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St. Louis Shines For Visiting City Leaders

New American City brings urban planners to town for annual Vanguard Conference

Revitalized areas of St. Louis, like the Grove, caught the attention of urban leaders visiting from across the country during the Vanguard Conference, held Oct. 10-12 in St. Louis. photo by Max Bouvatte (click for larger version)
October 24, 2012
St. Louis just got a lot more popular among urban planners, community organizers and leaders from all over the country who are trying to make their cities better.

Movers and shakers from cities all over – Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Boston, New Orleans, Seattle and several others – got to see what St. Louis has to offer when they gathered here for the Next American City's Vanguard conference Oct. 10-12.

Next American City is a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting cities and the people working to improve them. The conference brings together 40 of the country's brightest young urban leaders from diverse backgrounds – city planners, transportation specialists, entrepreneurs, architects, government officials and others – to discuss and exchange ideas about how to build great cities.

After hosting Vanguard conferences in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, Next American City selected St. Louis from a list of a dozen other cities as this year's conference site – and the local host committee couldn't be more proud.

"This is a big deal for St. Louis," said Randy Vines, co-creator of the St. Louis-inspired graphic design company STL-Style and one of nine St. Louisans on the host committee who worked to bring the conference here. "This city has come a long way and to land a conference like this is a feather in our cap. All eyes of some of the most amazing urban thinkers are here and this is great exposure for St. Louis."

St. Louis’ examples of urban renewal were among the reasons the city was chosen to host the Vanguard Conference. photo by Max Bouvatte (click for larger version)
His twin brother, Jeff Vines, also a co-creator of STL-Style and host committee member, echoed that sentiment.

"The Vanguard conference offered a great opportunity to view our city through the eyes of a visitor, and hearing this dynamic group describe their impressions of the urban environment should remind us that St. Louis remains a very relevant American city."

Alex Ihnen, editor and founder of the St. Louis blog nextSTL.com, is glad St. Louis is getting some attention.

"Nationally, there is a lack of a St. Louis narrative," he said. "This brings together experts in the field and allows us to show that St. Louis is an opportunity for people thinking about cities."

Ihnen pointed out several successful St. Louis projects such as the Habitat for Humanity housing in North St. Louis that other cities can look to as an example.

"This introduces people to St. Louis and they can take those stories back to where they go, so that's a huge plus for St. Louis," he said.

Robert Linn, an urban planner from Detroit, plans to do just that.

"I think Detroit has a lot to learn from St. Louis," he said. "St. Louis is doing some amazing things in terms of revitalization and it's a city that Detroit can look to for that."

The city's examples of urban renewal were among the reasons St. Louis was chosen for this year's conference, said Diana Lind, Next American City's executive director and editor-in-chief.

"We want to gather these emerging leaders from all over the country and highlight a city and make it a part of the urban renewal, cross-city dialogue," she said, noting the organization's weekly in-depth articles and daily blog. "Plus, we want to introduce people to a city they might not otherwise have been exposed to."

And it did.

"St. Louis wasn't exactly on my bucket list of places to visit, but I've been pleasantly surprised by all that's going on here," said Nolan A. Marshall, director of policy and advocacy at the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University in New Orleans, noting he was impressed with the MetroLink, Forest Park and the revitalization of downtown St. Louis.

Linn, who is a GIS analyst for Data Driven Detroit, had a similar experience.

"I've benefited tremendously from exchanging dialogue with people from other cities, and in the meantime I've fallen in love with St. Louis," he said. "I'm going to come back for sure."

photo by Max Bouvatte (click for larger version)
Attendees were not only energized by St. Louis, but each other.

"I love and am inspired by doers – and there are a lot of doers here," said Patrick McDonnell, a community designer from Dallas, Texas. "People in different cities are experiencing the same kind of problems, so it's good to see how cities are handling them. I already have so many ideas that I want to take back (to Dallas) with me."

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who spoke at the conference, said that kind of collaboration is key.

"We all have so much in common," he said. "We can learn from almost every city out there and they can learn from us."

Marshall shares that philosophy.

"It's good to have the cross collaboration between people who work in different sectors," he said. "My work is in education reform, but it's interesting to hear from neighborhood revitalization and transportation specialists to see how everything works together."

Robert Feldstein, who works in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office of policy and strategic planning, said the two takeaways from the conference are energy and networking.

"It's exciting and humbling to hear about all the things that are going on in all sectors," Feldstein said. "You get energized by seeing what people can do."

Slay agreed: "We're all trying to make our cities more competitive and more sustainable."

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