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My top 5 takeaways from CityWorks (X)po: Big ideas for small cities

I’m still processing all of the amazing ideas from the second CityWorks (X)po in Roanoke, Virginia, over the weekend. I connected with so many creative, cool people; tweeted from the conference like a maniac; and boiled down all of the good stuff into 5 top takeaways that I can apply to my own life and work at The Roanoke Times.

1. Think big, stay small

Don’t forget the power you have to improve your neighborhood, city and world. But progress happens in baby steps — small ways every day (Mike Edson). You don’t have to do it perfectly or expensively (Mike Lydon), the most important thing is that we DO IT — and magic can happen. But don’t pin too much on magical wishing, said the refreshingly blunt speaker James Howard Kunstler. His new book (which I bought — and he signed) says it all: “Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation.” A sobering alarm about our finite energy sources — and one that emphasizes contraction: Our systems will be forced to be smaller, more local.

Keynote speaker Kennedy Smith shares “The Best Ideas of 2012” on the first day of CityWorks (X)po.

2. Millennials are taking us back to the future

1912 is coming back again (with some twists), according to Kennedy Smith. Millennials will impact our economics and design for years to come: They think local; are more environmentally conscious; reuse and recycle (see: rise of consignment, repair shops); and appreciate playful, techy interactivity (see Peapod grocery shopping). Most importantly, a huge number expect to own their own businesses (see: popup shops). An entrepreneurial explosion on the horizon?

3. Could we create a real Times Square?

All the talk of placemaking — and especially Mike Lydon’s examples of “tactical urbanism” (like DIY crosswalks) — got me thinking about our imminent launch of the Times Square blog on We want Times Square to become a bustling digital town square, where we’ll invite conversations about the most important — and most popular — Roanoke Times stories; spotlight contributions from the community (reader photos, videos, etc.); and connect the community with our journalists and staff through Q&As, behind-the-scenes tidbits and schedules for meetups and events. But couldn’t we create a *real* Times Square — possibly outside our doorstep, on the lawn of Roanoke’s Municipal Building? Or on our little-used roof garden? We could host picnic lunches — meetups about various issues discussed on the blog. Would there be interest?

Robin Williams, an architetural historian at the Savannah College of Art and Design (and the guy in the hat), was impressed with the abundance of art deco style in downtown Roanoke. He urged the owner of the building behind him (which houses the City Corner buffet) to restore the bottom half to its original art deco glory.

4. Let’s go on historical scavenger hunts

The architectural tour of downtown Roanoke (thanks, Robin Williams) was a fascinating peek into our past. Williams was impressed by all of the art deco (a sign Roanoke was booming during the 1930s?), and was especially moved by the building that houses the Roanoke Chamber of Commerce. Who knew it was such a special example of postwar modernism? He mentioned creating some sort of architectural scavenger hunt to help folks learn to look up — and it reminded me of Inside Out’s St. Patrick’s Day treasure hunt in 2008, which relied on many architectural elements for clues in our puzzle. Perhaps we should do another version, asking historians to provide the stories behind the buildings? This time we’ll have QR codes.

Who knew the building on Jefferson that houses the Roanoke Chamber of Commerce was such a special example of postwar modernism?

5. How can we help bring neighbors together?  

We heard Aaron Naparstek’s hilarious “Honku” poetry — this was his therapeutic way of dealing with the incessant honking outside his Brooklyn home. His project helped unite his neighborhood over a problem. But during CityWorks,  I also met committed Roanoke neighborhood advocates who were trying to find ways to bring their communities together over positive issues. This got me thinking about our own Good Neighbors Fund that The Roanoke Times has sponsored for years. How might we reinvigorate this fundraiser — or take advantage of social media? I keep focusing on the name: Good Neighbors. Sadly, I don’t know my own neighbors very well — but I’d jump at the chance to help organize an effort to raise money for a good cause, which would help me get to know them better. Perhaps we can help neighborhoods brainstorm ideas on how to raise money for the Good Neighbors fund — either around the holidays, or throughout the year? We might offer a “starter kit” of sorts for these neighborhood connectors? Hmmm. Wheels are turning ….

Did you attend the (X)po? What were some of your biggest takeaways?

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