Politico, of all places, has an in-depth article on the revitalization of Des Moines, Iowa in a piece called, “How Des Moines Got Cool.” It’s well worth your time. If it isn’t, here are some key quotes that could apply to wherever you’re trying to revitalize:
Gandelsonas’ urban planning philosophy was simple: don’t treat a city like a map that needs to be redrawn and corrected, but as a living organism with its own purpose, personality and innate characteristics. Successful interventions are ones that enhance and enable the organism’s socio-economic metabolism by removing blockages or creating new centers of potential growth.
The car ride in from the airport was sobering. At the central city’s gateway, what Gandelsonas called its “front yard,” travelers were greeted by a gas station and seven blocks of car dealerships set among radiator shops and pawn brokers. Downtown itself “looked like science fiction,” he recalls. “It was mid-morning and there were no people on the streets. At lunchtime, the streets were still empty, but for about an hour the skywalks were full of people. At 4:30 they started filling up again as everyone rushed to the nearest parking structure and then for half an hour there was a full-on traffic jam as 50,000 people tried to get to West Des Moines. Then the city was empty again. For me this was the perfect picture of a place that was totally dysfunctional.”
Now, these parts of the story are, IMO more critical to the story than much of the rest of the narrative, which bizarrely pivots on magic bullets, a very architect-y notion that big, expensive civic buildings will revitalize the city. This isn’t the case, but instead it’s the more philosophical metaphors listed above that are more impactful long-term. Cities are accelerators of exchange. They bring people together to share and trade. They facilitate and encourage chance encounters that could lead to the next great idea, artwork, or whatever else. Progress happens via collaboration not in vacuums. Cities, when properly designed, are platforms of collaboration, problem solving, and progress. They’re messy, chaotic, and beautiful.