When I think of Europe, I think of castles, fountains, sculptures, and people sitting at charming outdoor cafes on cobblestone streets sipping coffee or an aperitif. (What is an aperitif? I don’t know–but it fits in with my image). One thing I never would have associated with Europe is lack of reasons for people to visit or move there.

U.S. McCloy Fellows and hosts at Puckler's Castle in Cottbus

U.S. McCloy Fellows and hosts at Puckler’s Castle in Cottbus

Imagine my surprise when I was in the German city of Oldenburg in September, to hear the mayor voice his concerns over attracting talent to his city.

Oldenburg Mayor Prof. Dr. Gerd Schwandner

Oldenburg Mayor Prof. Dr. Gerd Schwandner

He is a fan of Richard Florida’s book Rise of the Creative Class on attracting talent, providing technology, and practicing tolerance. He incorporated the three “Ts” (talent, technology, and tolerance) to his vision of the city’s future. It struck me immediately that this mayor was avant garde. He wanted to get rid of the “good ol‘ boys network,” so he eradicated some previous traditions, such as changing the guest list for the opening day of a big market. He passed over mayors and other potentates in his region and in their place invited more women, more young people, and people from a mix of cultural backgrounds.

Town criers with U.S> McCloy Fellows at the opening of Kramermarkt

Town criers with U.S. McCloy Fellows at the opening of Kramermarkt

The mayor is invested in changing things in his city and making it more welcoming to people of different ethnicities. “The idea of tolerance and integration fits in perfectly with our self-conception. Oldenburg regards itself as a modern city in a modern society. We appreciate the communication and mutual exchange with people from all over the world, we seek and keep friendship with them. In return, they contribute new views and insights to our community and make our city a better place.”  The city has developed an integration pamphlet, and has a city department dedicated to integration, “The demographic development of Oldenburg shows that the city is dependent on the immigration of qualified workers from other countries.”

This went over like a ton of bricks. But he was savvy enough to realize that he couldn’t go full throttle with his vision—he needed to gently bring his citizens along with him. So, he added another “T” to the city’s motto: Tradition. The photo of the gentleman in “uniform” should clue you in on the city’s deep sense of tradition. This is the uniform of the town crier—the official who would go to the public square and announce the news of the day (like the town crier in London at the hospital announcing the birth of Prince William’s baby). The tradition is centuries old and people are not ready to chuck tradition yet.

This experience reinforced my belief in need for municipalities to think about their futures and how they are going to remain viable. Will all your young people move away and not come back? When they want to settle down and raise a family, what will draw them back to you? Will you have the amenities they desire? Because they will choose a place that offers what they want, and research shows they want technology, sustainability, walkability, a place that is welcoming to all, with art & culture. If European cities are concerned, Michigan cities should be concerned, too.

At the end of March, the League will be hosting four German fellows (through the McCloy Fellowship for Urban Affairs). Where will we take them? What will we show them? These were the questions that went through our minds. What we came up with is a behind-the scenes look at innovative projects in the city of Detroit. Detroit is crucial to a thriving Michigan, and it is getting a lot of international media coverage, and not the good kind. We are going to take this opportunity to show an international audience the Detroit that induces a passion in the people that love it—the sense of being able to make a difference, the perseverance of dogged individuals to make their city a better place.

streetsignRecently, a team of League staff members visited the city of Sault Ste. Marie on two separate missions: two staffers were there to film a new Town Gown “vlog” (video blog) on the city’s partnership with Lake Superior State University, and its vision to become a “university town” rather than simply a “town with a university.” The other duo was there to look into the city’s Historic Water Street project that is redefining the under-utilized waterfront running along the Soo Locks.

Those might sound like very different subjects. But both are examples of how city officials are engaging with citizens and collaborating with community partners to build a sense of place that is uniquely “the Soo.”

The city’s streetscape renovations and revitalization have provided a waterfront gathering place for people to relax, exercise, learn and celebrate. The placemaking project includes a new half-mile interpretive walkway stretching from the Soo Locks to the historic homes of some of the community’s most notable founders. The walkway features 33 informational panels detailing the area’s rich history from its beginnings as a Native American village to its establishment as Michigan’s oldest European settlement in 1668. City Hall, a recently repurposed historic Federal Building, is situated on historic grounds at the center of the walkway, providing a premier location for festivals and community gatherings, from weekend festivities to leisurely evening walks.saultstemarie-waterstreet

On the town gown front, Sault United is a steering committee composed of community leaders representing the City, the University, War Memorial Hospital, the area and intermediate school districts, the economic development corporation, and the downtown development authority. The effort is a direct result of a pilot project led by the League to help the city find new ways to evolve into a true university town.

In both cases, the city has opened its doors to creative partnerships on every level, from bringing LSSU students downtown for a zombie walk and haunted homecoming parade, to working closely with local native tribes to ensure the new Water Street project tells both sides of the community’s rich and colorful past with accuracy and mutual respect.

The results of these ongoing efforts are already visible in terms of economic impact and a reenergizing of the entire downtown. Thousands gathered downtown for the city’s and university’s newly combined Halloween festivities. A photography scavenger hunt encouraged students to explore the city’s landmarks and businesses. A whole calendar of first-time and annual events brought crowds to a newly vibrant Water Street in 2012, with even more events planned for 2013 and beyond.

If you haven’t been to Sault Ste. Marie in a few years and think the Soo Locks are all there is to see, then it’s time to plan another visit to “the place where Michigan was born.” But bring a big suitcase. Once you’re there, you just might want to stay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

starsightImagine a natural disaster knocking out your local power and telephone grids. A city in the Republic of Congo has planned ahead for that potential problem, with a system that combines solar-powered street lighting and internet access in a wireless configuration.

Looking for an inspirational approach to recycling that can generate income for the poor or developmentally disabled? In Cairo, Egypt, local officials have developed innovative partnerships that boost the supply-and-demand for creatively recycled materials. recycling

It used to be common practice to look no farther than our local neighbors for ideas and solutions that could be translated to meet our own community’s challenges. But today’s global economy has transformed our world into a smaller place, where a rapid transit system in Guangzhou, China might be just the ticket to solve our own Complete Streets challenge…or a global village design in Pakistan could provide the perfect low-cost model for emergency housing after a local tornado or flood.

Design With the Other 90%: CITIES is one in a series of themed exhibitions curated by the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, that demonstrate how design can be a dynamic force in transforming lives, by addressing the basic needs of the “other 90%” of the world’s population not typically served by the design community.

But the truly valuable revelation here is how often these “global solutions” can help spark us to reimagine the way we approach our own issues right here at home. Even an exotic innovation in some distant, emerging economy could have a practical application in our local backyard. Check out their website and be prepared to be inspired!