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Ed Morrison · Re-imagining Public Square

December 20th, 2009

Anyone who loves the prospect of a Cleveland reborn should read Steven Litt’s article today.

James Corner, one of the nation’s leading landscape architects, sees a huge potential to turn the 10-acre space at the heart of downtown into an iconic destination on par with Chicago’s Millennium Park. He wants to see the square filled with people strolling, sunning, picnicking or relishing public art, concerts, gardens or outdoor markets.

At the behest of two nonprofit organizations, Parkworks and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, Corner has come up with three radical and highly inventive plans for the square…

Corner’s work is excellent. The quality far exceeds anything proposed for the casino or the medical mart so far. And it cost a relative pittance. Corner’s team has been paid $66,000 in money from the Downtown Cleveland Alliance and the John P. Murphy Foundation. Corner also collaborated with members of Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, or CUDC, including Teresa Schwarz and Christopher Diehl.

Re-imagining Cleveland’s Public Square

The struggles of Cleveland’s civic leadership to develop the convention center and med mart have reached comic elevations. Re-imagining Public Square comes along at just the right time. The initiative may help Cleveland’s leadership find a less costly and more productive path to get complex projects done in the “civic space”.

Every city must transform itself to meet the new demands of global competition. This transformation requires a simple, clear strategy. This strategy, in turn, will only emerge from a civic process that is both authentic and transparent.

Put aside the issue of vision for a moment. What Cleveland needs more than anything right now is coherence.

We know this much:

  • The future of cities in the global economy will likely depend on how well they can reshape themselves around a future of creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation. (See, for example, Brisbane’s strategy.)
  • Transformation strategies are complex, and they require networks to link and leverage assets, (See Sean Stafford’s book Why the Garden Club Could not Save Youngstown)
  • Cleveland (like other Midwestern cities), is shrinking. We need fundamentally new approaches reshaping these shrinking cities. (see Richard Longworth’s recent blog post. Longworth is author of Caught in the Middle, which is required reading in Milwaukee.)
  • Cleveland’s challenge is real and not trivial. How does the civic leadership design a creative hot spot with a shrinking city? Or, as the folks in Youngstown are exploring, how do you focus the creative power of a shrinking city?

    Cleveland’s current downtown development is driven by projects, not strategy. Cleveland’s leadership has failed to articulate a clearly defined strategy of transformation (or, as the foundations often demand, a “theory of change“).

    We have only disconnected, big projects. (The current siting proposal for the med mart shows how project considerations trump any sense of a broader strategy of transformation.)

    Maybe, just maybe, by focusing on a 10 acre public space (where there’s little incentive for Cleveland’s developers to distort the process), Cleveland’s leadership can develop new skills at designing and implementing a simple, productive civic process for making complex public investments.

    Public Square

    Last 5 posts by Ed Morrison

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    7 Responses to “Re-imagining Public Square”

    1. John Polk Says:

      Wasn’t it Einstein who observed that the minds which collaborated to create a problem are incapable of seeing solutions to the problems they created?

      Our current leadership caste know how to do one thing: capture public dollars to promote private development, and even at that they seem to have hit a wall.

      Our “civic leaders” need to find a way to shift from pushing money around among an insular group of non-profit players and actually DO something. The Age Of The Facilitator (and The Fixer) may be coming to a close.

      I fear our current crop cannot collaborate themselves out of the hole they’ve dug themselves into, because doing so requires genuine vision and genuine collaboration.

      The people are the problem. The “process” they’ve sworn by for 20 years is broken. Some folks need to lose their cushy jobs…

    2. Ed Morrison Says:

      The change will come, I suspect, when enough people come to realize that the people charged with shaping economic development policy in this town really don’t know what they’re doing. Proof point: The acceleration of Pittsburgh and now Akron past Cleveland in the past ten years.

      Cleveland has some very competent professionals in place. But the large policy decisions being led by the Greater Cleveland Partnership have been as goofy as any I’ve seen in 25 years of doing regional economic development across the country.

    3. Frank Revy Says:

      So Ed – what is the solution?

      Is it trying to get the right people to run for key political offices?

      Or do we need to push private strategy forums on the current leadership?

      Or is there something else that can be done?

    4. Ed Morrison Says:


      You ask some important questions. Here are some thoughts. First, it’s probably not a good idea to try to find a single solution to “fix” the problem.

      Cleveland’s Civic leadership has a long-standing reputation for insularity and arrogance, and these traits are not really fixable. (If you doubt my characterization, simply travel the Youngstown or Akron. Recently, Akron’s mayor joked that he tells people this city is located 100 miles north of Columbus.)

      Instead, it’s time if focus on a new civic dynamic. Here are some suggestions on where to start:

      1. Build new online connections. People interested in changing the dynamic within Cleveland should, paradoxically, be looking for ways to connect outside Cleveland. I am familiar with four communities — Lorain, Akron, Youngstown and Milwaukee — that each have interesting initiatives underway that could benefit Cleveland. Building shared web spaces or weblogs is a good way to explore connections and how new ideas for transformation can be translated into action. Each of these four cities seems to do a better job in Cleveland. If you are interested in names, I will make e-mail introductions.

      Here’s an example of how Akron is re-imagining its downtown: University Park plans speaker series

      2. Build off the Sustainability Summit. This promising initiative seems already to be losing some steam. I may be wrong about that, but it’s difficult to tell because the web presence of the Sustainability Summit is weak. Building a stronger web presence and a clear focus on the strategic agenda would help build these networks.

      A number of cities are providing good models to follow. Austin, Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis are good places to start. Check out some rankings here.

      At the same time, Cleveland should not underestimate its own sustainability resources. I travel the country, and it is rare to find people like Holly Harlan and David Beach, who have a deep understanding of sustainability issues. Cleveland is also home to Valdis Krebs, an internationally recognized expert in social network analysis; Jim Gilmore, an expert in new approaches to the “experience economy”; and David Cooperrider, the founder of Appreciative Inquiry.

      3. Launch a creative city network in Cleveland. The city has a lot of cultural assets, but they’ve never really been focused as part of an economic development agenda. Again, they’re good models to follow. Places like Toronto, Brisbane, in Vienna all our building economic development strategies around their creative industries. These strategies include new business development, new career pathways, and strong internal marketing campaigns.

      4. Take ownership of the public square. Use a makeover of Public Square is both a symbolic and real effort to rebuild the civic dialogue within Cleveland. Build up the existing network of organizations focused on Public Square and outline a clear process for picking among the three scenarios and then charting a path way to translating these ideas into specific investments.

      5. Reach out to Chris Thompson at the Fund for Our Economic Future. The Fund has suffered a major blow with the near complete withdrawal of funds by the Cleveland Foundation. The philanthropic collaboration still makes sense, but it is no longer the epicenter of regional strategy. To remain relevant, the Fund will have to reshape its strategy. My experience tells me that the Fund has about a six-month window to reposition itself. After that, I suspect, if no other strategy emerges, members of the fund will begin just to drift off. Chris Thompson of the Fund has been working hard to establish regional networks.

    5. John McGovern Says:

      Ed, as always, thanks for your well conceived thoughts.

      In regards to the Sustainability Summit, I agree with the mediocre (at best) web presence, though I believe it may have been just a placeholder. As I understand it, a new web platform is in the works as one product of a Dec meeting by one of the Summit’s committees.

      Thanks again for all the relevant examples. Furthermore, I’d like to learn more about how ‘Strategic Doing’ could best be utilized to implement many of the ideas that resulted from either the 09 Summit or the various public committees.

    6. Ed Morrison Says:


      Next week, we are launching a new venture, based on a web platform developed by Near-Time, a venture backed company based in Research Triangle. Strategy-Nets combines the disciplines of Strategy Doing with the power and ease of use of the Near-Time platform. Near-Time is a partner in our new venture.

      Here are some examples of how people are using the platform.

      Minnesota Renewable Energy Marketplace:

      Milwaukee 7 Water Council:

      We have dozens of other applications, as well. The Internet platform is important because collaboration in loosely joined open networks requires both open participation and leadership direction. No single Web 2.0 technology (or, if you prefer, social media)is right for collaboration in all circumstances.

      Rather, you need a tightly integrated platform that is both open (no lock-in), easy to use, has flexible roles and permissions, and can “manage” the knowledge as it accumulates.

      Strategic Doing is a discipline I started to develop at Case Western Reserve, and I have continued to develop at Purdue. (It’s the primary reason they invited me to join the Center for Regional Development.)

      Strategic Doing is a simple discipline (but not easy). Like any discipline — from piano playing to hitting a tennis ball — some people have innate ability. But anyone can develop the skill with practice.

      Strategic Doing is the discipline of moving a loosely joined network of people toward transformation of a complex system by thinking and acting strategically. The strategies involve aligning, linking and leveraging the assets embedded in the network.

      You can see Strategic Doing in action on a channel on Vimeo:

      You can download a white paper (and other stuff) from this page:

      To transform a regional economy, you need to be able to accomplish some very complex initiatives by following some simple rules. Strategic Doing shows you how.

    7. The Urbanophile » Blog Archive » Midwest Miscellany Says:

      [...] should be a good project for Cleveland. Brewed Fresh Daily has some must-read commentary on [...]