaces, the US Environmental Protection Agency and others are opening up to the importance of small-scale incremental change to make places better. I suspect this trickle will become a flood of engagement on the part of citizens to make better places in the years ahead. That’s the cause we’ve dedicated our life to and we feel emboldened now knowing we have so many co-creators to join us in making cities more lovable.

Perhaps the best way to close is mentioning the one-tenth of one percent rule that Kageyama discussed, and the importance of this for small cities and rural areas. Kageyama asserts that 1% of people are responsible for making most things. He then asks what might happen if we could increase the number of co-creators we have by one-tenth of 1%? In a city of a million people that would require 10,000 people, whereas in a city of 10,000 that would be only 10 people. The impact of 10 new co-creators for a smaller city or rural area is potentially huge. And, whereas 10 people in a larger place can easily overlooked and lost in the crowd, in a smaller town they have the potential to change everything. Mobilizing a handful of co-creators gives us hope for smaller places today.

For those without access to these two books or the time to read them, in his first book Kageyama provides a road map for how to unleash creative forces in your town. It goes as follows:

  1. Identify your co-creators. From the major hubs request introductions to ‘connect the dots.’
  2. Look for ways to spotlight their efforts.
  3. Help co-creators get connected to one another.
  4. Stimulate them by bringing energy, fun, and excitement to your work together.

He starts his second book Love Where You Live (2014) with a slightly modified version of this approach.

  1. Identify the anchor personas.
  2. Bring these co-creators together.
  3. Ask them for help.
  4. Amplify what they naturally do.
  5. Provide them with “other” resources.
  6. Ask them to identify more “lovers” of the city.
  7. Expand the circle.

Both of Kageyama’s books are chock full of insights on how to create emotionally engaging places that people love. I would suggest his two books are essential reading for any place-based professional today. Kageyama and his work provide a practical roadmap and a common language for people seeking to transform places where they live today.