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During my third year at BUILD (Bilbao Urban Innovation and Leadership Dialogues), organised by the German Marshall Fund of the United States) we talked a lot about magnetic cities and what it takes to create one. In discussion with leaders from a range of international cities, I became aware of two very different approaches to urban transformation. The first is a conscious approach led by urban strategists and designers, who look at the physical and economic infrastructure of a place. They will draw in different disciplines and undertake spatial planning; the enlightened teams will consider the social aspect and involve affected citizens to create a shared vision, grounded in practical requirements. We heard about and saw in Bilbao many examples of this approach.

The second is the unconscious approach where local people initiate projects supported by small investments, that grow organically. The international festival, South by South West in Austin, Texas was one example that cropped up. These low risk and grassroots approaches then necessitate the development of urban strategies to support the expectations of the area’s developing brand.

Many of the examples we experienced during BUILD responded to the physical and economic impacts of globalisation, such as the rapid contraction of manufacturing in many cities. There are examples, though, where philosophical responses to changes in how we live have had a global impact, such as the slow food movement that started in the 1980s in Bra, in Italy.

The point is, that urban transformation is more than replication of successful ‘bricks and mortar’ models from other cities. It is about capturing and nurturing the heart and soul of a place and enabling a city to wrap itself around its cultural identity. All of these approaches to urban transformation need to be considered, because when they are, that’s when a city becomes truly magnetic.