Cities are dynamic places, full of contrast. Young people, older people, those who are new the community and those who have been there for generations. Those who want things to stay the same and those who want change. How does a city – whether for branding or planning projects – ever build consensus amongst such a diverse community?
Diversity is what makes our cities great. So how do we embrace that diversity and contrast to create something that is better together. That’s what we’ll be talking about on today’s episode of Eyes on The Street.
Alan Webber, the mayor of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Ryan Short, the founder of CivicBrand discuss the idea of contrast and how cities can embrace contrast and opposing ideas to create something even better.
Ryan Short: Cities are dynamic places full of contrast, young people, old people, those who are new to the community and those who have been there for generations, those who want things to stay the same and those who want change. How does the city, whether for branding or planning projects, ever build consensus amongst such a diverse community? Diversity is what makes our cities great. So, how do we embrace that contrast to create something that is better together? That’s what we’ll be talking about on today’s episode of Eyes on the Street.
You’re listening to Eyes on the Streets, a CivicBrand podcast, conversations on community branding, engagement and marketing.
Mayor Alan Webber: You know, some people some people want to create a new future, some people want it to be dynamic, some people want preservationist. How do you find a mental configuration with when you say to somebody, they go, “Yeah, that’s exactly right. How did you know what I was thinking?” And that’s the challenge, that’s the test any branding exercise is to not come close but to nail it.
Ryan Short: That’s Mayor Alan Webber, the 43rd mayor of Santa Fe, New Mexico. We had the privilege of sitting down with Mayor Webber and talking about city branding, contrast and public engagement…
Yeah, that’s another common thread that we’ve heard is that that duality of the importance of the history and culture, but also the importance of progressing and moving forward and remaining relevant, and how do you do both of those things without one offending the other or one stalling the other? And we’ve heard a lot too, even just not even thinking about like progressing, but just looking back at Santa Fe’s history one thing that stood out was the idea of contrast and embracing contrast and almost embracing conflict has kind of been a cultural element of Santa Fe with the different cultures coming together and how beautiful things came out of that.
Mayor Alan Webber: I’m reading a book at the moment called The Geography Of Genius and it highlights a bunch of cities around the world in different historic eras that turned out to be places where geniuses or that there was a genius, the spirit of creativity. I’m currently reading about Edinburgh. And one of the things that the authors said about, the author is trying to answer the question, why would Edinburgh or why would Athens under Pericles, why would they become places where the spirit of creativity flourishes in a particular moment for a particular period of time? And to your point, he says about Edinburgh that it was a place where the opposites co-existed. They were pragmatic as Scott’s are, but they were at the same time they were creative. So, they were able to combine what many people would think would be two opposing attributes into a single creative spark.
Ryan Short: I think that’s true across a number of things that idea of balance and contrast and conflict often lead to kind of a greater outcome than just going hard left hard or right.
Mayor Alan Webber: Yeah, it’s the creative tension that happens when things that appear to be opposites end up being, you know, somehow able to support each other. And thankfully, it also, as far as language goes, it makes it, it connects with, it opens up a different synapse in people’s minds I think.
Ryan Short: Are there other communities that you see as good benchmarks to look at that have gone through a similar process that either they did it right or maybe they did it wrong?
Mayor Alan Webber: You know, years ago, I worked in the mayor’s office in Portland, Oregon, and it was Portland was able to adapt to change in a way that preserved the livability values of the community. Portland was at a tipping point and in the early ‘70s underwent, not just Portland but all of Oregon went through a very intensive planning and development program. And the focus was very clear. I mean they had, you talk about a North Star. The North Star was how to be the most livable state, most livable city in America. The livability, however you measured that, was the goal. There was a perceived threat, which is always helpful in terms of rallying people, that the city and the state’s livability was at risk due to proliferating freeways, air pollution, sprawl and a whole set of environmental and urban planning issues.
And so if you go back to the 1970s, I think Oregon and Portland did a terrific job of developing the strategy for statewide land use planning, cleaning up the Lamit River. We’re not building freeways that had been put on the map by Robert Moses back in the late, you know, the early ‘50s, and instead investing in light rail and neighborhoods. And there was, by the way, there was a community engagement piece because the city went so far as to create an office of neighborhood associations so that all the different neighborhood associations in the city could be recognized and worked with on a constructive basis rather than purely on a reactive basis.
Ryan Short: Was the, in the Portland case, what was the impetus of that? Was that like more of a top-down like leadership was recognizing the sprawl and challenges and threats and they handed that down or did that come up as from, hey, this is a thing that everybody’s recognizing and we collectively want to change it so government should do something about it?
Mayor Alan Webber: It’s both. There was a statewide movement around environmentalism and sustainability. They ended up electing Governor McCall as the governor who was very much driven by things like beaches for the people. And the first bottle bill came out of Oregon, a statewide land use. Oregon and Hawaii are still the only states I think that have statewide land use planning. And then the folks in Portland elected a mayor who was very much part of the neighborhood grassroots.
It was that great dichotomy. How do we preserve what we love about the city while creating a better future for the city? So, it was that we love what we have, but if we just keep doing what we’ve always been doing, we’re going to lose what we have. How do we preserve and protect things that are precious while embracing the need to make changes so we can have a better future?
Ryan Short: And do you think that’s very true for Santa Fe now the idea of we love what we have, but if we keep just business as usual, we’ll, we won’t have those opportunities?
Mayor Alan Webber: Absolutely.
Ryan Short: Yeah.
Mayor Alan Webber: Yeah. There’s an old, there’s a story I told on the campaign trail from a western movie, the magnificent seven. It’s a story so take it with a grain of salt. But according to this story, this movie, there was a town that was under attack by the bad guys and they searched for a new hired gun and old gun came to him and did a survey of the community and came back to the town leaders and said, “Well, if you want everything to stay the same some things are going to have to change.”
Ryan Short: Haha, yeah that’s such a true thing in a lot of different avenues of life and cities and all of that.
Mayor Alan Webber: I do think if you really want to get the temperature of how people perceive their cities today, as you said, you got to go out and visit the people and just ask them open ended questions, be really super good listeners of the way people think and talk about their own community and capture if you can some of the nuances. I came to a guy he was down in Austin and they’d been hired by one of the big box stores on branding and slogan writing project.
They ended up getting, you know, they couldn’t get anywhere. They were stumped because all the corporate types, the CEO and everybody, it’s like their brains were way too full of corporate jargon. So, they started to interview the cashiers and they would, you know, they asked the cashiers like open ended questions like, “What do you think your job is?” The old Harvard Business School, what business are you really in question? How do you think about what you’re doing?
Ryan Short: Right.
Mayor Alan Webber: And one of the cashiers gave a one liner that became the, “Oh, I know what I’m doing here. I’m helping people have home. I’m giving people a way to create a home.” And that turned into the, “Oh, that’s exactly right. Thank you very much.”
Ryan Short: Right.
Mayor Alan Webber: So, out of people who don’t overthink it or try to write slogans or the more natural and organic it is, the better it feels and the more authentic it feels.
Ryan Short: Yeah, I think that’s such a great example that we don’t need to overcomplicate it. And that’s why when we approach these projects, it all starts with engagement, which really just means listening, listening to those individuals and residents and stakeholders and just asking them open ended questions, like you just mentioned, where we’re looking for those common threads. I think absolutely that’s the best way to, you know, we’re talking about contrast and conflict and how do you find those common grounds and create something out of contrast? And I think you hit the nail on the head that that’s it. It’s through the engagement process and it’s through listening that you arrive at that common thread and you arrive at that solution.
Mayor Alan Webber: Well, but it also calls for clarity. So, if you were to say, I was asking, we have a young summer intern here who’s doing some data analytics for us and I was suppose to give the State of the City presentation on Wednesday. So, I went there and I said, “Using your data analytic mind, how would you define victory if you’re describing state of the city? What does it mean to have, you know, what do you think qualifies as a way of calibrating the state of the city? Is it the employment rate, is it childhood wellbeing statistics or is there some overarching…? If you asked the people in Santa Fe, what’s your definition of victory for living in Santa Fe, what would they say?” I don’t know. I don’t have a single answer.
Ryan Short: Right.
Mayor Alan Webber: But I think we tend to, as you said, traditionally, we silo it into, well, how’s the parks and rec doing and what’s going on with waste water treatment division as opposed to what are we really trying to achieve? Jane Jacobs in Death and Life of Great American Cities says that the purpose of the city is to provide more choice for more people.
Ryan Short: Yeah.
Mayor Alan Webber: So, that’s her sort of philosophical meta level answers that cities work when they provide more choices for more people. That’s a generality. How would Santa Fe stack up in terms of providing more kind of more choices of jobs, housing, education, whatever compared to how it was 10 years ago?
Ryan Short: Right.
Mayor Alan Webber: Are we doing better or worse?
Ryan Short: Right. I think it totally makes sense and I personally love that you’re quoting Jane Jacobs on that because our agency actually is founded on one of her quotes and it’s “Cities can provide something for everybody only when they’re created by everybody”. And so we take that into all processes and take that to mean engagement, public engagement, in all of our projects and making sure that, to your point of clarity, making sure we’re talking to all of the different people and understanding what does that mean for them. So, we always lead with engagement on all of the branding projects because it can’t be just what we think it should be.
Well, I appreciate your time. It’s super helpful. Look forward to chatting with you and meeting with you next time in person hopefully next time we’re over there, sir.
Mayor Alan Webber: Alright, thanks a lot. Take care.
Ryan Short: Absolutely. Have a great weekend. Bye.
Mayor Alan Webber: Yes, bye.
Thanks for listening to Eyes on the Street, a Civic Brand podcast. If you’re interested in learning more, check out civicbrand.com.