Thursday, September 08, 2011

Placemaking Run Amok

Tony Hsieh (founder of Zappos) want you to move to Las Vegas. The placemaking scheme is to revitalize the Rust Belt part of Sin City, which is supposed to attract talent. From the latest issue of The Economist:

The post-it notes are ideas—how to improve the food scene, get a farmers’ market, encourage the arts, build a hackers’ space—from Zappos employees, a growing number of whom have moved into the area well ahead of the campus opening in 2013. A regeneration that “usually takes 10-15 years will take five”, predicts Mr Hsieh.

Reviving downtown Las Vegas is not an act of corporate social responsibility but part of a strategy to increase his firm’s long-term profitability, insists Mr Hsieh. “Vegas can be a hard sell to people who have the stereotypical casino view of it. By developing a tech community, an arts scene, a music scene, we will make it more attractive for the sort of people we want to recruit.”

Surely to follow is a press release announcing that Richard Florida is leaving the University of Toronto for UNLV. Placemaking as a means for attracting talent has a poor track record. I won't rehash the history of boondoggles aimed at the plugging the brain drain that never seems to go away. We try the same thing again. Cleveland gets a casino and Vegas rents out art studio space in city hall. It doesn't work.

Pittsburgh is where regeneration has occurred. There are some placemaking success stories. I wouldn't uphold them as models of talent attraction. Pittsburgh still struggles to generate much inmigration. Pittsburgh is the mythological Phoenix because it is a great producer of talent. So says Savannah:

Think about what makes a great city. Don‘t bother Googling. All you will get is the formulaic 5 of this or 10 of that. Most of us will think waterfront, green space, libraries, historic architecture, the arts and museums, good schools, little to no poverty and a low crime rate.

That is Utopia.

From an economic perspective, I think of a business community with a steady eye on growth, visionary political leadership and first rate research institutions.

In or near every great city is a great research university. Great universities attract bright people, and it is ultimately people who make cities great. Bright people help universities foster research, development and innovation, which support entrepreneurship, investment and job growth.

A great university is a facilitator as well as a creator of ideas, a catalyst for innovation and local growth in emerging technologies.

Tony Hsieh is chasing Richard Florida's Utopia, everything that Pittsburgh isn't. Florida wondered what Pittsburgh could do to keep CMU graduates from moving to Keep Austin Weird. The muse (unPittsburgh) for his Creative Class industry ends up being THE model for urban renewal.

Whatever placemaking is good for, it isn't talent attraction. Talent retention? Nope. The economic development game should be about people, not places.

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