Small Cities, Big Ideas

by John Robinson

Despite the efforts of many, I have never been one to appreciate poetry like I probably should, but Nikki Giovanni’s got my attention. As she reads her “Tennessean by Birth,“ I’m pulled like teeth in taffy from my residual morning funk. This spunky, world-renowned poet has soul, and we’re obviously off to another big day at the Cityworks (X)po.

The Cityworks (X)po defies easy definition. This two-and-a-half-day “festival conference” is unlike anything I have ever experienced. It’s all about Small Cities –those with less than 100,000 or so residents- and Big Ideas, and the Roanoke-based organizers have invited nationally and internationally-known speakers from across the United States to come and share their expertise and enthusiasm.

Jim Kunstler is on stage now. The outspoken expert on  particular challenges that cities may face in the coming decades “calls it like he sees it” and his insight is thought-provoking. He’s talking about the changing face of American life as the era of cheap energy passes. Wow, I’m thinking, this stuff demands our respect and deep consideration.

At first I may have thought “what am I doing here?” as someone whose work (dentistry) is not directly related to city planning or management, or architecture or food or music, but then I realize that I am just the kind of person that needs to take part in such a conference: a regular citizen with a deep and abiding interest in the community.  More than just a conference, (X)po is about celebrating life in small cities.

Ben Hewitt walks on the stage like he just walked off his Vermont farm. Is that cow manure on his boots? No, but he is wearing a John Deere hat that’s held together by only a few remnant threads. It’s a lid well-worn through long hours at satisfying, honest work, he assures. This author of books about small agriculture/local food such as The Town that Food Saved, Ben talks about trends in local food management, and the difficulty and hazards of maintaining the dominant food production methods used in the US today. He opens my eyes to the beauty, joys and challenges of small-scale agriculture.

This conference is about ideas; about thoughtfully and creatively considering the future of our communities within our small cities. It’s about sharing ideas, enlightening others on things which have been successful in one community and therefore having potential for others.

Kennedy Smith is in the spotlight now. My son seated next to me has given me the heads up on her, describing some of her work in Charlottesville. Smith’s presentation fascinates with examples of rediscovered downtowns, micro-industry in compact spaces, and improved business success through enhancement of the web of space and place in communities.

Theaster Gates regales us with thought-provoking journeys of community projects and designs which result in restoring strong connections of place between the diversity of “opposite sides of the tracks.”

“Some of the best stuff happens in the ‘interstitials,’” reminds head organizer Ed Walker, referring to creativity and connections spawned during conversations struck up among new and old acquaintances during the off-times of the conference. Indeed, stretching my legs between presentations, I meet not only Roanokers strongly engaged in making their city a stronger, ever more vibrant community, but folks from all over. Among others, I meet a couple from Australia, several students from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Public Policy, and some Californians expert on bicycles-as-transportation issues. Besides contact information, we exchange enthusiasm and encouragement.

Testament to the significance of social media and state-of-the-art communication technology, several conference speakers deliver their presentations via Skype, from across the United States; the mayor of Davis, California, for instance, speaks about his city’s unique concert and community market venue.

Headquartered in the renovated City Market Building’s Charter Hall, Cityworks (X)po features, along with those from afar, some of Roanoke’s most enlightening speakers. Beth Macy, Roanoke Times award-winning journalist, encourages us to “get out of our zip codes” and become familiar with the smaller communities, such as those of the large immigrant population in our midst, within the larger ones. And Macy reminds us that, whatever media is used in this day of so many sources, it’s still all about the story! Aaron Dykstra, local small-manufacturing/ handcrafting success story, shares his passion for building bicycles. Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill shares his ideas of affection and attachment to one’s city as elements ensuring an engaged community. Bonz Hart describes why he has based his world-wide company Meridium in a small city like Roanoke, Jefferson Center Executive Director Cyrus Pace tells us about his dedication to music education and its importance in the life of a vibrant city and Brett Lemon shares his “Faces of Roanoke” photography project. And the list goes on.

More connections between people and places are made. While strolling around the market during a break, I run into another participant in the conference who turns out to be a friend of a friend, and someone who has developed, like I have, a passion for energy-efficient design. And we’re interrupted by another guy I met earlier in a bike-as-transportation conversation. We’re excited; all gesturing with expressive hands.

Cityworks(X)po 2011. It’s a big reminder that vibrant communities don’t just happen; they are the result of enthusiasm, creativity and energy spent by thoughtful, engaged citizens. Might we all count ourselves among such a group.

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