Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Urban Consulate aims to encourage uncomfortable—and inspiring—conversations in Detroit, Philly, and NOLA.
Claire Nelson realized that it’s hard to be a solo urbanist—and lonely, too.
The founder of Detroit’s Urban Innovative Exchange, a three-year initiative to highlight social entrepreneurs and creative placemaking projects, Nelson found that there’s a slew of conferences and professional development opportunities available to urban planners, architects, or folks who work in city government or economic development. But those aren’t necessarily accessible to localists launching start-ups. “The constituency of urbanists is very multi-sector and multi-disciplinary,” she says—but it’s sometimes hard to make connections and leverage networks, especially if you don’t have a formal seat at the table.
Nelson envisioned a set of hubs for urban-curious people in cities across the U.S.; backed by the Knight Cities Challenge, she piloted three this spring. Urban Consulate, which launched in Detroit, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, aims to be a place for urban-curious people—both residents and visitors—to eavesdrop or jump in.
The pilot cities share some common struggles: sometimes-sluggish economies, for instance, as well as deep-seated racial and socio-economic stratification. They’ve been the sites of trauma, Nelson says, but also home to energetic people trying to heal wounds. Those histories, she adds, make it tempting to put on blinders and hunker down to work—after all, there’s much to be done—but also offer a chance to collaborate with other folks thinking about the same issues.
The Consulate envisions itself as a convener, bringing people together to talk about best practices—and, equally important, colossal bellyflops—in their respective cities. “When you’re focused on your own place, you think the problems are really unique,” she says. “They’re American issues.”
The calendar of events includes teas and parlor talks about heated issues like gentrification; these, Nelson says, sometimes turn into “therapy sessions.” In addition to heavy-hitting talks, the Consulate hosts game nights to build camaraderie—an playful overture to cut the bitterness of a summer that’s been full of political divisiveness and global tragedies. Upcoming lectures include roundtables about how women can help dismantle racism and how culture can accelerate economic development.
Of the three pilot cities, Detroit is currently the only one where the Consulate has opened a brick-and-mortar outpost; Nelson had already cultivated a large network in the city, and lower living costs made it feasible to rent a house there. The property is in the Cass Corridor area, where a lot of the city’s revitalization efforts have been focused—including the controversial light rail line.
“We wanted to put ourselves right there in the middle of that, to have some challenging conversations about what’s going on around us,” Nelson says.
The Consulate has sponsored a few exchanges, facilitating a Detroiter traveling to New Orleans, and sending an artist from Minneapolis to Philadelphia to look into how locals there used public art to activate sleepy spaces. The envoys, Nelson says, are a way for people to noodle over sticking points in their own work.
They also offer a framework for rethinking tourism. Detroit is often dismissed as a curiosity, or a place to parachute into, snap some pictures of ruin porn, and leave. Nelson says it tends to be cast in extremes: it’s “in decline or on the rise, either ruins or redevelopment—not a lot of in-between.” Visitors, she adds, are often coming “for one of those two reasons—to see what went wrong, or to learn what the future can be.”
Tourism can also be fraught in New Orleans, Nelson says; tourism is a large part of the city’s economy, but some just ogle. Instead of “gawking at stuff, consuming it, and then going away,” Nelson hopes to foster a dialog between locals, newer residents, and visitors. “Our pie-in-the-sky vision is that anyone who is urban-curious could plug in and feel part of this larger movement,” she says.
The Consulate isn’t knocking down doors or papering the streets with flyers. “We’re not going for crowds of 200 people,” Nelson says. “We like the intimate conversations.” And Nelson says they’re not interested in eroding the character of a place. To prevent the loudest or splashiest voices from dominating the conversation, the Consulate partners with groups that are already doing hands-on work in those communities. This summer, they’ll work with Dally in the Alley, a local tradition on Cass Corridor in Detroit, and will hold an empathy-building meal inspired by the Conflict Kitchen project in Pittsburgh. So far, events like these have bridged the gap between tourists and natives. Nelson was surprised that an event about Pedal to Porch, a narrative bike ride through neighborhoods, attracted journalists, suburbanites, and tourists from nearby hostels and lodges as well as locals.
Nelson concedes that it’s hard to measure the success of this type of venture. Any gauge of a conversation’s transformative power is bound to be imprecise, and talking about issues isn’t the same as solving them. Discussing rightsizing campaigns won’t reinstate municipal services, for instance, for the families who live in areas where garbage collection was scaled back, or where street lamps were extinguished. Nor will it buoy an economy still sorely hurting for steady jobs.
But, Nelson says, it’s important to keep an eye on the long game—and there, she adds, conversations can do quite a bit, as far as connecting allies around shared values. “Solving the problems begins with people building trust and learning from each other,” she says. “Sometimes we skip over that in our rush to ‘fix’ cities.”