The future begins here

September 5, 2009
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The drive to create a new national urban narrative and reinvent the American dream will get its start next week in Grand Rapids, a former All-America City and current Cool City.

CEOs for Cities, a U.S. network of urban leaders from multiple sectors, will hold an invitation-only event here Sept. 14 and 15 to unwrap VeloCity, what the network describes as a national movement to re-image, reinvent and revitalize American cities and accelerate solutions to the most pressing challenges facing urban centers.

“We need a new dream to replace that one from 70 years ago — one that is better suited for today’s reality,” said Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities.

Seventy years ago, General Motors Corp. unveiled what the good life in America could look like with its display at the 1939 World’s Fair, which projected new highways filled with cars and single-family homes on acres of land. In short, what Coletta called a “car-oriented suburb” became the new American ideal.

But like the auto company, that idea is now bankrupt, and the good life needs to be redesigned. To that end, VeloCity will bring a wide-ranging panel of 40 experts here next week to outline a new ideal.

“So the purpose of our work in Grand Rapids is going to be to launch a movement that will help define, or redefine, that next American dream — a dream that’s more suited to today’s realities,” said Coletta.

Katherine von Jan, managing partner and chief creative officer at KvJ & Co. in New York City and lead organizer of VeloCity, said the participants will do some “urban spelunking” in the downtown area and nearby neighborhoods.

“Urban spelunking is a process by which experts immerse themselves in the area’s culture, and then they engage with some of the doers to gather insights and help define future behavior,” she said.

“So we’re really trying to understand what’s new, what’s fresh, what people are thinking about and how they’re dealing with that, to understand which of those new attitudes and behaviors are likely to stick in the future on a more mainstream level.”

Ultimately, CEOs for Cities feels the results from examining a city as diverse as Grand Rapids will help to build a reality bridge to the nation’s future.

“These experiences really serve as a foundation for the development of this new urban narrative that will launch the VeloCity movement nationally,” said von Jan.

The experts coming here were characterized as committed, passionate people who are big-thinking executives, civil leaders and activists who embrace change. Another group that is coming is the storytellers: cinematographers, writers and media gatekeepers who will tell VeloCity’s good-life story to the rest of the planet.

“As you look at who’s engaged in the experience, you’ll see individuals who come from very diverse backgrounds and each leaders in their own right and very interested in helping to shape this new American dream and to make that dream more accessible,” said von Jan.

Susan Choi, managing partner for SUITE 246 in New York and a VeloCity organizer, is familiar with the city. She said Grand Rapids is one of her favorite places to visit and serves as the poster city for creating a new urban narrative and the starting spot to begin to reinvent the American dream.

“I have to say there are doers everywhere you go. It’s amazing for me to be able to see the common goals of people and places trying to reinvent themselves, helping their neighbors, the commitment to philanthropy, and just generally the commitment to a healthy city core. And that definitely is something that is visible everywhere,” said Choi.

“It’s incredible because you have very small businesses — some that are old, some that are new — that are all doing remarkable, interesting things in their city. There definitely is this great commitment that remains in the city from your major corporations, and even from some that are not in the city but still want to invest in the future of what the city of Grand Rapids looks like.”

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