Crafting Deft Transitions

[Note: A slightly different version of this post can be found at Jim Throgmorton, “Deft transitions can help smooth civic controversies,” Iowa City Press-Citizen (April 27, 2013), p 12A.]

A few days ago a German friend and colleague, Prof. Walter Gruenzweig, made a made a very interesting presentation to American Studies faculty and students in the Jefferson Building downtown. He spoke about Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto who has had considerable success with his 2003/2012 book, The Rise of the Creative Class.

One of the American Studies professors in the audience asked Walter, “Who is this fellow Richard Florida? You say he’s widely read. I’ve never heard of him.”

I couldn’t keep from chiming in, so I said something like this:

Florida has been tremendously influential among local elected officials and economic development organizations, especially in the U. S. but also in other parts of the world.

His effects can be seen right here in the Iowa City area.

First, there is the “Creative Corridor,” an imaginary construct that operates as the central organizing principle for economic development interests from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids.

There is also the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature, on whose board I sit. As can be seen by viewing its lovely recent documentary about the Writers Workshop (http://cityofliteratureusa.org/), it has been vigorously promoting the Iowa City area as the home of creative writers and as a destination point for visitors who want to learn more about the writers’ world.

And there are the many new buildings being constructed in and near downtown Iowa City, including the U of Iowa’s planned School of Music at Clinton and Burlington, the 14-story mixed-use structure being built just east of the Jefferson Building, and several other structures that are the subjects of ongoing controversy.

Richard Florida’s book and these local effects can be thought of as components of a potentially persuasive story about Iowa City’s future.

This story has been repeated so often and is circulating so widely that its tellers now take its persuasiveness to be self-evident.

Its familiarity notwithstanding, this story about Iowa City being a cauldron of creativity has one crucial shortcoming: its tellers are not listening carefully to what its diverse listeners think. It would be far more persuasive to far more people if its diverse audiences had a hand in crafting the tale.

Consider this point in terms of transitions. Let’s agree that our city needs to change. This means we have to deal skillfully with at least three kinds of transitions: spatial, temporal, and social.

The need for deft spatial transitions can be seen very clearly by looking at one poor transition: the new 4-story structure being built on Washington Street across from the New Pioneer Co-Op, especially at its eastern edge where it looms over three historic single-family houses. Stand on one side of the edge, and you’re in a CB-2 zone. Take but a single step and you’re in an RM-12 zone and a Conservation (or Historic) Preservation District.

Temporal transitions concern the pace of change. If the pace is too rapid and provides no way for affected people to influence the project—as was the case with the building near the Co-Op—then the transition is very likely to stimulate a stunned and angry response. Slower steps enable people to alter the rhythm of their lives without sorrow.

Social transitions involve projects that are designed to attract new kinds of residents and users, and hence change the social composition of an area. Several of the new buildings downtown exemplify the point; they are clearly designed to attract wealthier residents who would live and work downtown, and to reduce the influence of “less desirable” kinds of people.

We should welcome change, and we should not fear increasing the density of development. But if we are truly creative, we will devise transitions that enable the new to emerge from the old in ways that a far broader range of local residents will find persuasive.

If we are truly creative, we will collaboratively invent a story for Iowa City’s future in which each new building will be a good neighbor. It will fit into its context while incrementally changing the neighborhood into something more profound.

Such deft transitions would reflect and extend the wholeness (or character, or identity) that so many people love about Iowa City and its downtown. Each new step would enhance the whole rather than instantly transform it into something unrecognizably new.

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