In Minneapolis, urban planning guru Charles Landry encourages consideration of cities’ “ethical landscape”


City planning guru Charles Landry says urban planners should emphasize social and cultural capital over their traditional reliance on economics alone in the development of cities. Landry, who has evaluated the livability of cities all over the world, spoke May 7 at the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis to begin a weeklong residency of workshops, talks and tours of the Twin Cities.

“We should seek a capital balance—not just money and economics—but to attract human, intellectual and social capital,” he said. “When we think only about individual development projects, we may lose overall needs…Everybody wants to keep and attract talented people.”

A key message of the Central Corridor planning is to undertake a comprehensive plan for the area along the light rail connecting the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul that does more than react to individual projects as they are proposed, Landry said.

Rather than relying on individual development projects and their economic impacts, he said, cities should ask more important questions: “What makes a pleasant place? What makes a pleasant city? What makes a pleasant neighborhood?”

Standing in front of a picture of concrete highways and overpasses, Landry asked rhetorically about the cultural value of the scene to someone who walks through the paved-over district to get to work every day.

“It isn’t very calming and soothing to the mind,” Landry said. “The site was hardware-focused. None of the development involved asked about the emotional feeling people would have when crossing that chasm.”

Planners and developers should consider the deadening impact that too much concrete and asphalt creates. “Consider the cost in time and psychic energy just to go to work,” he said.

An important design question is: “Is it contributing to my health?” Look at the walkability of a site.

“Being healthy helps us be more creative,” he said. “The shape of things to come will take into account eco concerns, cultural literacy and healing with plants. Power assumptions will change.”

He then showed a series of pictures from major cities, including aerial photos of downtown Minneapolis showing extensive concrete highways and interchanges.

“You’ve just been to every continent in the world,” he said about his slides, “but you have no idea where you’ve been.”

Too many urban landscapes are “barren and lifeless,” he said. “From the perspective of the person who’s living there, the whole place seems quite pointless and disconnected.”

Most pleasant memories of cities, Landry said, involve streets. “A great memory involves great streets. At ground level, a great street provides a diversity of experiences with pocket points—places to bump into people, to meet, to talk, to communicate.”

“Great streets make great cities,” he said.

City planning has been shifting to a new paradigm from a hardware-driven process focusing on engineering to fostering creativity and the rise of the livability agenda, Landry said. “I’m not against engineering or anything like that. Things have to stand up.”

But thinking creatively allows planners to escape old assumptions, like the idea that concrete streetscapes need to be wide and plain to allow trucks to clear the snow, he said. Oulu, Finland, a high-tech city, where Nokia invented and builds cell phones, receives more snow than the Twin Cities. “They discovered that it’s less expensive to heat the sidewalks than to remove the snow with trucks,” Landry said.

Landry showed pictures of new developments that are carbon neutral with mixed populations in other parts of the world built with the goal of breaking the cycle of tearing down buildings every seven years or so.

“Switching the question considers the value of creativity, culture, heritage, arts, design, green values and soft infrastructure,” Landry said. “What is the cost of not taking into account the culture of a place?”

Renewal campaigns and gentrification can be necessary, he said, but they should find ways to accommodate the variety of people who live in a place for the long run.

Planning has to consider fashion and fads, both linear and circular change, superficial and profound changes, and changes across cultures and time, he said.

“Put some life in your cities. Love your life,” Landry admonished nearly 200 people at his opening talk, “Connecting Cities, Connecting Cultures.”

Introducing Landry, Susan Haigh, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Council and the Central Corridor project, said the Twin Cities will have to connect many diverse cultures in the future. A Metropolitan Council study projects that the Twin Cities will grow and 80 percent of the growth will be people of color – reaching nearly half the population.

With about 30 people at an afternoon workshop at the Brian Coyle Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, Landry discussed the diverse neighborhood with wasted space and great potential.

He said the empty pavement increases “mental distance” between Theatre in the Round near Seven Corners and Acadia on the corner of Cedar and Riverside. The physical distance is only a couple of blocks but the distance seems greater because of the pavement, highways, and bridges between them.

Much of the neighborhood is not welcoming, Landry said. Several University of Minnesota buildings do not have welcoming entrances to the neighborhood, he said. In fact, visitors have to walk around the building to find an entrance to the Carlson School of Management, for example. He called it a “sea of asphalt” that requires “fifteen minutes of micro decisions just to enter the building.”

In planning each transit station, Landry said, the city should consider its “ethical landscape. Is the thing we’re doing about the city or isolated stations?”

Steve Parliament, president of the board for the Cedar Cultural Center, said the light-rail station at Cedar Riverside does not welcome people the way it should. It provides no sense of place and it does not reveal the large concentration of live music venues within walking distance in both directions from that station.

Landry said the cultural diversity of the area should be viewed as an opportunity, rather than a threat or a nuisance.

Urban knitting would stitch together the various elements into a design that creates a sense of place, reflects its history, tells a story and encourages a sense of curiosity about the city, he said.

He suggested “interculturation” in which “pluralistic transformation of a city implies a curiosity about and among its residents.”

Designers need to reconsider the balance between the public and private city, he said, criticizing public benches with advertising on them.

“Economic dynamics seem to control the things we love,” Landry said. “Capitalism is not delivering on its promises.”

Some places physically reflect the competing interests and stakeholders, he said, showing a “do not enter sign” on a bicycle and walking path.

“Planning is negotiating differences,” he said, “and cities should be about complicating.”

Cities should provide a balance between order and mess, between stimulation and calming feelings. “There is a danger of blanding out differences,” perhaps to accommodate large snow plows, he said.

The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood has a variety of small businesses, older buildings and a diversity of cultures. “All of this is incredibly fragile that we have now,” Landry said.

He enjoyed the variety and sense of humor of this West Bank neighborhood. One Somali business had an Italian name and another business had a sign in the window that said, “Sorry, we’re open.” These elements “could be the embodiment of a continuing type of urbanity.”

The West Bank provides an opportunity to have a district plan that considers the mental geography, blends old and new, does urban knitting and stays ahead of the development process, he said, summing up conversations he had with residents.

“I don’t want to be overwhelmed by what I see. That’s a city killer. Yet we should value complexity that shouldn’t be blanded out so trucks can go over them with plows.”

West Bank planning should highlight “shared notions across cultures and time” while providing  “a place where people might mingle and meet and have reasons to bump into someone.“

Landry visited St. Paul neighborhoods as well as ones in Minneapolis.

Creative city making involves urban places that take local culture, history and environmental consequences into account, Landry said. Libraries, for example, encourage learning and introspection.

“The fact that we’re doing planning as we are today is an indication that planning has changed,” Landry said.

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.