Nate Berg

Douglas Coupland calls on cities to take pride in their unique qualities.

For a city to be worth seeing, there must be something unique about it, said Douglas Coupland.

A Vancouver native, Coupland is an artist and novelist famous for his book Generation X. He’s also the author of a number of non-fiction books, including City of Glass, which features a collection of essays about Vancouver. He’s a proud Vancouverite, and though he argues that his is one of the greatest cities in the world, he told a crowd at the recent Cities Summit in Vancouver that his city and others need to do more to differentiate themselves from each other and from the digital world.

"The download revolution affects everybody, cities especially," Coupland said. "Your new competition isn’t that city down the river with three-bedroom hotels and a slightly better golf course. Your competition now, for citizens and tourists, is World of Warcraft ... It is season-long bingeing fests of Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey.”

Cities should celebrate the assets that only they have, and the embrace the fact that to see and experience them, people have to actually be there. He says our overly digital lifestyles are making physicality that much more crucial.

"The places that people are going to want to visit are those places that spark their imagination," Coupland said. "People want experiences that cannot be downloaded, however you want to define that. People want to see physical things and they want to do things with their bodies. You can’t download a Henry Moore sculpture and you can’t attach a ski slope to an email."

Coupland argues that emphasized difference is one of the new engines of the emerging economy, and that cities should embrace the local qualities that make them unique.

"Basically, my theory is take your fringe, make it into a fringe festival,: he said. "I’ve been in a few cities in my time where they looked at themselves and thought, ‘what makes us different?’ And then they amplified it and they became very interesting and visible in their own ways."

Speaking to a room full of city officials and urban practitioners, Coupland invited them to think more carefully about their cities’ place in the world.

"Let me ask you: what makes your city different? How different is your city from the nearest competitor? If people were going to choose between visiting your city and that other city, what city is that? And if they chose that city, why didn’t they choose your city? What do you have there that’s different?" he asked. "Do you have a large Ukrainian community? Do you have lobsters? Do you have comedians? Do you have muscle-builders? Do you have apricots?"

Embracing these specialties and differences could be what make someone think about coming to visit or even moving to town. But ignoring what makes a place unique, says Coupland, will likely make it just another name on the map.

Photo credit: Nate Berg

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