Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What's Love Got to do With it?

The answer is everything. I've spent four years writing this blog and talking about all of the things that make cities great. This includes important assets like transit, walkable downtowns, small businesses, cultural institutions, and more. These are and will remain important pieces of the placemaking puzzle. There is one thing that doesn't fit into a neat category and isn't quantifiable: love.

Last year I visited San Francisco for the second time. This city has it all. It's vibrant, walkable, lots of shops, restaurants, bars, museums. There's easily accessible and convenient public transit. The weather is lovely. It checks all the boxes. But for me there's something missing. It's great, but it's just not for me. I don't really love California in general. There's something about the vibe I don't really get. Even I can't put my finger on it, so how can anyone else? Love (or lack thereof in this case) plays a huge part in what attracts people to a place. Obviously given its success lots of people love San Francisco, and they should. For me there just isn't a love connection.
On a City Running Tour in San Francisco

Let's contrast that with my favorite city: Portland, Maine. I fell in love with Portland in about 10 minutes. Its dense, walkable downtown stole my heart immediately. There were beautiful original storefronts hosting almost solely local businesses. The food is phenomenal. It's a city that feels intimate and feels like home. I honestly didn't spend enough time there to know if it checked the boxes, but I didn't need to. Love at first sight is enough for me.

A photo I took in Portland, ME in 2012

I love lots of cities that check all of the placemaking boxes: Chicago, Boston, Washington, DC. But what I really love are the underdogs. Show me a city with large wealthy benefactors who have paid for everything to happen, and I'll begrudgingly tip my hat. Show me a city that has all of the odds against it and yet is still making it happen? That place will immediately get my attention. To me part of what makes a place great is its grit and determination. This is part of what makes me love Detroit so much. It has this organic spirit that makes the placemaking authentic and true to Detroit. This is a city that has hit rock bottom and yet those who love it have never lost hope. That to me is what makes a city great, and it's hard to quantify.

Hanging out with a colleague on the Detroit Riverfront

Love, it turns out, has everything to do with it. Those baseline assets are critical, but there also has to be that certain something to make people fall in love. I've fallen in love a lot, and I've fallen hard. Sometimes it's been unexpected (like Marquette, Michigan in the winter or Knoxville, TN), and sometimes it's the recurring love affair that makes sense (Washington, DC).  Love doesn't always make sense, and that is what makes it incredible.
Downtown Knoxville, a surprise love affair

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