Bo Knows Urbanism?

Oh, the joys of being back in Chattanooga and sleeping in my own bed. I had a fantastic, productive week with our friends in Iowa, but the trip was taxing (I’m getting old). As a warm weather person I was not relishing the prospect of sub-freezing temperatures and snow all week. As fate would have it, the weather in corn country was sunny and (relatively) warm, whilst it was cold, wet and snowy here. As sometimes happens when I travel, I neglected to make time for blog post writing. So, once again, I will turn to what I have watched on TV this morning as a basis for the post.

If you have not seen You Don’t Know Bo, the ESPN 30 for 30 on Bo Jackson, you owe it to yourself to watch (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). While he was at Awbun I couldn’t stand him (this was before my brief attendance at Auburn softened my hatred for ‘ol API ;). Over time, however, I was won over by his sheer overwhelming athletic spectacle. He also happens to hail from Bessemer, Alabama, which is my father’s hometown. His is a very rich story, and as the director notes, its not a sports story – it’s a superhero story, a legend. There were a couple of things that stood out for me that could tangentially be tied to topics addressed in this blog:

1) What a fantastic example of core talent. Bo was among one of the last generations of athletes that were allowed to play multiple sports at a competitive level. These days, the philosophy is that if a child shows an aptitude for athletics, you have to essentially pick a single sport and then have an immersive, year-round participation in that silo. I wonder how many Bo Jacksons, Deion Sanders, Jim Thorpes and Jim Browns the world has been deprived of because of our fixation on specialization.

This fixation is not limited to athletics. In much the same way that a core of athleticism can be expressed in many different sports, a core of design can be in expressed in many different professions. Back in the day, architects did more than design buildings – they planned cities, designed furniture, crafted landscapes, designed silverware, and otherwise applied their design philosophies to a range of products. In my opinion the ability to think across disciplines resulted in better performance in the core competency. These days, everything we do in society is in a silo – even within silos there are silos. I think we have done a disservice to our professions and to our cities by abandoning the concept of comprehensive practice and thinking.

2) While he was performing at the end of the multi-sport athlete era, he arrived at the dawn of the “branding” era. As noted in the film, Bo and Michael were two of the first athletes to be heavily marketed by a shoe company (Nike). Nike’s iconic work with those two is now famous and made Nike a global force. Let the record show, however, that I did not own any “Bo Knows” product (Air Jordan paraphernalia is another matter altogether). The integral reason that those Nike/Athlete partnerships were so successful was that the athletes were otherworldly in their actual exploits.

I would love to go to one meeting in this town without hearing the word “branding” or “brand”. What is worrying is that it seems that more effort is spent working on image than substance.  If we put half as much energy into the quality of the things that are being branded as we do the process of branding them, we would be in far better shape. Sure, getting the word out about the _____ is great- but it is more important to actually make the _____ great. Admittedly, I have been sucked into branding/media/PR vortex before, so I'm not throwing stones. But as it relates to the city, (which is a tangible, physical thing) what we do is more important than what we say. So, will we be the “Bo Knows” and deliver on our marketing promises, or will we be the “Dan vs. Dave” and fail to deliver on our rhetoric?

There you have it - Bo Jackson as an allegory for the city building . Yeah, it was a stretch, but thanks for indulging. See you next week.

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