There we were, having this conversation. The man I was talking to was praising the city he lived in as a great place to live. “So what’s cool about Novi? Why would I want to hang out there?” I was genuinely curious, as I always am when people talk about places they love. “Well it’s got a BDubbs and a movie theater” was the enthusiastic response I was met with. Two chain establishments, just like every other “Any town USA”. Novi, an affluent Detroit suburb, would seemingly have little left to its own authentic aside from the city’s name, an old throwback to being the sixth stop on a railroad line once upon a time (“No. VI” the signs read). Like most Michiganders, I only ventured out that way if there was an event at a convention center.
I sure as hell wasn’t going to drive 45 minutes for some chicken wings and a movie I probably wouldn’t like. Novi is built on the notion that you can simply copy what everyone else has done and expect it to be a success.
As Kyle Ezell sees it, that is exactly the problem. A professor at The Ohio State University, he has watched public servants, colleagues, and students apply practices to places that are more of a cookie cutter approach than something that makes a place feel unique. The result is a terrain of strip malls, chain restaurants and a whole lot of communities that vary from each other in only subtle ways.
In his new book “Designing Local”, Ezell lays out a manifesto for city planners in how the profession should be approached. In our attempts to strengthen economic development in the United States, we have lost sight of the very thing that makes places special. In doing so, planners and policy makers have avoided the hard work of coming up with original ideas by saying “they did this over there and it worked, let’s do it here too!” They also sacrifice authenticity and uniqueness in favor of “Any town USA”.
Ezell calls it, bluntly, plagiarism. And all levels of the profession are guilty. In graduate school, students are taught to look for and replicate so called “best practices” in new places. Those students grow up to copy other people’s ideas in professional practice, then go to APA conferences to talk about how they did so. And the planners applaud it.
The argument is continued through other main points, two of the best being that there can be no exact formula for figuring out a city and making it successful, which goes hand in hand with the idea that city idol-worship needs to stop. Both of these notions are used to illustrate that simply copying another city and what they’ve done is not only unethical, but will set you up for failure. Planners mustn’t look at New York’s “High Line” and think “wow, we should copy New York’s success formula and do that here”, as it will not work. Taking someone else’s authenticity and sticking your name on it makes it no longer authentic. City planning and economic development are not like software packages where you can add a green space plugin borrowed from another project and expect it to work in your city. Locally oriented, out of the box solutions will make the difference.
In order to reach that point, Ezell advocates abandoning the idea of using “widgets” (something someone else has done that you can now consider to be pre-packaged and ready to use) as substitutions for actual solutions. We’re taking the same practices, from the same few books and the same few authors, or simply bypassing the theory and going right for the throat by copying exactly what someone else has done and trying to build an homage in our own local towns, regardless of if it really makes sense. He breaks it down into simple mathematical formulas using New York’s High Line as an example:
A (abandoned, elevated railway) + B (linear park) = C (Park / Rail Widget)
Sparing no words, he goes after other sorts of widgets, including naming and branding as well. After all, if everyone has the same branding message about why their place is special, in reality, all the places lose that special feeling. Again, the true innovators win out and those who follow are at least one step behind. If every town had a high-line, it wouldn’t be cool, local placemaking. It would be just another park.
And that’s if it is done correctly.
Trying to copy something someone else has done can also make you look incredibly foolish if you do it incorrectly, a lesson Flint, Michigan learned in 2013 with their “Floating House” project, which was being worked on at the same time as the Lucid Stead project in Joshua Tree, California. Both projects were aiming to create the illusion of an invisible house, but Lucid Stead was considered an artistic success while people in Flint where left largely shaking their heads. In many eyes, this public art widget was a failure. You can see below, with Flint on the left and California on the right.
Instead, the policy advocated is to tell the story of your city through placemaking, not tell someone else’s story with your own twist on it. Going hand in hand with that is the idea that we need to abandon the idea of worshipping other cities and wanting to be more like them because they’re “cool” and did something first. Ezell points out the reality is that in all likelihood, whoever you’re worshipping didn’t invent the wheel: someone else, who was trying to solve a real world problem invented it, and they just applied it on a scale that got everyone else’s attention.
In another one of his excellent analogies, Ezell poses the question – if we had the choice, would a taco made by a major chain prepared by a high school student or a taco prepared by an authentic hacienda with an over 100 year old recipe be more desirable. In one of my favorite passages in the book, Ezell writes:
I’m sure you chose the authentic taco. There’s a much better, more authentic story there…This story, pointing to a taco’s proud history, has to be more interesting—more remarkable—than a kid trying to make video game money stuffing ground beef filling and cheese into a mass- produced shell in an everyday chain store that looks like thousands of others. However, even if that taco is made by the high school student instead of the grandmother, the building itself is more fun and remarkable than just another old chain drive-through if the local context makes sense for it to exist.
The point is easy to see here: if we are going to call ourselves professional planners, with the mission of making places better and adhering to the APA standards of ethics, we should not unethically copy everyone else’s work. We should be true to our cities. We should be authentic. And we should have our own flavor of local taco in everything that we do.
This book isn’t intended for people that are interested in cities as a curiosity or an area of study, it’s more for the people that create policy, be they city counselors, planners, legislators, or students. It’s a challenge that says “prove to yourself and to your community that you can do something original and make it work”. While urban enthusiasts may find interest in it, the indented audience is very much planning professionals and future planning professionals.
At around $5 for a kindle version, there’s no reason why professional planners or planning students shouldn’t take the time to go through this affordable, quick read and help jump-start their own creative processes.