How can we as citizens help create better cities, and perhaps more importantly, learn to love our cities? Author Peter Kageyama explores these questions in his books For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places and the follow up, Love Where You Live:Creating Emotionally Engaging Places. Kageyama stopped by our office to give a short lecture and interview on creative ways we can engage as citizens.

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In your book, For the Love of Cities, you talk about the “one percent,” or “co-creators.” Who are these people; what are their qualities; and how do we make more of them?

The one percent are the people that I believe make the content of our cities. There have been studies about how online organizations formed, and Wikipedia is the classic example. We all may use Wikipedia, yet a very small percentage of people have actually made a Wikipedia entry. In fact, studies show it’s about one percent, or even a little less than one percent. Of that one percent, an even smaller number have made multiple Wikipedia entries. So here you have this community that all of us use but a very small number of people actually built. I believe physical communities follow that same sort of rule—that a very small number of people are making the content of all of our places.

In my book I posit the idea of trying to increase that one percent number by ten percent—so one-tenth of one percent of the total population. A very small number of people. In small places it might only be a handful of people. In larger cities it might be a few thousand. These creatives are entrepreneurial but not necessarily starting traditional businesses. They are creative but not in the traditional arts and cultural senses. They may be creative in the food sector. They may be creative in the social services. But they do share a commonality of wanting to make change happen, feeling community minded, and being a bit more creative and innovative in what they do. The common thread, I believe, is that they actually care about their community.

So the challenge is how do we find more of these people? If there were just  a handful more of these people—just one-tenth of one percent—it would make a big difference. Because again, a small number of people are creating all of this content that are our cities. So if we increase that number just a little bit, we’re going to make an exponential impact on the quality of our cities. The key thing that I also stress is that most of these people are already in your community. You don’t have to worry about recruiting them from Austin or Chicago or San Francisco or any of those other “cool” cities. Most of them are already here but just don’t know how to get in the game.

You talk about the pothole example and how people focus on this relatively minor issue all cities face because they may not have had exposure to more creative urban interventions. How do we get people to think more broadly? Whom do we engage at the city level to look beyond mechanical solutions? 

You want to start with the leaders—the mayor, city council, and city manager. You want them to understand that the small stuff matters. It’s good to get these creative folks and everyday citizens involved in the process—that’s obvious.

The challenge though is that actual governance happens two, three, four levels down. And let’s face it, in that area of bureaucracy, those people don’t get in trouble for saying “no” to things. But they might get into trouble by saying “yes” to something.

So we start with the city leaders and ask them, “Do you want a better functioning, more creative city? Then you need to start having conversations at the departmental level.” And you say, “I know it’s easy to say ‘no,’ but we want to figure out how to start saying ‘yes’ to stuff. We want to find creative solutions that allow us to say ‘yes’ to something as opposed to finding creative ways to say ‘no.’”

I’ve heard people in cities say they try to find creative ways to say “no” to stuff. That’s kind of abominable if you think about it. So I think we need to work on those folks whose job it is to review the applications and figure out a way. They need to think, “That’s a little different and it doesn’t fit within any box we’ve seen before, but maybe if we did this, yeah, that might fly.” You need to work on that person. But the freedom to empower them to say “yes” to these things needs to come from their leaders, their city manager, and their department heads.

You mention in your book that the UK is developing a measurement for happiness. Do you know how this is progressing?

Yes, David Cameron initiated that a few years ago. I confess I don’t know that much about it, but I applaud just asking the question. Think about this. Ten years ago cities were not looking at things like health as a metric of their citizens. Yes, they were looking at things like a clean environment and accessibility to hospitals, but they weren’t necessarily looking at things like the childhood obesity rate or type 2 diabetes rate of citizens.

Cities got into the health business in the last decade or so. That was sort of nontraditional. At the time city leaders focused on things like roads and schools. But then they began to realize that they are the caretakers of the city in a broader sense, and the city is the crucible in which we occur. If you’re doing a good job as a city leader, the people should flourish.

So in creating this happiness metric, they are implicitly saying it’s not just about physically healthy citizens, which has now become sort of a given. It’s now also about the mental side of things, the emotional side of people. This is something that we as caretakers of the city should be thinking about. I think just asking the question opens up the door to think that this is part of our job.

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