Midtown gathering explores what kind of experiences and places that people crave

By Guest Columnist KEVIN GREEN, president of the Midtown Alliance

For our annual meeting that we held on Dec. 14, we decided to take a different tact. Instead of focusing mainly on traditional subjects like capital projects and programs or new development currently breaking ground in Midtown, we focused instead on what we were all working to achieve: a great place where people want to be.

This requires a level of inquiry that goes beyond the physical assets we normally use to describe a place such as location, urban design, transportation, institutions and economic anchors.

Also important is how people relate to the whole package. People crave interesting and unique experiences in cities whether they are locals or tourists. Think about the best experiences you have had in cities around the world, and what made them so special.

Such an overt focus on “layering-on the experience” is new territory, so to guide and provoke us we invited Jim Gilmore to be our keynote. He is the bestselling author of two business books: The Experience Economy; and Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, honored as one of the top 10 business books of the year by Amazon.com.

These principles are generally applied to a business setting involving consumer products or services (e.g., why people line up every day at Starbucks to pay three-times the price of a cup of coffee at a convenience store).

Kevin Green

However, there are interesting parallels for Midtown or any place in global competition for “customers” in the form of talent and business. Investors increasingly want to channel their resources to areas with positive momentum where people and businesses want to be. So it makes sense to think about the type of experiences these “customers” want and see what we can deliver.

With more than 900 of our members in attendance at our annual meeting, it was also clear that these principles can be applied at any scale and by anyone – from public spaces in a regional activity center to a retail storefront or the lobby of their own offices.

The relevant questions are still the same and include: how can we make the experience more fun and enjoyable; what do we want people to do and learn from the experience; how can we create a better sense of immersion and arrival as people move from experience to experience; and how to create a place that’s simply great to hang-out and be?

With this frame of reference, we asked Jim Gilmore to look at Midtown through his own unique lens and push us all to explore possibilities for better experiences.

The results were not as much recommendations as provocations to spur new ways of thinking. They can be temporary, low or no cost, permanent, and they can be done by the public or private sectors, committed groups of individuals or any combination thereof.

They include creating distinct and immersive “theme-spots” for certain areas in the district. Around each of the three MARTA stations in Midtown, for example an arts theme around the Arts Center Station; a water feature at the North Avenue Station at Ponce de Leon; participatory pieces of art throughout the district where people interact; or inviting some of the design and technology students at Georgia Tech or SCAD to create new experiences through collaborative “innovation incubators.”

Consider the concept of “gamification” – the use of game techniques to engage people, like modifying current smartphone applications to layer-on a customized virtual streetscape as a pedestrian wayfinding device. Or securing a couple of spots in a surface parking lot and putting-up a tetherball. (You would no longer park in the nameless lot at 6th and Peachtree, you would park in the “tetherball” lot!)

Other provocations included traffic and parking signage that is more empathetic. “Slow Down!!! You may hurt the future.” Daniel Pink, a self-confessed sign nut has done a lot of work covering the power and language of so-called “emotionally intelligent” signage improving the user experience for pedestrians, drivers and bikers in many cities and towns.

More provocations included striving for even better experiences for the pedestrians, retail and restaurants we are trying to encourage. This included seriously exploring ways to slow down speeding traffic along the north-south streets of Midtown including Peachtree Street.

In the end, a lot of ideas were touched on, some viable, some humorous, but all thought-provoking.

Gilmore’s final point was that whatever strategies are chosen, they should be unique to Midtown (or wherever implemented). If you can’t be first, invent a new category where you can be first.

For our part, Midtown Alliance sees many opportunities ahead for taking what’s great about Midtown and making more of it.

In the near-term, this includes more new streetscapes, continuing to execute our core programs, creating a “Greenprint” for a Midtown Eco-District and new pocket parks. But along the way, we’ll also be exploring with our partners the possibilities for shaping even better experiences for those who live, work and visit.

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