The subtle art of breaking city rules

A city story is not just about marketing and communication. It makes ambassadors out of its citizens. Actors. If city employees use the story, make it the core of their culture, the city begins to fulfill itself — its best instincts.

In January, 2012, when we started the research that led to Make Something Edmonton, city manager Simon Farbrother spoke of his counterpart in Austin, Texas. The man once said to Simon, “I only have one job: to Keep Austin Weird.”

I had no idea what the Edmonton story might be, at that point. Something about northernness? But we wanted to give Simon what the man in Austin carries in his head and heart: yes to this, no to that. With every decision, we reinforce the city. Its operations, its strategy, and its marketing and communications. What we think of the city. That is, its brand.

But the man in Austin is only partly correct: if 10,000 people work for the City of Austin, and only the boss believes and uses the story, it’s just a leader’s conceit. It isn’t true.

We have said many times, since launching this initiative, that our operating tagline is “Edmonton: What are you making?

For Simon, and every City of Edmonton employee, we can extend it. “What are you making? How can we help?

This is why Mayor Stephen Mandel, who believes these words, says them in our introductory video.

A government must govern, and rules are important. Not every idea is good. Chaos is not a desirable condition. But as we move into the community with Make Something Edmonton, we are piloting a way to help entrepreneurs and project makers in business, in the arts, in social ventures.

Some rules are good. Some rules are old fashioned, representing a city that no longer exists. Some rules are actually bad.

We can’t snap our fingers and transform the culture and bylaws of a municipal government. “What are you making? How can we help?” makes co-creators and mentors out of bureaucrats. This sounds exciting to me but it’s easy for me to say; I am not a bureaucrat.

I am having trouble with my own project, which would change the way LRT station announcements work. The owners of The Next Act are having trouble with their project, based on old rules about parking. No doubt the Keg Roll loons will run into the way lawyers and insurers think and feel about running down hills.

What can we do about this? If someone says no, for a reason we find strange or smart or absurd, do we give up?

We need citizens to support Make Something Edmonton projects of all sorts, in all realms. But citizens can only take support so far.

Perhaps, the Mayor’s Task Force on Image and Reputation will recommend a new office, somewhat independent, that helps entrepreneurs and project makers bring their ideas to reality in Edmonton — forever.

At our last Make Something Edmonton meeting, one of our brilliant volunteer leaders described these project shepherds as “ombudsmen.” Simon Farbrother was at the meeting. From one point of view, this quasi-independent office could become a major pain for him. It’s easy to enforce rules. It’s not so easy to support the subtle art of breaking them, for the good of the city.

Simon put up his hand and suggested a different word: Champions.

Building great places does not always correspond with old rules about parking.

Building great places does not always correspond with old rules about parking.

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2 thoughts on “The subtle art of breaking city rules

  1. Well spoken, Todd. This sadly is a recurring theme. You likely recall during the Urban Design piece of WinterCity consultations the plea for a ‘fast track’ office for certain projects to eliminate the hoops and barriers that exist. We hear it-and report it all the time. Hmmmm How can we help?

  2. Mayor Stephen Mandel tweeted this in the late morning, about The Next Act situation: “Working with Sustainable Development to find solutions to get this business up & running.”

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