Finding our Purpose; How to Make a Place

In what turned out to be his final film, the ethereal Being There, Peter Sellers played the role of Chauncey Gardner, a simple-minded gardener who becomes accidental adviser to the President of the United States.

The film is an allegorical tale, packed with Chauncey’s salt-of-the-earth observations on the effects of seasons on gardening - first comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter - being misinterpreted as pillars of economic wisdom by the Washington DC elite.

Whilst it’s easy to scoff at Chauncey’s homespun recurrent natural cycles, their essential truth can be applied in so many circumstances.

Remember, contrary to common belief, King Canute was not trying to stop the tide, but rather he was showing his subjects the limit of his powers.

Attempts to resist natural rhythms can be futile – remember Gordon Brown’s ‘no boom or bust’ – so surely the trick is not to resist but to try and influence.

In my experience, this approach is applicable to the evolution of cities.

Like empires, cities rise and fall, but they can then rise again – witness, for example, the stories of Rome or Istanbul.

A city does not have any given right to success - fate can deal a brilliant or terrible hand - but the most consistently successful cities do share a common feature, they adapt, they change and duck and dive with circumstances.

We often tend to think that cities are the product of free market activity, that they are just as they are but, in truth, every city is the product of conscious intervention.

Derby exists because the Romans identified it as a low crossing point of the River Derwent. The Danes liked its central location, establishing it as one of the 5 Danelaw Boroughs, a status it lost in the 10th century.

After 700 years of relative quiet came an explosion of activity in the 18th century - the establishment of the world’s first factory at the Silk Mill, the failed invasion of Bonnie Prince Charlie and becoming a vibrant centre of enlightenment.

All of this helped shape the city of Derby we inherit today.

The disadvantage for the UK of being first out of the industrial revolution blocks means we are first to face the challenge of de-industrialisation.

The reason that lay behind the growth of so many places – especially in the midlands and the north – has disappeared and, over the past few decades, cities have been seeking a new purpose.

In the business this is called placemaking.

But, who drives it? Who decides what a place can become?

In Victorian times this was very much the domain of businessmen such as Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham or Thomas Bass in Derby.

In the 20th century, the role became subsumed into local government.

Today, there are very few Chamberlains or Basses – accumulation of personal wealth seems to overrule civic philanthropy – and local government has been curtailed.

Yet, one could argue, the need for placemaking has never been greater and we urgently need to find new models that make this happen.

It’s not just the fabled millennials who demand interesting and vibrant cities, but so does Generation X and the Baby Boomers.

The 21st century city needs to be vibrant and dynamic, urbane and cultural.

It’s not a nice-to-do, it’s a must-do as over the next 50 years cities that remain dull cultural deserts, places of convenience, and not choice, will slowly fade.