Debating AuthentiCity

The panelists and moderator at UIC’s Urban Innovation Symposium on Friday, January 30.  From left to right: Yonah Freemark, Daniel Kay Hertz, Pete Saunders, Dr. Charles Hoch.  Source:

Before I start, I’d like to thank the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) for extending the invitation to participate in its student-run Urban Innovation Symposium last Friday.  It was truly an inspiring event that gave me a chance to hear about innovations in information and technology, environment and ecology, and in art and design where they all intersect with urbanism and our built environment.  It was a blast.  I’ve had a chance to interact with Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic and Daniel Kay Hertz of City Notes in the past, and it was fantastic to have a more public discussion.  Thanks again.

Our panel (pictured above) was tasked with debating the meaning of authenticity when it comes to places.  I’d summarize the working definition we started with as the meaning we ascribe to a place through our culture, or values and morals, our expectations, even our religious and spiritual views.  The starting point of authenticity becomes the point where planners begin shaping the built environment.  And (unbeknownst to me, I guess), this is becoming a larger area of study in planning schools.

Prior to Friday’s Symposium the panelists were asked to provide their thoughts on authenticity.  Here’s my submission, in its entirety:

In the strictest sense, I take city authenticity to mean the physical, emotional, social and psychological connection between people and place.  It’s the subconscious pull on an individual who’s experienced life in a particular physical place. 

There are different types of authenticity depending on the makeup of the person doing the judging.  New Orleans is authentic for those who love the blues and jazz, Mardi Gras celebrations, and good Creole and Cajun cooking.  Washington, DC is authentic for the hard-charging politico who devours news and watches C-SPAN with baited breath.  New York is authentic for the investment banker or trader who lives and breathes the NYSE.  Even Hollywood is authentic for the superficial and fame-starved.  And Rust Belt cities are authentic to those who lament the loss of our industrial legacy and wish to do something about it, even if they have no idea what it is. 

Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. 

But I have problems with authenticity as a positive concept for cities.  Authenticity is good for establishing an emotional connection to a city, but not so good as a catalyst for revitalization.

The authenticity concept has challenges on two fronts:

  •  Longtime residents of a city/neighborhood too often use the area’s zenith as a template for its revitalization foundation, when the conditions that created that “heyday” have changed.  This is a backwards-looking approach that is doomed to fail.
  •  Newcomers to a city/neighborhood are often attracted to it by the mythology of the city.  This can make them oblivious to present challenges, effective strategies for addressing them, and the people who have been doing the work. 

Because of this I view authenticity as a failing concept that will keep a community’s newcomers from addressing critical needs in their midst, condemn longtime residents to clinging to a past that is no longer attainable, and neglecting the places that received the “inauthentic” tag, limiting their prospects for revitalization.

I didn’t expect it at all, but my fellow panelists seemed to share this opinion on authenticity, and we spent much of our discussion sort of disproving what those in academia had been pondering.

How did this happen, and where is this coming from?  I’ll offer one theory, which we brought up in the panel discussion.

As we all know, and can document, cities today are experiencing an influx of new residents that nearly reverses the outward trend from cities since the middle of the 20th century.  Particularly over the last 20-25 years, people are giving cities a longer look and making clear choices that the kind of living they experience in cities is becoming a preference.  I won’t suggest at all that the tide has turned by any means, but urban living is at least now considered as valued as suburban living by many, and is no longer considered alternative or temporary.  It’s real.

And I say real for two reasons.  First it’s real because people who once said they would stay in cities during their post-college years and move once marriage and children came their way are now staying longer.  They’re becoming committed to city life.  But there’s an underlying motivation that’s pushed new urban dwellers into cities.  Having grown up in and mostly living their lives in conventional suburbia, many have rejected suburbia as inauthentic,  and in doing so automatically ascribed authenticity to cities.

I think this is dangerous.  Cities don’t benefit from having new residents that have a romanticized version of life there.  Suburbs certainly don’t benefit from growing levels of rejection.  This notion of “authenticity” hurts both.

If you read my comment above again, you’ll see that I believe every place has authenticity for the people who choose to live and thrive there, based on their own values and place values.  Maybe Los Angeles can be called vain and narcissistic, but if you hold vanity and narcissism in high esteem, LA can be the place where that aspect of your being can flourish.  The hard-driving capitalistic culture of New York, propelled by the finance industry, is found in only a handful of places around the world, let alone the U.S.  That culture is authentic in that environment; if you seek that, it is the place for you.  Harvard, MIT and other universities in Boston reinforce the notion of academic preeminence there, and creates yet another sense of authenticity.

In each and every sense, these are values becoming the foundation for which urban growth is built.  Each place has to find its own set of values for its foundation.

I will offer this caveat to those who value the idea of authenticity, particularly as it relates to Rust Belt cities.  The Rust Belt has generally spent the last 60-70 years losing its sense of self, as industries, jobs and people withdrew from them.  They were authentic because of what they produced.  When they didn’t produce anymore, or lost their producers, they lost their reason for being.  Rust Belt cities have been trying to recapture their raison d’etre ever since.  In the absence of a new foundation, perhaps the first wave of new urban dwellers have decided to focus on the authenticity of the post-industrial landscape, the things that have been able to withstand the winds of change and loss, and even the resiliency of the people who have remained in conditions many might view as intolerable.

This is admirable.  But it is not viable.  Cities need foundations for growth, not ephemeral ideas.

One thought on “Debating AuthentiCity

  1. While I appreciate your perspective that the meaning of “authenticity” varies from individual to individual or is “in the eye of the beholder,” I think there is a more universal set of attributes that most people would agree characterize an authentic urban environment. An authentic urban environment is one in which the buildings and landscape provide a physical expression of the history and unique or exceptional characteristics of a place and community. An authentic urban environment provides layers of connections between the past and the present. What's the value in trying to define authenticity in a way that would enable it to apply to a bland suburban neighborhood of strip malls and chain restaurants?

    I think your take on the role of authenticity in the transformation of rust belt cities is much too negative. The post-industrial landscape in rust belt cities can be an extraordinary economic asset, that is both authentic and fully forward looking and in the present. In Milwaukee, there are more than 10 million square feet of 19th or early 20th century industrial buildings that have been converted to office and residential use over the past 20 years. Much of the abandoned or vacant industrial land was located along the riverfronts, providing the opportunity for transformation of these areas into extraordinary living and working spaces that now include continuous public access along the waterfront.

    These authentic former industrial areas have become the center of new industrial facilities in wind and solar power, as well as the city’s water-focused business initiative. While some of the industrial companies have faded from existence, the ones that remain have long since adapted to the global economy. For many industrial companies that remain headquartered in Milwaukee (such as Johnson Controls, Harley Davidson, Rockwell Automation, Rexnord Corporation, A.O. Smith Corporation, Gardner Denver, and Joy Global), the good old days are today. The period of “industrial decline” from 1980 through today was accompanied by Johnson Controls growing its revenue from < $1B to $43B (and is reportedly planning a 50-story new headquarters in downtown Milwaukee that would be a showcase of building technology). Harley's revenues grew 20X from 1983 through 2006, and its profitability by 1000X. The connection between the industrial past and industrial present possible in rust belt cities such as Milwaukee is a form of authenticity that is both compelling, forward looking, and a foundation for growth.


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