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Cultivating Community

by Mark Peres

June 5,2006

This fall Charlotte will host a watershed event: The Cultivating Creative Communities Conference. The first-of-its kind conference will bring together an international group of thinkers, civic leaders and policy makers to explore livability as defined by four themes: amenities, creativity, equity and sustainability. The event is a local historical marker not so much because it will raise up new ideas – though it will combine themes in new ways – but because it will take place in Charlotte. Of all the cities in the nation to spotlight, the conference will showcase Charlotte as a community well on its way to meeting its all-but-stated ambition of being the most livable city in America.

The keynote speaker will be Joel Kotkin, author of The City: A Global History, a brief yet expansive read on the rise and fall of cities. Beginning with the cities of ancient Sumeria to the post-modern communities of today, Kotkin’s argues that three key factors distinguish great cities: sacredness, safety and commerce. By sacredness he does not simply mean such obvious religious identity that one would find in Jerusalem or Mecca, but a subscribed system of beliefs and practices that bind residents together. In the West, that often is the precepts of liberal democracy that act like a civic religion. Safety and commerce are self-evident as drivers. Kotkin goes on to explain if a community lacks any of the three it is likely in a downward spiral. If it has all three factors in harmony, it is likely to rise in energy and significance.

So why host the conference in Charlotte? We have spent many a column dissecting the traits of our town, from its New South predispositions to how it absorbs newcomers (what the Mayor calls “the Charlotte Way” – a distinct local bargain that welcomes newcomers into what might otherwise be closed social and power circles in exchange for “can-do” civility and gracious manners). And it is because of these traits that this conference is in our town. It is the combination of Kotkin’s key factors that newcomers intuitively recognize – Charlotte has a distinct culture that welcomes new people in exchange for their active and courteous participation in making the city a better place, the city is safe and clean and navigable, and you can make a lot of money here.

Is there more to do in Charlotte? Of course. There is a rearguard battle to maintain what has made Charlotte what it is – a conservative mindset to dance with whom and what brought us to the prom. There is a vanguard battle to make Charlotte different that what it is – a progressive mindset to graduate into a new stage of significance.

It is the tension between these mindsets that the conference will presumably explore. What makes a community livable? What role do amenities play in attracting talent? How important is physical place in driving networks, communication and information? What is equity? And regionalism? Who decides and how?

As I walked the Taste of Charlotte street fest, with its canopy tents and donned aprons, with its pulled pork and hot wings scents, making my way through a thick, easy stream of people in sunglasses and straw hats, I came back to my own personal interest – the intersection between authentic self expression and the development of cities.

What we do in the world is a function of many private and public variables, a narrative defined as much by one as by the many. For me, my tension has been a lifelong temperament that has me following my own muse and a desire to serve and leave something greater behind. I’m not sure I have “the Charlotte Way” about me, but I see in this city a moment to participate in its creation. And so it has drawn me in.

My local solution for global success has been to explore how being true to ourselves catalyzes a community toward a higher stage. I’m interested in personal journeys toward authenticity, and how such personal quests elevate a community to a further progressive stage that enhances the livability of all.

Our opportunity is to understand our unique gifts and the time and place we find ourselves in. It is our individual talents and a communal heart that make a city great.

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