Tuesday, April 06, 2010

5 Things Durham Must Do To Retain Its Optimal Serendipity

One of the things that attracted me to Durham is also what has given it such a positive “brain-gain,” meaning a lot of people who come here for college at Duke, North Carolina Central or nearby UNC-Chapel Hill, choose to stay here and put down roots.

It appears that going back generations, Durham embraced “optimal serendipity” to use a reference coined by economist and CEO Joe Cortright at Portland, Oregon’s Impresa.

Cortright describes serendipity as places that “throw people together in unusual, unexpected ways and combinations. These combinations produce the vitality of a place, and are central to the process of innovation…”serendipity-new

Durham does this and only where someone tries to “slick” us up too much has it lost site of this important aspect. Here you find, even among historic neighborhoods, a blend of ethnicities, classes and lifestyles.

Dr. Richard Florida explains that “…places are valued for authenticity and uniqueness. Authenticity comes from several aspects of a community---historic buildings, established neighborhoods, a unique music scene, or specific cultural attributes.

He continues that this “… comes from the mix---from urban grit alongside renovated buildings, from the commingling of young and old, long-time neighborhood characters and yuppies, fashion models and "bag ladies." An authentic place also offers unique and original experiences…”

Part of Durham’s intrinsic appeal is also that it is “accepting” or in Dr. Florida’s terms, “Creative-minded people enjoy a mix of influences. They want to hear different kinds of music and try different kinds of food. They want to meet and socialize with people unlike themselves, trade views and spar over issues.”

If you know Durham, you know these are some both some of the reasons residents are so tenaciously proud of this community but also why it is so often put down by communities that does have these attributes.

Based on reading these and other experts, here are 5 critical things for Durham to focus on:

  • Run from people who try to make us over to be so-called “major league” or promote building things you can find anywhere and everywhere. While well-meaning they don’t have a bone in their body that grasps authenticity or uniqueness.

  • Keep places like the Ninth Street, Brightleaf and Rockwood districts gritty and optimally serendipity. Spawn others with their own serendipity and make sure even adaptive re-use projects are kept “real” and a bit rough around the edges. Beware of master planners who don’t know where to stop.

  • Focus on “participatory” recreation when it comes to cultural facilities, arts, festivals, music scene, biking and hiking trails and open spaces. For visitors and residents alike, even those who don’t partake, these aspects are ultra appealing. Beware of “big and expensive.”

  • Do whatever it takes to begin manufacturing indigenous creative class and innovation workers. The arms race to draw them will run dry and the communities that grow these people from school age on will thrive.

  • Shift incentives from corporations to start-ups, from recruitment to retention, from same-o to innovation and especially social innovation. Distance Durham from other places that are intolerant no matter the proximity. They are toxic to what makes Durham unique.


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