Retelling the story

Every city has many stories. Every story a city tells itself anchors its sense of self and possibilities. Stories describe where a city has come from, how it sees itself now, where it might go, its personality and its perspective on life. Take Adelaide's stories:

• The land and its peoples before European settlement.

• The city of free settlers and no convicts, and thus respect for the law.

• The city of ideals and perfect planning, exemplified by the world-famous Light plan for the city. This engenders pride and a certain high-mindedness, as well as a feeling of order and definition.

• The city of stone and substance, reflecting a deeply embedded solidity and long-term legacy.

• The city of churches, highlighting its loftiness, spirituality and otherworldliness. Yet this image on closer examination may not be that pure, because the Bible and booze always went closely together. Indeed, the number of churches may reflect a certain fractiousness rather than unity of purpose.

• The city of bold, state-led intervention, as exemplified by the creation of the new town of Elizabeth and the attraction of the car industry into the state. Perhaps it felt controlling and somewhat restrictive.

• The city of the arts: a way of saying Adelaide is open, experimental, vibrant and creative. This connects to the Adelaide Festival.

• The city that overextends and loses judgement, that is overam-bitious and bites off more than it can chew. The State Bank collapse or failure of the Multifunction Polis (MFP), a visionary Japanese idea for the future of the city.

• The boring city that is overcautious, avoids risk and that 'talks the talk' well but does not feel it can deliver.

• Niche stories, such as Adelaide as the Detroit or Athens of the South. Perhaps a marriage between the two is what Adelaide really is. Then there is the murder capital label and, on a more positive note, the city within which women can flourish and where possible utopias can happen.

Seen in this sequence - and the stories do follow chronologically -we can see why one followed the other. For example, the opening out in the 1970s under Premier Don Dunstan, with his interest in the arts, and the closing in after the State Bank saga and the ensuing reputation for inaction.

Its goal now is to write a new chapter as the 'city of creative imagination'. It seeks to build on the vision that 'you can make it here, you can achieve your dreams and we will help you'. The signal is 'you have permission to get on with it'. Permission to have insight, to imagine, to improvise, to invest and to implement. This is the operating system of the new story.

Take Memphis as another example. Named after the ancient Egyptian capital on the Nile, its stories include being the birthplace of the blues and musical invention. Another predominantly 1950s story is that Memphis is the quietest, cleanest and safest city in the States. Then the Elvis Presley movement adds to its musical richness. Martin Luther King's assassination is a story that blighted the city for 35 years, but one that also highlights a concern with civil rights. Fed Ex, the massive logistics company, is reshaping the story again. Most interestingly, the University of Memphis is repeatedly being referred to as the 'University of Second Chances'.55 This certainly sends out the message, 'You can make here. You can fulfil your dreams, and we will help you.' And this is an adroit narrative for the city as a whole, given its high entrepreneurial start-up rate (and given that most entrepreneurs fail at least once), the population mix (many on low incomes who desperately need second chances to finally succeed) and plain old human frailty. If a city takes on board the idea of second chances and inserts it into its genetic code, this changes behaviour. Imagine a place that is positive about second chances, where the assumption is that you will not be blamed for a failure or missing an opportunity.

Retelling the urban story is not about eradicating the past, but about building on it and using the elements of past stories to help us move forward. In so doing we should examine honestly the myths that sustain us and give us our identity. There is nothing wrong with myths as long as we challenge them regularly. We also must invent, and then live out in our daily lives, new stories about ourselves. If the watchwords are to be 'the place that encourages imagination and being creative', what that means needs to be physically seen as well as allowing people to improvise. Rules and regulations should facilitate and enable development rather than control it.

My conclusion is that while industrial structure, business development, natural resources and location are vital, what is even more important is the culture of the place, its psychology and its history. This shapes the attitudes of its people and its sense of self, the story it tells itself and the myths about itself that it clings on to. This is the genetic code of the city. While there is a certain path dependency, this dependency can change because, whereas an individual is locked into their attributes, in a city the people constantly change. New generations come in unencumbered by the past, new outsiders with fresh views arrive, and leadership with new priorities can emerge. Leadership is central to the urban change agenda, and leadership is more than just administering or managing.

How will we know these processes of imagination, improvisation and implementation are happening? This will require communicating strategically and putting some things on the ground that may, at first sight, seem superficial and irrelevant to the purists. Yet their psychological power can be great. If you want to signal that your city, Adelaide, for example, is ecologically savvy, putting vineyards around an airport terminal communicates green inten tion (and wine) without wordy explanations, as would greening blank walls, where foliage could hang majestically down from city roofs like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Green buildings could have imaginative signage explaining how much energy is saved and how much more the neighbouring building costs to run. Having a long-term plan to solar panel a city would have immense power to communicate ambition, as would plans to waterproof the city. It involves being a bit subversive or surprising and working at a subliminal level to get a message across, while at the same time doing the hard work of deeper greening.

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