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One Continent or Two? Denver Hosts Biennial of the Americas

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Governor Hickenlooper at BA
Governor Hickenlooper Opens (note map: Is Greenland really larger than S. Am.?)
Denver just pulled off what should rightly be the love-child of New York City or Los Angeles, a brain-fest of culture, thought and provocation celebrating the Americas as one continent (and one market). In its third year, the Biennial of the Americas featured leading-edge art installations including a series of billboards around town, cultural nights open to the public, symposia featuring big movers and shakers (more on this below) and serious, invite-only "clìnicas" covering a range of topics from urban design public health (the reason I was there) to innovation to education to energy.

Begun in 2010 by then-Denver Mayor, now-Colorado Governor, John Hickenlooper, as a way to re-direct attention away from China and Europe as trading partners/cultural competitors, the Biennial attracts leaders from Canada, the U.S. and Latin America. Makes a lot of sense as Canada is our number one trading partner (mostly potash and timber coming south, oil sand soon?) and Mexico is second (manufactured goods coming north and agricultural products heading south). It also makes sense for Denver to host such an event given its location 1,000 miles from any seaport -- let LA worry about China! and New York focus on London!

Another view?

Another view?

So, did it work?

It certainly got a lot of attention for its expansive collaboration between the arts and politics (possibly related to another Hickenlooper success -- rich funding of arts groups through a sales tax increase) that is covered here by The New York Times. Its local angles, and some insight into the political implications here. As a participant I am both enthusiastic for the opportunity to connect with others from the whole western hemisphere working on redesigning cities for people, including Awen Southern of CicloviasRecreativas, Liliana Marianda Sara of Peru's Cities for Life Forum and Ricardo Montezuma of Fundacion Ciudad Humana, Columbia. With 20+ participants and only 3 hours, the "clìnicas" suffered from a wealth of ideas and perspectives without the time to do much more than review briefing papers and throw out a couple of unformed ideas. Even with an amazing amount of resources invested to bring in participants, provide facilitation, note-taking (including wall-size graphic presentations of the discussions) we were left generally unsatisfied and wanting more discussion and some idea of how this wealth of knowledge might lead to policy initiatives.

Urban Design and Public Health Clinica Results

Urban Design and Public Health Clinica Results

An operation like the Biennial of the Americas doesn't come cheap and the Symposia each night gave a clue as to who was paying the piper. Ostensibly meant to be provocative discussions based on the work done each day in the "clìnicas," the Symposia were venues for rich white men to extoll their own visions of a world that basically works pretty damn well (at least from where they sit). Many of the speakers represented major sponsors of the event, with some of the biggest corporations in the world on stage, including Executive Chairman of Google (Eric Schmidt), the largest private landowner in the U.S. (John Malone, Chairman Liberty Global), the largest coal-powered U.S. utility (Jim Rogers, Duke Energy) as well as the people bringing us tar sands (Steve Williams, Suncor). All overseen by CEO of Liberty Global, Mike Fries. 

Only three women were on the stage out of 20 speakers. The one person of "color" on the stage was ex-Secretary of the Interior and U.S. Senator, Ken Salazar, a 12th-generation Coloradan. Latin America was "represented" by ambassadors or other government spokesmen with the exception of Danilo Santos de Miranda of Brazil's Serviço Social do Comércio, a cultural organization.

As a cultural and trade extravaganza, the Biennial does an exceptional job. With beer gardens as well as art and dog operas, the masses got their circuses and parties. But I can't help thinking that the social action agendas represented by the clìnicas -- with their cross-cultural, cross-sectoral participants -- were much more than window dressing for the big corporations seeking to justify continued concentration of wealth and power. The real divide may not be North-South, but between the wealthy few and the rest of us.