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Charles Landry in Minneapolis: From art in the city to the city as art form

How do you help a city say "yes"--to its citizens, to diversity, to life itself? According to one authority, it's by thinking of streets and neighborhoods as works of art.

Last week, the “Plan-It Hennepin” initiative held a series of workshops, walking tours, and other events called “Creating 21st Century Intercultural and Creative Cities.” The purpose of the week-long event was to identify assets along the Central Corridor connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul, recognize diverse evolving communities, and determine strategies for bringing place and culture together. Kicking off the event was the British-born and world-renowned “critical friend to cities” Charles Landry, an author, instigator, collaborator, and “authority on urban futures and the use of creative approaches to achieve farsighted aims” (per his web site).

Landry’s talk at The Cowles Center was the fourth and final lecture in the “Talk-It Hennepin” series that’s part of “Plan-It Hennepin,” a year-long initiative funded by a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant that aims to plan the future of Hennepin Avenue and surrounding areas. Landry gave another presentation on Thursday during the 18th Annual Great River Gathering: Celebrating Saint Paul on the Mississippi,” and a closing speech on Friday morning on Harriet Island.

Beyond Retrofitting

Landry’s Cowles Center presentation included images from his forays around the Twin Cities in preparation for the week’s events and provided a platform for his message: It’s no longer enough to retrofit art, culture, people, and conviviality into existing urban infrastructure (like “lipstick on a gorilla,” he said); instead, we need to create neighborhoods that are living works of art, grounding people and place, providing connection and possibility, and inspiring learning and understanding.

Expanding on the point, Landry called for "cultural authenticity" in city planning--a mindset that reflects and recognizes how diverse communities are growing and evolving (along the Central Corridor, for example), as an alternative to a purely "decorative" approach to improving cities.

If a city considers culture and its representations the "DNA" of authentic city planning, he said, the result can be a community in which everyone feels recognized and welcomed; but if the diverse marks of culture are seen as obstacles to planning, many people will feel excluded. 

Landry also discussed how cities  need to integrate not only engineering (hardware), but also feeling and sensory perception (software) into their plans.

Lastly, he asked the provocative question: Is Minneapolis/ St. Paul a city of projects, or is the project the cities themselves? Both approaches are true Landry asserted. The Central Corridor is a single project, but as a lifeline of the Twin Cities, it contributes in a major way to the whole city-as-project.

A Paradigm Shift

A paradigm shift is underway, he explained. Rather than asking about the value of creativity, good design, culture, and art (which entails justifying their existence), the question has become “What is the cost of not thinking imaginatively about culture, art, sustainability, and design?” Creative city making, then, is an integration of diverse perspectives, including “eco-consciousness," “cultural literacy” (understanding representation), and “healthy urban planning” (how does every planning decision contribute to the health of the planet and the creativity of the city?).

Other questions Landry posed included: How does a community view diversity--as a threat or an opportunity? Is a development enriching from a sensory perspective? In other words, while walking through a neighborhood, do you feel “the environment say yes or no?”

Camille LeFevre's last article for The Line was an account of the appearance of public artist Candy Chang in Minneapolis, in our May 2, 2012 issue.

Portrait of Charles Landry courtesy www.charleslandry.com

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