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Big Ideas: Columbus as a City of Design?

 Michael Bongiorno Big Ideas: Columbus as a City of Design?
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I would like to suggest the following: Columbus is now and will develop further into an international design capital and an idea city of the future. Sound impossible? Let me tell you why it isn’t.

Michael Bongiorno, principal and senior designer at DesignGroup.

In August of 2010, my wife, Sarah Bongiorno, and I gave an impassioned and well received presentation at Pecha Kucha Columbus that argued for our city to seek appointment as a UNESCO City of Design. For those of you that don’t know about UNESCO, it is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, an entity whose stated purpose is to promote international collaboration through education, science, and culture. Under the category of “culture” UNESCO has established a “Creative Cities Network” within which creative cities work together towards a common mission for cultural diversity and sustainable urban development. Member cities are recognized as “Creative hubs” that promote socio-economic and cultural development through creative industries.

Within the framework of the Creative Cities network sit a variety of cultural categories. There are cities of Literature, Film, Music, Crafts and Folk Art, Design, Media Arts, Gastronomy. Only two U.S. cities are in the network: Iowa City, Iowa (Literature) and Santa Fe, New Mexico (Crafts and Folk Art.) Only one North American City, Montreal, is a City of Design. The other design cities are Berlin, Buenos Aires, Graz, Kobe, Nagoya, Saint-Etienne, Seoul, Shanghai, Shenzhen.

The thing that inspired us to give the Pecha Kucha presentation was what we experienced on a trip to Montreal, Canada in 2009. We were impressed by the design-centered culture of the city, citizens’ awareness of the importance of design, and how they promoted opportunities to engage design both locally and internationally. Design and ideas are integral to city life and it is the differentiator that they promote to visitors. So it was a pleasant surprise when we discovered that Montreal behaves the way it does because it is a UNESCO City of Design, recognized internationally as a design hub.

Once Columbus is appointed to the Network, it can share experiences and create new opportunities with other cities on a global platform, notably for activities based on the notions of a creative economy and “Creative Tourism.” Creative Tourism is considered to be a new generation of tourism that involves more interaction, in which the visitor has an educational, emotional, social, and participative interaction with the place, its living culture, and the people who live there. They feel like a citizen.

You are probably wondering, why Columbus? Do we really have what it takes to become a UNESCO City of Design, especially alongside such notable international cities?

The answer is absolutely yes. The UNESCO designation is not about being recognized only for what you have done, but for what you could be. It is an invitation to develop Columbus around its creative forces in design. Columbus, as Montreal did, exhibits all the latent and nascent attributes required to be a City of Design. Consider the following UNESCO City of Design selection criteria against our strengths.

  1. Established design industry: We are the home of numerous, internationally recognized fashion, architecture, graphic design, advertising, planning, engineering, and industrial design industries. By promoting this strength instead of hiring out of town design firms for major commissions, our largest civic and business leaders, and our local economy, will reap enormous benefits from untapped talent.
  2. Design schools and design research centers: Columbus College of Art and Design, The Ohio State University, The Columbus Museum of Art Center for Creativity, Fort Hayes and the Wexner Center for the Arts are internationally recognized design, design research, and thought leadership institutions. How can we expand and enhance their impact upon Columbus?
  3. Promotion of the creative local scene: The Short North Arts District, Jenis’s Ice Cream, etc. continually receive national exposure. Do we promote enough of our other scenes? Can we do the same for the burgeoning Franklinton Arts District, King Lincoln District, and all of our other local entrepreneurs?
  4. Experience in hosting fairs, events and exhibits dedicated to design: Fashion Week, Columbus Arts Festival, Agora at Junctionview, Urban Scrawl, Pecha Kucha Columbus, TedX. While we have a lot of fairs, we could do a much better at educating our citizens about, and promoting, good design.
  5. Collaboration among diverse groups: We can do much better. The new AIA Center for Architecture is developing its mission and programming toward becoming the collaboration and outreach nexus of the allied design industries (architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, industrial design, graphic design, urban planning, urban design, computer design, engineering, fashion design, etc.) in Columbus. Dialogue among diverse groups working at their highest creative capacity leads to innovation and shared success. It is what will be required for successful and sustainable 21st century cities.
  6. Cultural landscape fuelled by design and the built environment: We are getting there, but we need to do a lot better by raising the level of expectation for what constitutes great design. There is an enormous difference between passable and great. It pains me to say this but a lot of our current physical environment is just “passable” where it has the opportunity to engage and inspire. We should aspire to be the kind of place we’d like to visit.

While we can do better in all of these categories, it should be pretty clear that we have both what it takes and the potential to do even greater things. We need to recognize what our strengths are (stop looking for external ones!), capitalize on them, and then proclaim it loudly; this is critical for talent attraction and retention. Cities like Columbus that are without mountains, beachfronts, oceans or sublime weather can rely only on culture and the quality of our built environment to capitalize upon as resources of seduction. Figuring out how to make the creative culture-environment combination a competitive advantage at an international level is where we should be spending all of our energies.

The benefits of the UNESCO City of Design designation are measurable. According to Montreal, collaboration with other cities in network has been an enormous boon. They build on each other’s strengths and cross-market. Collaboration opens up other markets to Montreal innovators to work internationally and to participate in international conferences. If a UNESCO city is holding a conference, preferential invitations, opportunities to present, are given to designers and innovators within the network. Montreal’s tourism office directs international journalists to their Design Bureau and the Design Bureau then provides tailored experiences that will show the city in the best light. For example, design tours for these journalists are led by leaders in the design community.

Your next question might be: This sounds great, how do we make it happen?

Work is under way and we have a launch pad. Sarah and I have already begun conversations with the Bureau of Design in Montreal and they are eager to help us on our mission. We have opportunities to collaborate with some concurrent initiatives happening over the next year and are continually pitching our idea to community and business leaders with positive reception. In addition, with assistance from AIA Columbus and The Columbus Architecture Foundation, we are leading a group of designers from the allied design industries to create meaningful programming for a design calendar in October 2012 that celebrates the local creative scene. These events could support the Columbus 200 Bicentennial efforts as an additional layer of exciting programming. Imagine a Columbus “Design Week” or even a “Design Month,” where, yearly or biennially, people come from far and wide to be creative tourists in our city and experience and engage with all that our local talent has to offer in the form of unique tours, inspiring lectures, innovative competitions, exhibitions, celebratory galas and interactive workshops. If we time it right, our first series of events can serve as the launch of the City of Design pursuit.

One last thought I’d like to leave you with is that Columbus, UNESCO City of Design, is a collective project that, to become a reality over time, demands that all stakeholders (elected officials, citizens, experts, entrepreneurs and designers – in short, all of you) buy into it and make it our own.

The challenge now is to bring this designation to life and make it tangible for us. The call therefore goes out to everyone: it is time to build “Columbus, UNESCO City of Design,” together.

Our time is now, let’s not miss this opportunity.

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  • jpizzow

    I cannot even express to you how excited I would be to have this designation for Columbus. Too often, we settle for poor design in this city for the sake of “just developing something to replace a vacant lot”. I cannot stand it when people say that and when they think that I’m just complaining about it. Just as you said, we are geographically challenged, which automatically places us at somewhat of a disadvantage with competing cities. Thus, WE NEED GOOD DESIGN. I’m really tired of our developers, commissions and city leaders, in many cases, “playing it safe”.

    As far as the collarborative efforts go, I really wish something to the tune of the Citizen Summit a few years back at the convention center could happen at least once a year. Too many people in this city are uninformed and uneducated on good design. They will not demand it if they do not understand it.
    I wish you the best of luck with this endeavor and you guys have my 100% backing.

  • columbusmike

    Article hits the nail on the head.  We don’t have picturesque mountains or beautiful blue oceans – our seductive draw should be our built environment.  Our main focus here in Columbus should be making the highest quality buildings and public space.  This is what will make Columbus into a thriving, successful city – along with improving our already good neighborhoods, schools, and colleges.

  • jbcmh81

    The new Nationwide building, the FBI building, and the planned housing in the Arena District are all examples of Columbus playing it safe (and by Columbus I mean companies here) and doing only what’s simply adequate.  I love development, I don’t like how so many here think we are too small to do anything better.

  • CalebR

    Is it sad that I almost died from a heart attack while reading this? Columbus does have a LOT of potential. We just need to capitalize it, like you have said. ATM, your a god to me lol

  • jpizzow

    Yea, the FBI building is highly dissappointing. And so is….well don’t get me started…..

  • columbusmike

    I disagree.  The reason those buildings are “safe” is because that’s all that is required.  No one is going to spend money on a lavishly designed building if they don’t have to – I wish they would (and it does happen once in a blue moon), but it isn’t going to happen.  No one is going to take the energy to do things right, unless it’s mandated through city design guidelines (I’m guessing these buildings DID have to follow certain guidelines, but they are probably very loose).

    Columbus needs to work with it’s neighbors (New Albany, Dublin, Grove City, etc) to develop a unified master plan and design regulations.  The city of Columbus itself isn’t going to implement new guidelines because people will take their buildings and development to the other surrounding ‘burbs.  We need to solve this problem with a holistic, unified approach that realizes that if we demand a better (and more costly) built environment across central Ohio, it’s for the betterment of the entire central Ohio community.

  • I love reading this, but I feel like it’s putting the cart before the horse. I’m thinking it would be more productive to focus on projects that would get us this distinction first. Notice how all the pictures are from other places? Let’s get some projects that would be worthy of being in those pictures, so when we get the honor of being a UNESCO City of Design, the reaction would be “of course!” instead of “mmm… OK…”

  • cbus11

    I think we should look at what Columbus, Indiana has done.

    Columbus, Indiana has a population of only 39,000, yet has been ranked 6th in the nation for architectural innovation and design by the American Institute of Architects, right behind the much larger cities of Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.



  • MichaelC

    I’m in. I love your vision and passion. Thanks for being infectious.
    What can i do to help?

  • I raised an eyebrow at first, but now I’m totally sold. YES! I completely agree with the previous comment, we don’t have pretty scenery, so we need to make our built environment pretty. Let’s do it!

  • This is, by far, the best idea I’ve heard coming from Columbus in a very long time.
    The commitment to creating well-designed everything, truly good design with regard to structures, public spaces, public venues as well as products of private enterprise will indeed bring more visitors to Columbus than a tag line developed by an ad agency.
    And it’s not all about attracting visitors.  It’s also about creating a built environment that replaces mediocre with excellence for residents and visitors alike.  It would be about creating a level of engagement with all aspects of citizenry, public and private, in an attempt to create something spectacular for generations.

  • Sadley

    I am very excited at the prospect of getting the community, the local government, and designers involved in a unified initiative to improve our city’s standing in the country and world. I am concerned at the moment about the “group from allied design industries” you mentioned. From what I hear it is mostly filled with architects. While architects need to have a critical role in the development of this project, it seems as though the needs of the other design industries in Columbus are being ignored. I hope this is not a trend, and that the discussion will open up to all design industries to make this a truly collaborative and successful venture.

  • Andrew Hall

    I agree with the vision. Wholeheartedly.

     But UNESCO? Really? The best I can find about “City of Design” is :

    The UNESCO designation is neither a label nor a form of recognition. It is an invitation to develop Montréal around its creative forces in design. Montréal, UNESCO City of Design is thus a collective project that, to become a reality over time, demands that all stakeholders – elected officials, citizens, experts, entrepreneurs and designers – buy into it and make it their own.”

    Why do we need to baksheesh UNESCO? Why not jump to that last phrase and make it our own?


  • “Why not jump to that last phrase and make it our own?”

    Here here.

  • Is there more information for those of us who want to be involved in this process?

  • Thank you all for your really insightful comments and questions. I am glad there is discussion and enthusiasm. I plan to respond to the questions and concerns you have about this arcticle, but I need to do so thoughfully which requires time and my day job is ususally packed so I won’t be able to get to it till this weekend. This will allow time for more comment and dialogue as well. Just want you to know that I am not leaving you hanging!


  • colrex7

    This is a great idea, and would love to experience this. One thing I have noticed from living, traveling, and researching other cities, is that Columbus is truly unique when it comes to the local creative community. And when I say creative, I mean art, design, food, literature, etc. The whole gambit. I think so many people are unaware of this, because they just don’t explore it. But in fact, I think Columbus’ local and creative scene is way more accessible than most cities (for example: CU is rare – most cities don’t have this type of community outlet).
    Also,  Columbus is a young city (on many levels) which enables this to happen more easily than other cities. Our lack of an image, and the openness I think are all positives that will embrace this. However, I think having Columbsites unite together, across the entire city, will be the most difficult part. So many people have little faith in the city, which will have to change.
    Anywho, this has amazing potential. I would love to be a part of this, and spread it (which I have been doing for the past 24 hours).

  • @Cbus11, thanks for the additional links on Columbus, Indiana.  Interesting…

  • This piece is one part of a multi-part effort to put feelers out to a variety of audiences to further test reception to the idea. None of this is “official” yet, it is a vision that is in its formal infancy. To date, however, the response by varied groups (both at the grass roots and higher levels) has been quite positive. This is very encouraging. Please also note that we have two somewhat separate, parallel efforts going on: Programming for a Columbus Design Week/Month and the pursuit of the UNESCO designation. Design calendar programming will be pursued regardless the UNESCO pursuit. As far as putting a cart before a horse, we believe we have enough worthy parts in place to begin the process of applying for the designation. Remember that the designation is not a reward; it is an acknowledgement that we have clear potential to do great things. We have to start somewhere.
    Regarding partners, we are early in the process of reaching out to the allied industries. It is important to understand that an architect and an urban designer (Me and Sarah) dreamed this up and we reached out to our immediate network first. Please rest assured that there is no architect’s cabal intending to exclude others. In fact, the desire is to reach out to more in the allied industries through connectors like all of you.
    The “why UNESCO” point is well taken. In an ideal situation, yes, I think this effort is worthy in its own right. However, it is important to understand that the benefit of doing this under the umbrella of an established international entity is that there is a credibility factor: it creates a metric and Columbus’ leaders, like it or not, typically require clear metrics and a credibility-through-association model. Columbus also requires examples of successful precedents. We can be visionary and we can inspire others to see that vision, but we can’t turn others into visionaries. I hope that makes sense. If you’d like more information about The UNESCO Creative Cities Network and Cities of Design please look here: http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CLT/pdf/Creative_cities_brochure_en.pdf
    Thanks again for your feedback and let’s keep the dialogue going. This work is not going to happen overnight and for that reason we don’t want people to lose energy and interest. If you are a leader with good ideas, who has connections to the allied design industries, who has a bias to get things done and who is interested in some level of participation because you want to see this seed come to fruition, please contact me at: [email protected]

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