Making Great Cities

There is no ideal city, but many have proposed ideals from the Renaissance City in the past – the Garden City, the Radiant City and more recently the Green City or New Urbanism. Yet every city can be better than it is and strong principles can help it along the way. People’s expectations depend on their stage in life, their personal preferences, the opportunities they have, need or desire, their lifestyle and their ambitions. This is why some love and take pride in very large cities and others in smaller, more intimate ones. Every city can be great in its own way.

Great places embody seven elements. They are places of anchorage, they feel like home, there is with a sense of stability, tradition and distinctiveness. They are places of possibility, ‘can do’, stimulation and buzz. They are places of communication and networking, where it is easy connect, interact and move around, the outside world is accessible, and you feel you are part of a bigger, extensive web. They are places to self-improve, learn and reflect. They are places of inspiration. Culture is alive and, finally, a great city is well put together through design.

The best places are diverse and provide a rich register of experiences some of which can be profound. They have choices: many numerous work opportunities, housing at different price points, varied amenities, wide ranging facilities. The physical fabric and public realm is well designed. The conditions for life for all kinds of moods and interests are well catered for. They are emotionally pleasing.

Great places have a good balance. They are alive and vibrant, yet provide spaces for calm and tranquillity. They are dense and encourage mixing, yet also create room for separateness and privacy. Much in them is ordinary, yet interspersed with some extraordinary features.

Some vast cities are wonderful and liveable, others are depressing. Some smaller cities are a delight and convenient. Others are small minded and claustrophobic.

The great city has a clarity of purpose and it knows where it is going. It is a blend of hardware (its physical fabric like streets buildings and parks), software (its activity base like its enterprise, its cultural life or its shopping experiences), and ‘orgware’ (how it is organized, managed and governed).


Place matters. Despite the allure of the ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘anytime’, anywhere’ phenomenon people feel the need to be grounded and for some things to be constant. They want to belong and to identify with a group of people, they seek the familiar and known, the stable, predictable as well as the chance for change and choice. It is ironic that even the rootless and the restless, the hyper mobile find respite in friendly certainties.

A sense of anchorage fits our desire for a place we can call home, to which we have commitment and loyalty. Good places provide this sense of a past, history, things we value and traditions that feel alive and not claustrophobic - mutable, adaptable and open. This is not about nostalgia, but understanding well how vibrancy and progress rely on understanding what went before and building on that.

Commitment to place engenders the kind of pride that encourages people to give back and to take responsibility for their city. This expresses itself in many forms: civic engagement, volunteering and philanthropy, respecting the best heritage, cherishing the distinctive, business pledging itself to public interest objectives, even feeling a sense of duty to the well-being of your city.

A sense of place is created through time. It imbues the fabric of buildings, streets, the urban pattern with its layers of history which at their best can be evocative. It includes cultural activities, special rituals and the way the city goes about its business of life. It involves invisible things in our mind: memories, our knowledge of the city’s background, its famous people, events and the products and resources it is known for, its reputation and global resonance.

Creating this sense of place afresh is not easy. It requires acute observation, heightened sensibilities, emotional sophistication and good design, as well as knowing when to keep the best and when to reinvent the rest. Here ambitious programming can help to tap into the city’s energy and motivations with the aim of enriching that sense of belonging and identity.


Cities are places where people meet, talk, interact and trade. We connect, communicate, converse and exchange. In the city most of us are strangers to each other, while in the village everyone is known and in the town many people are familiar. Urban vitality evolves when communications work well: face- to- face, physically and virtually. It needs gathering places that encourage conversation and transactions. It needs mobility systems that seamlessly connect people in the city itself and further afield and are easy to use. It needs ubiquitous wifi. These enhance its networking capacity and so the city becomes an accelerator of opportunities.

Good design and the visual landscape aids communication as does appreciating the sensory experience of places since the city communicates through every fibre of its being. The aesthetic qualities of buildings are crucial as are the overall layout of streets, neighbourhoods, public space, parks, signage, advertising, urban furniture. The same goes for the appearance of trains, buses, public facilities or retail hubs. Most important is how these complex components are orchestrated and fit together through urban design. Attention to detail is key, such as how buildings hit the street. Are there blank walls or fine grained textures and a diverse assemblage of coherent pieces?

Done well, people are encouraged to mix and to talk across social boundaries and this enables community bonding. This happens at the smaller neighbourhood level as well as the broader arena. Living in the city should feel as if one is at the centre of a communications web starting from intimate surroundings to the ability to be part of a wider world. Connection too means relating to the past and heritage of our city as well as its possible futures.


The great city avoids the trap of homogenous development and understands the power of distinctiveness. A city is a designed artefact with its cultural values embedded and enmeshed. That is why cities look different across the world. Yet this is changing dramatically as the skylines or housing estates the world over look similar. The unique is in rapid decline. If you leave out the signature buildings you cannot tell Sao Paolo from Tokyo or Shanghai, Mumbai and Johannesburg or Dubai from Toronto or Milan. Architects may try to build iconic structures but very few remain in the mind or have a lingering effect. Their traveling circus moves from place to place and seeks to create distinctiveness through outrageousness. But mostly what we see is bland and monotone.

Every facet of the city speaks to us emotionally from the streets we travel on to its buildings, private and public, its housing and its sense of organizing its space. It is a dense agglomeration of unremitting physical infrastructures. Considered urban design that makes this become sensible, legible and liveable. The city is a toolbox of elements with primary and secondary streets forming the central frame, with pocket parks and the public realm leavening the density, and corner buildings firming up the structure. Yet the great city is created by more than a hardware- focused culture of engineering; instead it thinks, plans and implements holistically.

Its choices are framed by firm principles. Human scale is one norm rather than the more monumental. A pedestrian focus is another rather than making the car more important. This shapes priorities such as between public or private transport. Then there are balances such as the right mix between the grandiose and domestic; the judgement, starkly put, is whether a city wants one icon or 100 smaller things done well.

The city is a mix of the planned and unplanned and the challenge for planners is to assess how much left to leave to serendipity and chance and what needs to be guided through a regulations and incentives regime. The hustle and bustle markets and their independent stall holders are best left alone, whereas major developer interventions creating a glitzy mall may need a firm hand to ensure public interests are maintained.


The city is a 360° immersive experience and its culture is our first impression. It provides us with our sensory landscape. It lies at the heart of what a city is. It is the sum of its past achievements and tribulations, which are etched into the urban landscape; - its beliefs, attitudes and way of life. The city’s culture shapes the scope, possibilities, style and tenor of its social, economic and artistic development. If the urban culture is open-minded, it fosters possibilities, enterprise and exchange between its diverse groups and the flow of ideas; . if If by contrast it is more closed and focusing largely on traditional values it adjusting to major transformation is more difficult.

Culture includes the narrower sense of expression through a city’s intellectual climate, art, sport or popular culture. This manifests itself too in its entertainment or markets, shopping and commerce. The arts especially give distinctiveness and identity to place, as space becomes a place when it is imbued with meaning and significance.

When all these complex elements come together well we have a richer register of experience. One with breadth – in that it broadens horizons; with depth – in that it brings out the significant; and uplift – in that it generates lofty feelings. A thin urban experience, by contrast, feels shallow, dull, bland and lifeless. Increasingly cities are spectacularized by events. The aim is to enliven, yet what is offered is too often pre-chewed or pre-digested leaving little room for co-creating or participating. Urban culture comes alive when the new meets the old, the mainstream argues with the alternative, the local confronts yet feels at ease with the global.

Cities work best when citizens feel developments are going with the grain of their local culture. Here being distinctive and true to oneself is key whilst feeling relaxed about outside influence. One of these is commerce. It is fascinated by what culture and arts specifically can offer in generating buzz and vitality. Yet culture and commerce co-exist in creative tension. Their values and aims can be sharply opposed. One The one seeks to express its voices unimpeded by calculation or motives of gain. Being heard and recognition instead is crucial, whilst for the commercial world it is making the books work. There is a need to find the fragile balance where maintaining integrity and separateness whilst being open to partnership is the ethos.


There needs to be a contrast to the rush and bustle of the everyday with its sensory overload and fragmenting patterns of life. Cities instead need to inspire, to nurture completeness in us. This gives hope, makes us contemplative and so can trigger aspiration from which ambition grows. Inspiration comes from many sources: our built fabric, temples and churches or well-orchestrated design. It comes from its lived past and the associational richness a place projects. It occurs when we move beyond the day to day and the expected. At times it arrives as a surprise and a jolt as if coming out of nowhere, at others it arises steadily through calm reflection on our surroundings. At its best being inspired creates moments when sadness joins happiness in realizing the transience of things. There is sorrow yet joy in viscerally experiencing the passage of time.

A city can engender these feelings, but they are mainly from the past. The challenge is to create them today. Think here of Italian medieval cities, or those members of the Hanseatic League, the best of the 19th century bourgeois cities and newer attempts such as garden or eco cities.

Seeing the city as a living work of art helps foster a sensibility to distinguish between beauty and ugliness. To make these judgements is a constant quest always renegotiated and culturally determined. The rhythm of the beautiful pushes us into the profound or even verging into the spiritual. It reminds us of possible higher purposes at whose edge there seems to be the elegiac.

Generous civic gestures help us perceive this in the city. It is the citizenry giving back to itself. We see this in the extra-ordinary, its best squares, its finer buildings, parks, the public realm and equally in the mosaic of the ordinary, such as housing estates done well or a sports centre.

The arts have a special role in providing inspiration. They can reflect the city back to itself, they can broaden horizons, communicate iconically so you grasp things in one, help nurture memory, symbolise complex ideas and emotions, anchor our identity and bond communities or by contrast shock, provoke thought, criticise, clarify conflicts or simply be enjoyable.


The most engaged, forward looking and successful cities harness their collective imagination and learning. They reflect on their experience and that of others. A learning city is constantly on the lookout, searching out examples of success and failure always questioning why this is so. It benchmarks itself to relevant other cities to get a grip on how well it is evolving. Thus it understands itself - it is a 'reflexive city', always elf-improving and aware. It has embedded a culture of learning into the genetic code of its city.

Where the unreflective city flounders by trying to repeat past success for far too long, the learning city grasps its own situation finding new solutions to new problems. It is strategic, creative, imaginative and intelligent - it looks at its potential resources comprehensively.

It is more than a place with many educational facilities and a high level of graduates important as these are. Here individuals feel they can become empowered and organisations - public, private and voluntary coalesce to work together towards agreed goals and respond to rapidly changing circumstances.

Here, learning and knowledge are highly valued. All talents are nurtured, fostered, promoted, rewarded and celebrated. Indeed, today cities have one crucial resource - their people: their cleverness, ingenuity, aspirations, motivations, imagination and creativity as the old locational factors - raw materials, market access - diminish in importance.

There is a diversity of learning options with ladders of opportunity that take people up the levels. People of all ages enjoy the challenge of learning and want to self-improve. Schools connect with the local community in multiple ways. Universities identify with and are committed to the city. There are centres of excellence that are globally connected and recognized. These learning institutions are desirable places to be.

Old and young talents can express their potential which is harnessed, exploited and promoted for the common good. Things get done. These talents act as a catalyst and role model to the development and attraction of further talent. It is a place with myriad, high quality learning opportunities, formal and informal, with a forward looking and adaptable curriculum.


Choice and potential are watchwords of the city with verve and energy. This - here is a place that punches above its weight. Great cities give you a sense of movement, vitality and enterprise. They are alert and alive to opportunities. They have a ‘can do’ ethos that infects the spirit of the place. The attitude is one of ‘yes, if’ rather than ‘no, because’. Ideas and project initiatives are taken seriously. You are encouraged to start a project or business. You feel you can have an influence on events politically, socially or culturally. The public domain enables rather than controls; it is light touch; it sets the guidelines for how things work, but then encourages others to get involved, to show imagination and to take things forward. It is supportive; it helps with resources or by moving obstacles out of the way.

Talent comes to the city rather than leaves; the atmosphere and physical fabric attracts as there are hotspots, quarters and creative zones. There are many types of ‘creative buildings’ with incubators and ladders of opportunity so enterprises can grow whether new or established. This clustering force feeds potential by bringing together those who want to make things happen. The formal and informal exchanges help inspire and harness support. This helps mutual sharing of tacit knowledge.

Overall this place encourages a creative citizenship. Partnerships are the norm with the desire to achieve collaborative advantage an ethos. A civic imagination mirrors the enterprising culture in commerce, production led or service companies. This is underpinned by the vigour of committed community groups.

This city has a roving global periscope. It thinks of its possible futures. It realizes we are moving from ‘managing the known’, to a design and innovation approach, that is ‘building for the unknown’ in order to future proof itself and become resilient.

The Fragile City

Cities are the most complex artefact created by human beings and their most significant investment. They make civilisations manifest. They drive cultures, they embody their values. Cities are accelerators of opportunity, force feeding transactions and connections. Skills, talent and expertise cluster in them as do trade, commerce and markets. This generates vitality, energy and the possibilities out of which prospects emerge and cultural richness grows. Cities shape and anchor our identity.

The predominant narrative for cites focuses on their triumphant achievements. Yet there is an untold darker side to this narrative – the looming threats cities face mostly out of their control. The dozen primary threats are: Climate change, the food, health, resource, poverty and inequality crises leading to a security problem and a financial crisis limiting the resources available to deal with them. Add a growing population exerting pressure on everything and the mass movement of people across the globe. This complexity causes a governance problem. Finally there is urgency and limited time to act - a crisis in itself. This is our risk landscape cities; they encapsulate their vulnerabilities. It is an interlocking interdependent chain – a risk nexus.

This pattern of risk is global in scope with tightly intermeshed mega-crises forming a collective systemic crisis. It cannot be dealt with by a business as usual approach. To avert the worst a shift in power to cities is required, as they can act more nimbly in delivering an integrated response. They are the natural magnets to drive the necessary innovations and they have the critical mass to implement them. Yet significant changes need to be made in the relations between cities and nation states.

We are witnessing the greatest mass movement of people in history. This pace of growth exacerbates pressures since it requires elaborate infrastructures, well-functioning institutions and networks for cities to survive and flourish. $100 trillion needs to be spent over the next 15 years on infrastructure, such as roads, airports, sanitation systems or housing - imagine the energy output of the steel and cement and their effects on climate change..

Dramatic decisions are needed so cities survive well into the 21st century and are not overwhelmed. Cities acting alone will have little impact. They do not have the authority to create the incentives and regulations to act forcefully. By contrast cities are closer to their citizens and have more legitimacy to do things.