What makes great cities?

Published in Binge Thinking (Sydney), December 2009

Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, so they say. What makes a city great falls in the same category. There is simply no yardstick by which one could easily measure greatness. Even more confusingly, some features of cities may turn out to be a blessing and a curse simultaneously, depending on how you look at them.

Take Rome, for example. Undoubtedly the Italian capital is one of the great cities of the world. You could hardly find a greater density of world cultural heritage sites than along the banks of the river Tiber. And yet it is precisely because of these attractions that getting around the city is a nightmare. You can’t walk five metres without bumping into a visitor group, and don’t even think of taking one of the always overcrowded buses where tourists sling their cameras into your face. And don’t try building a new subway either, as the archaeology you’d uncover wouldn’t permit you to go far.

Berlin may be another great city. The unique circumstances after the fall of the Wall that separated East and West created a fertile breeding ground for everyone wanting to try something new. Today, twenty years after the city became re-united, Berlin is a hotspot for the arts and culture. But it is also a city that is suffering severe economic problems with almost half its population living on welfare benefits. This in turn has moderated the price level and thus helped to make Berlin attractive for all those creative, but typically poor artists.

London is also seen as a fascinating city, although it is quite the opposite of Berlin. London’s long boom that started in the 1990s and lasted until very recently had seen the City of London rival New York as the world’s leading centre of finance. Billions were made in its fancy glass-and-steel skyscrapers and in the glitzy new world of Canary Wharf. Yet at the same time, all this money turned London into one of the least affordable cities on the planet for average-income earners who were suffering from a lack of affordable housing.

So no matter how you look at things, it is hard to imagine the perfect city. What makes a city interesting and attractive to some may make it a less pleasant experience to others. Apart from that, people have different preferences. Some wish to live in modernist, high-density inner city apartments while others desire to dwell in a family home with a garden.

Sometimes, people even want to experience completely different lifestyles at different stages of their lives. We can well imagine someone growing up in the green leafy suburbs, then living in an inner-city flat in her student years before moving out into the suburbs again to have a family, but then later in her life once again preferring the convenience of inner city living once more.

The picture that emerges is thus quite confusing. Not only that there is not one thing that makes a city great; what makes a city a good place to live may even be something which changes for you throughout your life. You may well have different and sometimes contradictory expectations of life in the city. You want the convenience of having everything close-by, yet at the same time you also appreciate much personal space and privacy. You want to be close to cultural and entertainment attractions, but you don’t want to live in a museum or on a fairground either. You want great job opportunities but you also want lower price levels. You want to be close to a big international airport, but you want to be far away from any noise pollution.

If we are honest, there will probably never be the perfect place. There is unlikely a city which will at every moment meet everybody’s expectations. This does not mean that there won’t be places where people will happily want to live. But it should serve as a warning to those who think they can make great cities. In order to achieve this, they would have to know a great deal about people’s preferences, about the local economy, about local geography. Such knowledge is difficult to acquire, making the task of preparing a ‘grand plan’ for a ‘great city’ a near impossibility.

The history of urban planning is full of examples where town planners believed themselves enlightened enough to create great cities and failed dismally. In Britain, tower blocks were once thought to be the future. In some cases it took less than a decade until they started demolishing them again. ‘Increasing density’ is one of the current themes among town planners. But whether people will actually embrace living in boxes remains to be seen.

While it is hard to give clear prescriptions for what makes a city great, at least it seems that a high degree of variety helps. Being both close to the sea, the highlands and a few national parks, having a wide array of cultural amenities at your fingertips and enabling a wide range of different lifestyles side by side, Sydney is certainly among the best addresses on the planet. But could its success easily be replicated elsewhere? Probably not. And why not? Because it is a grown thing, not something that could be carbon-copied for use on a different continent.

Perhaps it’s time to admit humbly that the best cities usually just happen without anyone making them happen. Cities are organic, evolving and spontaneous institutions; the result of human action and less of human design. Maybe it is this that really makes them great, too.

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