Two months ago in Lyon, France, 90 people from 12 countries got together to conduct a kind of summit conference, one focused on relationships among cities rather than nations.
The occasion was a symposium entitled "New Designs for Urban Improvement Through Public/Private Partnership."
It was the first European/North American conference sponsored by Partners for Livable Places, a Washington-based nonprofit organization formed in 1977 to advocate enhancement of cultural, aesthetic, economic and social amenities of cities.
Partners for Livable Places, representing and financially supported by an extensive network of member organizations and individuals, subscribes to the theory that urban vitality depends more than ever on quality-of-life factors, not just on availability of roads, sewers and employment.
In a symposium preface, Robert McNulty, the president of Partners, noted that "arts, culture and the preservation of historic, natural and economic resources" ultimately make "cities more attractive places in which to live, work and invest."
Symposium participants were invited to present and listen to case studies about "how the private and nonprofit sectors can become effective collaborators with government" in creating viable, livable cities.
Converging on Lyon was an impressive array of individuals from the United States, Canada, Colombia, France, Italy, Britain, West Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands.
There were presidents of corporations and foundations, officials from national and local government agencies, mayors, architects and planners, attorneys, developers, bankers, university professors, diplomats and journalists. Most were meeting each other for the first time.
Like all conferences, there was an official agenda -- the list of speakers and cases to be discussed -- and an unofficial, though not necessarily hidden, agenda.
The latter included the usual opportunities for "networking" -- making new contacts and exchanging ideas, anecdotes and business cards.
But it included the city of Lyon strutting its stuff -- new projects, historic preservation of buildings and districts -- with gusto and style.
Lyon, currently hosting the European branch of Partners for Livable Places, provided most of the financial and logistical support for the symposium, and its hospitable self-promotion seemed altogether appropriate, particularly since the city offers some of Europe's best dining.
Nevertheless, much more than Lyon's renaissance and cuisine were considered. Other cities told their stories.
The Hague has selected American architect Richard Meier to design a new city hall and library complex, while a new 800-unit housing project, to be designed by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, will replace the old city hall.
In Oslo, the city government, private property owners, foundations, investors and designers collaborated in planning, building and managing a downtown urban plaza and underground parking garage, one component of a citywide plan for growth, revitalization and historic preservation.
Oslo's urban design strategy calls for public-private partnerships to develop public squares, housing and commercial facilities in six designated districts.
Architects in Turin, Italy, are overseeing the restoration of "acres" of facades and "kilometers" of arcades in the city's center, financed partially with municipal funds.
The city of Naples is engaged in a multiyear clean-up, fix-up campaign to transform Italy's "most well known unlivable place" into a "city worthy of not only heads of state but international tourists as well ... to reinsert Naples as an obligatory stop on the contemporary grand tour."
Barcelona; Birmingham, England; and Stuttgart, West Germany, likewise told their stories, as did Americans representing Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, San Diego and Los Angeles.
George Brady Jr., chairman of the National Corporation for Housing Partnerships in Washington, explained how his group forms partnerships with local developers and investors to build subsidized and conventionally financed housing.
Common threads ran through all of the case studies and discussions: So-called second-tier cities, such as Indianapolis and Lyon, see themselves needing to try harder to compete for attention -- from industry, investors, tourists, the media, people in other cities and countries. Said one attendee: "There's lots of energy in the frustration that second cities suffer in the shadow of their bigger capitals." The problems and opportunities cities must now cope with increasingly demand entrepreneurial partnerships between private and public networks of interest.
Neither government nor business alone can assume total responsibility for significant urban design and redevelopment efforts (it was noted that in Europe, government typically takes the initiative, while in the United States, business usually takes the lead). Sentiments clearly favored "mixed" over "laissez-faire" economic policies to yield livable cities. Public-private partnerships should be formed not only to attract investment and build projects, but also to support culture and the arts, including public art.
Lyon's trash trucks have been painted with giant cartoon strips by well-known comic artists, the result of financial collaboration between municipal and regional authorities and local paint manufacturers.
The city of Paris is reportedly interested in doing the same thing. Cities need to devise and communicate clear civic images, perhaps even transcending reality, as part of their urban improvement strategies.
Baltimore was cited as an example of a city that used an investment strategy on amenities -- focused on Charles Center and the Inner Harbor -- to transform its image from down-and-out to up-and-coming.
The strategy has brought in tourists, generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and instilled a sense of civic optimism, notwithstanding chronic economic and social problems. Cities, not just nations, are establishing their own international relations and linkages.
Referred to as "twinning," this phenomenon can lead to both economic and cultural agreements between cities and regions. Lyon has paired up with St. Louis, Birmingham, England, Frankfurt, Milan and Beersheba, Israel. Some see this trend leading to a modern-day version of the Hanseatic League.
Predictably, the French hosts provided more than just a wonderful setting, great food and logistical support for the symposium.
They spoke more philosophically and geopolitically about the significance of the conference, expressing hope that frequently bypassed cities like Lyon would play a greater role in regional and world affairs.
While preserving their intimacy and charm, such cities must articulate and vigorously pursue their economic, social, cultural and physical goals in the context of a more competitive, international marketplace.
The symposium produced no startling revelations or revolutionary proposals. Rather, it confirmed that cities share many concerns and objectives, that cities increasingly have to take control of their own destinies, no matter which state or country's borders they lie within, and that such control must be exercised by private and public interests alike.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.