Almost all cities and states have policies intended to strengthen their economies by building on their assets. Most fail because they reject easy strategies and embrace difficult strategies.
Two recent Commentary pieces in The Providence Journal address this issue: “Wise of R.I. to retain its character” (Feb. 28), by U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and WaterFire impresario Barnaby Evans, and “Now is the time to capitalize on Providence’s assets” (March 7), by former Providence Preservation Society president Lucie Searle and Steve Durkee, an architect involved in downtown development.
Whitehouse and Evans quote author Gertrude Stein’s famous lament for her native Oakland, Calif.: “There’s no there there.” They add that some places have “succumbed to the mindless development crawling like a virus across the United States.” Others “hold onto their deep roots — their history and character. . . . That’s Rhode Island. There’s lots of there here.”
Searle and Durkee list the bold projects of recent decades — the relocation of railroad tracks, rivers and Route 195. Then they add: “And through all this the historic character of our downtown core has remained intact.”
They then cite Jennifer Bradley, co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution, who urged in a recent lecture here that “cities need to find their own unique assets and strengths and build upon them,” and that “those who will drive the future economy . . . are choosing where they want to live and work. And where they want to be looks a lot like Providence.”
Both articles are filled with references to historical fabric and character as the “unique asset” of Rhode Island and its capital city. Neither article answers the question of how to build on that asset, but the answer is obvious. We must build more architecture similar to that which is responsible for our unique character.
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