We’ve all heard the myth about the Out-of-Town Expert: a group of Decision-Makers have a fallow piece of land and want to develop it to appease the demigod, Economic Prosperity, and her attendant sirens, Growth and Tourism. The Out-of-Town Expert, whose previous conquests include shining temples to Culture & Relevancy and whose praises are sung by critics and TED speakers alike, is brought in with fanfare. The expert comes with a cadre of Out-of-Town Tools at great expense, and neglects any meaningful engagement with the locals. Upon completion, the results are lackluster and the public is told they simply don’t understand the “out-of-the-box” thinking at work. And besides, aren’t they glad this makes them look more like the larger city that they aspire to be? The Decision-Makers fumble to convince the public that the demi-gods aren’t frowning on them. Meanwhile, the Out-of-Town Expert has quickly added a bullet-point to their resume and charged off to the next fallow field.
This scenario has played out in real life everywhere from small towns (“let’s hire someone from the big city!”) all the way to to the coastal metropolises (“let’s bring in a big name!”). There is an unfortunate attitude pervasive in many disciplines that a professional from “out-of-town” can bring a panacea that locals lack the capacity to provide. Perceived-prestige points are nearly always higher for a firm across the country than down the block.
But, the solution is more complicated than simply denouncing the work of out-of-towners, because there can be great value in the expertise of those who don’t live nearby. As an architect, I’ve done work as both a local and an out-of-towner, and have seen first-hand the vitality of both import and export. Nuance isn’t the most common tool in many conversations today, but the nuanced myths—and truths—of the out-of-town expert are worth unpacking.
Points in favor of the Out-of-Towner are easy to come by. Humans have a knack for flattening our daily surroundings and routines into the background of our consciousness. Did you notice the exact color of the sky this morning when you left the house? Do you know how many brick buildings you pass on your commute? This is hardly a fault, but it presents the most obvious advantage of the out-of-towner: they are initially more observant to the landscape that locals have grown numb to, and this observation can lead to critical re-interpretations and opportunities. The out-of-towner might see fertile ground for a pop-up park in a surface parking lot that for locals is an asphalt background they pass by while thinking about their grocery list.
Out-of-town observation can re-ignite the passions of natives toward their home cities. Their opinion, untainted by the bias of collective ownership or accountability, carries a different type of honesty. We may resent the irrational value we place on the outsider this way, but it’s human nature. We appreciate the kid from the rival high school telling us we have cool glasses more than our aunt telling us the same thing.
Perhaps the greatest expected-value of an out-of-town expert is to bring a new framework with proven case-studies and lauded experience to support that framework. Every expert is expected to bring special knowledge, but somehow we assume a deeper perspective from an out-of-towner—and sometimes they deliver. Sometimes they make our local specialists better, too. In the so-called Knowledge & Innovation Economy, rubbing viewpoints with outsiders can increase the breadth and depth of local capacity (are you listening, Washington?)
These are all potential truths about out-of-town experts, but “potential” is a different word than “actual.” What lurks between the gap?
I’d wager that many of the problems emerge from a wholesale, uncritical idolization of the out-of-towner. It starts with the attitude of the decision-makers: by worshipping the out-of-towner’s words and plans instead of challenging them (respectfully), they sell their constituents short. The out-of-towner can soak up this adulation without much notice, slip into the role of Gulliver amongst the Lilliputians, and adopt an aura of superiority that increases blind-spots. Such unmitigated hype can have exponential consequences as the expert hops from place to place without evaluating their finished products; suddenly they’ve planted a forest of failed (usually expensive) products.
There’s a fine-tuned balance required of digesting local knowledge and relying on previous expertise. If the expert fails to recognize that balance, they risk providing an out-of-tune solution that ignores the communities they intend to serve. It’s all about engagement: authentic, boots-on-the-ground listening. A local practitioner can certainly ignore the community as well as an out-of-town expert might—divas can emerge from anywhere—but there’s a different level of pressure and empathy when your project directly affects your neighbors (or neighbors-of-neighbors). Ground-up solutions facilitated by an expert only happen successfully when authentic engagement is involved. Decision-makers need to ask questions when it appears the expert is forcing a pre-packaged paradigm onto a problem it doesn’t quite fit, as this is likely a red-flag that such listening isn’t happening.
The myth of the out-of-town expert is not a warning against experts in general. There is a dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism found in comment sections the Internet over, and we need committed, experienced experts in all fields. But, as this article points out, respecting those with knowledge is different from worshipping them. Every expert has limits, and a project is lucky to find an expert who admits the length of their own reach. It’s even luckier when the decision-makers recognize the length of that reach (that’s being a good client). The most damaging part of the myth at hand is the perception that an out-of-town expert necessarily has more knowledge or value than a local expert or practitioner. Few hypocritical statements are as frustrating as hearing local political figures extol the virtues of supporting the local economy, and then immediately pine for a big-name expert to address a major commission.
Especially within the architecture profession, many of the big-names attend to big commissions as a way to build their own brands. There are of course plenty of valid reasons to choose a non-local (good design is good design, no matter where it comes from), and unjust favoritism towards locals is also perilous, but decision-makers need to drop the assumption that “out-of-town” is equivalent to rain-maker-god.
Local practitioners may (and often do) have the same training as their out-of-town counterparts, and have the potential to be just as thoughtful and innovative when given the opportunity to think big. Considering technical tasks like engineering or site planning projects, I often hear “that project is too big for [local firm A], we need someone from [closest larger metropolis].” This assumption is dangerous because [local firm A] may dedicate more top-tier resources from their firm to the project, rather than [larger metropolis firm] who might see the job as a small-potatoes task worthy of minimal effort.
To those decision-makers also accountable for the economic and social health of a region, hiring a local can help mitigate the effects of gentrification. If a community spends its investment capital on local practitioners, it has a double economic impact. They are investing in both the culture and capacity of their citizenry. Moreover, when someone associates a particular place with their sense of identity, they want to play a role in shaping that place going forward. It’s vital to the health and self-sufficiency of a region to allow the people who live there to have a prominent voice. There is a level of stewardship that comes when the practitioner has to live with the results.
The most harmful kernel of this myth has to do with perception; the perception that for a big project only the big firms from a big city can do it. The dissolution of such a deeply held perception is slow, but it starts with the local firms building a healthy self-confidence and local media supporting local work with adequate press. It’s also vital to bring together a consortium of voices to advocate on behalf of regional practitioners and highlight their skills to potential decision-makers. As an example, DesignxRI is a multi-silo advocacy group working to promote the design industry within Rhode Island. Through their programming, they’re increasing the profile of local designers and introducing their members to those with decision-making power. Sometimes a chorus of voices and some easily accessible information go a long way
There is of course no generic rule-of-thumb to follow—no magic ratio of equal parts “local” to “out-of-town.” If there’s anything close to a formula it might be this: approach any project by setting a high-bar, identifying the tools and expertise needed to get to that result, query the expertise and culture of the citizenry most affected by the project, and then evaluate any practitioner (from in or out of of town) on how they approach the communities they work in.
This approach may be best illustrated by something that Andres Duany said during a visit to Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. When discussing best practices for new architecture in the city, Duany said, “we don’t need architects from Charleston, we need architects of Charleston” [emphasis my own]. This reminds us that, regardless of where the expert is coming from, they need to make their work sensitive to, and reflective of, its place. Success comes in many forms, but its most important arbiters are those who have to live with the final product. Get to know them, and what it takes to be “of” a place, and the demi-gods may in fact smile upon you.
Featured image: Kate Greenaway’s illustration for The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning (1888), via Wikipedia.