CMU: Walking to the Sky, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)image from ajstarks’ photostream

What makes a city desirable as a place in which we want to live? Is there a new American Dream in terms of how we live? These are some of the big questions tackled by a CEOs for Cities Strategy Session last month in Portland, Oregon. CEOs for Cities believes that “quality of talent, quality of place, and quality of opportunity, driven by quality of leadership” is what determines the success of a city and they attempt to nail down the facts on those factors. About 100 urban leaders from across the country gathered in Portland to look at how innovation is shaping cities and to learn why Portland has become a model for attracting talented young people. Councilman Bill Peduto was invited to attend and has been involved with the group since 2007. He has also served as a presenter previously.

The real turnaround for Portland occurred when they demolished a waterfront freeway to make it now largely pedestrianized. As Robert Liberty, Executive Director of the Sustainable Cities Initiative put it, “We changed course not because we are different but became different because we changed course.” Some of that change in course included investment in light rail, streetcar, aerial tram and bicycle infrastructure. Alex Steffen, a world leader on sustainability, futurism and walkable urbanism, noted that, “Being able to live without a car is the gold standard for young people” and “If your city doesn’t offer this option anywhere within it, young people will not move there.” (More reason to celebrate Pittsburgh recently being rated as “one of America’s safest metropolitan areas for walking.”)

It’s about asking “How can my city be the best version of itself?” Relying less on cars has obvious benefits for the environment, but it also helps to build community when we get out of our individual, private cars and meet our neighbors on the sidewalks and on public transit. But, it’s more than just about lessoning the traffic — it’s about building a culture of DIT (Do It Together). That involves residents relying on each other, such as when a “cluster economy” grows when a particular industry has success and other spin-off companies are created to support it. It also means that the citizens are active in making their city the best that it can be. It means cities which cater to people and people who are enabled to participate in the planning of their cities — placemaking.

The video below features Carol Coletta, who just stepped down as CEO of CEOs for Cities. In it, she talks about the need for a new “American Dream.” One that’s not automobile-centric. One that’s better suited to our new reality and which takes advantage of the ability of urban environments to enact “innovation, opportunity and efficiency.”