The personality of cities

I always like thinking of cities as if they were a person. It makes it easier for me to get a grip on them. Traditionally when we assess a city we look at its employment rate, its industries, its locational assets and resources, its history or how well connected they are.

By contrast thinking of a city’s character can be more revealing. It brings things to the fore that other ways of analysing places do not and crucially they may ultimately determine its success or failure. A city’s personality shapes and determines its sense of self and prospects.

When I work with cities I ask insiders and outsiders to use words, mostly adjectives, they think describe their city best. I did this recently in Palmerston North in New Zealand where I measuring their pulse based on the Creative City Index. It is one example of what I mean.

People said of Palmerston it is somewhat cautious, careful, even a touch wary. This is its default position. Its greatest attribute is being humble, it does not show off. It is more conservative with a small ‘c’, which makes it risk averse, although it is adept at solving problems when required. It is quite contained and even proper, on occasion a bit uptight. It is loyal, simple in the best sense of the word, a hard worker, but it can be inward-looking.

It is easy going, though, and feels comfortable and many fear this can lead to complacency and for the city to be more passive than active. It is more likely to say ‘what is the problem’ rather than ‘what is the opportunity’. It often waits for things to come to it.

There are signs that this is changing as for the young this can feel claustrophobic as for many of its interesting older people too. Its emotional buttons are opening out, passion is becoming visible. With Massey University and as a refugee settlement centre it is cosmopolitan under the radar, but still feels a little frightened of reflecting this.

If it were a colour it would not be red or bright yellow, it is more likely to be a mellow shade. What are the implications of these attributes?

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