‘There is a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in’ Leonard Cohen
Ok, so Leonard was talking about our souls – about imperfection being essential to our spirits. Profound and simple and lovely.
But in some ways cities have spirits too, even personalities and psychologies. And while city makers focus on the tangibles in cities – the buildings and roads and bridges – they can sometimes overlook or undervalue the intangibles, like relationships, connections and ideas.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in meetings with city leaders and the subject turns to ‘ what we want are deliverables, projects – this is just a talk fest’. Sure that may be true – but most of our cities are ‘talk fest deprived’.
Opportunities for cities often fall between the cracks or across boundaries. The most interesting can be found in unloved nooks and crannies where no strategic thinking or strategic planning bothers to fossick.
I’m thinking in particular of cities in the middle rungs. Places that are ‘declining gracefully’ as Charles Landry describes. Places that are so driven to develop and deliver physical projects that they have no idea of the special qualities needing just a nudge or two to flourish.
Maybe we just don’t know how to talk about the possibilities. Most of our conversations are so superficial. It’s hard to create the right dynamics to move us forward.
When I think back to projects I’ve worked on I recognize my own timidity. Feeling limited to hosting a workshop or a conference. Everything is so formal and antiseptic. It’s so hard to move to any real conversation.
Every so often you come across people that even in these limitation can break through. Charles Landry is one such person but another, for me, has been Peter Sellars. No not the Peter Sellers of the Goons and so on but Peter Sellars the Opera Director. As a speaker he has the power to transform an audience and he has had a huge impact on me and how I feel about cities.
I’ll never forget a presentation he gave in Australia to the Property Council where he compared the qualities of Florence, Italy with the qualities of Florence, Colorado, which aims to be the Prison Capital of America. You had to be there.
Cities are places for dreams and opportunities. So much of what matters to us is intangible and we treat it like it doesn’t even matter. If it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist. But I make a plea for the cracks in cities, the small areas that cross boundaries and can disappear in grand projects. These can be the most profound and important things and somehow we need to be better at seeing them and understanding their value.