Looking for good small cities for "benchmarking."

Here in Whangarei, New Zealand the planners are trying to find a similarly sized city that has overcome obstacles to become cool. Whangarei has some good attributes - some of the best beaches in the world (no exaggeration), a yachting culture, scenery galore - but is defintely not cool. Some us, well, me, believe that coolness is one of the most important things in attracting people today. Call it the Richard Florida Creative Class thing. So. Please suggest some small cities that have the following characteristics: 40- 70,000 people, no university, not part of a major metro area, and that has transformed into a cool place. Some suggestions as to how the transformation came about, or what is cool about the place are welcome, too. Thanks.


Siena, Italy: population, 56,672

Greetings, Steve. You've posed a thoroughly tough challenge -- a city with a population between 40,000 and 70,000 that's become cool? I must admit I haven't found a completely suitable answer, but at least I'll get the conversation started.

Searching for U.S. examples, I found myself turning to places like Missoula, MT (57,053) or Lawrence, KS, (80,098) but they're university towns. Santa Fe, NM is also a very cool place with a population of just 62,203 in 2000. Its status as a state capital gives it a bit more of an employment base, but it's really its incredibly tight-knit historic urban form, along with its picturesque mountainside setting, that has helped make it an urban magnet. Those who know the city better will be able to say how "uncool" it once was -- I gather that the properties off the main square got a bit seedy before they were rediscovered in recent decades. The following article co-authored by Stefanos Polyzoides contrasts the Santa Fe and Tucson experiences and may have insights.

Siena at least demonstrates that it's possible for a city of that size to be cool and profoundly memorable. From the stone buildings lining its narrow streets to its soccer stadium nestled next to a densely settled hillside to its famous Campo, it's such a fulfilling place to spend time. With just 56, 700 residents, it feels complete. Everything works. Not an inch is wasted. It sets a high mark at which to shoot.

Not even a little college?

The United States is a bit different from other countries in that 3/4 of our colleges & universities are private, and many of them quite small. Hence, even little towns in the middle of nowhere will have a college. Some of the "cooler" towns (all with respected, but not top-tier, colleges) that come to mind are San Luis Obispo, California, also renowned for its waves; Ashland, Oregon, with its Shakespeare festival; and Asheville, North Carolina.

Cool: People, Places & Things

"Cool" in the town planning sense is all about cool people inhabiting cool places and doing cool things. What makes it a good economic development strategy is that not so cool people come to the cool place and try to do cool things, and thereby believe that they acquire some cool for themselves (and perhaps also a girlfirend/boyfriend). Some just come to the cool place to watch others do cool things, and then go home and talk about it!

From the economic development point of view, what is important is that in the process they spend money, and sometimes even decide to relocate to the cool place (often just part-time). Also, the most successful places actually do generate new ideas, art, music, inventions etc., and thereby make the world a better place.

OK, how does a place become cool enough to attract cool people to do cool things? I think that it boils down to events and attractions. Examining some cool places that are about the size requested (and which don't have uni's) I think that this becomes evident:

1. Byron Bay, north coast of NSW. Probably the coolest place in Oz. This centre of hippy, alternate culture grew out of the rock festivals of the 60's and 70's (EVENTS), and was supported by a very pleasant climate, great beaches, cheap housing (at the time) laid out on a simple grid, and a rugged but fertile hinterland (centred on Nimbin) where almost anyone could grow good weed - all ATTRACTIONS. (Note that drug use is dumb, but cool people aren't always smart.) The coolness attracted some really cool and wealthy guys, principally John Cornell (Paul Hogan's old buddy) who then invested in the town; for example, building the Byron Bay Hotel where I saw Cat Empire perform a few years back, when they were just new. I almost sound cool - need I say more!

2. Denmark, south coast of WA. The sandgroper's response to Byron Bay. More remote, and much colder in winter than BB it is therefore smaller. It has lots of beaches, and some monster waves, but these are not the fantastic beaches of the NSW north coast. The rugged verdant hinterland does give you a clue as to one attraction similar to BB, and this has been supported by some events (music festivals, craft markets and the like). The town also mostly follows a regular grid, but it is more disrupted by the topography. I think that John Butler (i.e. he of the John Butler Trio) developed his performance style here (as well as in Fremantle), but I couldn't swear to it.

3. Port Douglas, north coast of Qld. A different approach: use the simple but very attractive main street, a fantastic climate and some great beaches and dive spots as a lure for a 5-star hotel. Then build a network of interesting half and full-day tours that also entice well heeled tourists to 4-star hotels. An obvious problem that they didn't anticipate: how to grow the town centre without either loosing it's appeal, or succumbing to establishing a competing centre "out of town".

4. Merimbula, south coast of NSW. OK, perhaps not cool like BB, but the annual jazz festival (EVENT), and the great summer weather, beaches and fishing (ATTRACTIONS) do give it a certain cachet.

5. Kalbarri, WA, about 6 hours north of Perth. Many people have heard of Monkey Mia (about another 2 hrs drive north) with its World Heritage status marine park, dolphins and other marine life etc, but it doesn't have the depth of ATTRACTIONS to sustain long visits by anyone other than greybearded fishermen (not cool) and marine biologists (cool, but too into their work to be of any use). It has no EVENTS that I'm aware of. However, Kalbarri has a myriad of attractions, a fantastic national park and river that you can hike, bike, canoe, climb, and abseil in forever. Below the national park the river supports less adventurous boating, fishing, camping, sightseeing and quad biking. There are also historic events (the Batavia and the Sydney-Emden battle) and more, I could go on and on, basically it has a depth of ATTRACTIONS that keep a good flow of tourists. All of these are supported by a great tourist info centre that also acts as the booking office for all of the tours. What it doesn't do well is link to Monkey Mia and develop some EVENTS, also both places are not well laid out so the real estate is expensive and unsustainable.

From what I can see of Whangarei on Google Earth it has a good grid structure, the real estate should be both sound and inexpensive, the town centre doesn't relate to the river very well and access to the beaches is remote. Ask yourselves these questions:

Is there a cente for night life (eg 6th Street in Austin Texas)?
Are the beaches any good?
What do people do for fun?
Are there any great heritage buildings/events?
Is there a musician's or artists community?
The river, and the hills around the town, are they for the adventurous (climbing, abseiling, canoeing etc), or just for farming?
Would YOU go there for a holiday, or hold a seminar/convention there?

A strategy might (I emphasise "might") be to:

1. Identify the cool attractions and how to make them more accessible;
2. Identify or dream-up some cool events, and make the most promising of these happen (music, art, surfing - whatever). Then rigorously debrief and replan the event each year;
3. Support the relevant industry (music, art, etc.), and the accommodation, food and beverage industries to perform well. For example training courses on how to establish and run a half or full-day tour.
4. Plan for the problems and opportunities of success (have a design code so new developments don't destroy the character of the place, be ready to deal with the row of buildings near the jetty that turn their back on the river, etc).

I'd suggest that the best place to start would be a long summer-time tour of all the places I've mentioned! If not use Google Earth and the internet to prepare a report: "Drooling over Cool" (subttled: Lessons learned from small - but cool! - places), and then start workshopping your strategy.

Hope this helps. I was once a planner in a small country town, so contact me at stephen.goldie@am.ae if there's anything more I can do.



E. Stephen Goldie
City Planning Advisor
Al Ain Municipality
United Arab Emirates

Northampton, MA

Northampton, MA (28,978) is a funky city near the Berkshire Mountains in Western Massachusetts. Its downtown is quite dense and boasts three great music venues that attract national bands year round. There is also a fairly wide variety of shops, coffee houses, and restaurants - ranging from pizza by the slice to upscale fare. Architecturally, Northampton's core is very urban - resembling older neighborhoods in Boston and New York. Though there are many smaller colleges in the area, the only large one - UMASS Amherst - is technically not in the city.

Here is a picture from flick: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nebulosus_severine/470336044/in/set-7215760...


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