Guest Column | April 1, 2017

Great Cities: 10 Themes And One Big Idea

Great Cities: 10 Themes And One Big Idea

By James A. Moore, Principal at Jacobs

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak in Sydney, Australia about “creating a great 21st century city.” I was asked to highlight ideas and approaches that were proving successful in various world cities and might be relevant to Sydney generally, and to rapidly growing Western Sydney in particular, as well as to other cities.

Even leaving aside the issue of defining a “great” city, generally, or a “21st-century city” in particular, this was an interesting challenge. Cities around the world vary significantly by geography, climate, history and economy, as well as social, cultural and political contexts. On the other hand, there are constituent issues and problems that all cities grapple with – moving people and goods; housing; matching services to needs; planning for growth; and more. 

The presentation spoke to ten broad “themes”  winnowed from an initial list  of almost 20, as certain items seemed to be more generally or widely applicable. They are not presented here in any particular order, nor are all given equal emphasis by the cities applying them. In addition, at the end, I highlighted an emerging “big idea” – the on-going fascination with the “smart city.” 

This essay is an overview. Subsequent essays will look into each theme or issue in more depth, and highlight specific examples.

1 – Work with Nature: Cities can no longer afford to ignore, let alone destroy, their natural settings. Events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts, as well as the emerging impacts of climate change are pushing cities to recognize the need to respect and work with their underlying ecosystems. This is particularly evident in two emerging movements – the push for resilience, and the increasing use of green infrastructure. Optimally, both of these lead to situations in which urban systems and underlying ecosystem services begin to align.

2 – Use Infrastructure to Organize the Region: For too long, cities and the residents of cities have regarded infrastructure primarily as a service provider. This is particularly true of transport which is viewed fundamentally as a way of moving large numbers of people. But infrastructure, especially transport, comprises the essential structure of a region. Optimize places that have significant capacity and downplay places that don’t. Put more people and uses around stations and access points, less people and uses further away. Provide multiple forms of transport, interconnect them and optimize their capacities. Approach the region as a hierarchical interconnected network of services rather than as a set of extensive but effectively disconnected systems.

3 – Develop around Anchor Institutions: Historically, cities emerged around major functional, social or civic institutions: harbors, factories, government buildings, churches. The dominant institutions of the modern world are often private or non-profit, focused on “knowledge industries” such as education, health and/or research – universities, hospitals, labs, and other “creative” industries. Historically, these uses have not engaged with their surroundings, but increasingly cities are recognizing these and other “high-tech” entities, including corporations, as the “innovation engines” that power the 21st century economy.

4 - Mix Uses:  Our day-to-day activities are inherently about a mix of uses – residential, commercial, retail, civic, recreational. This should be reflected in the organization and character of our cities.  The unnecessary segregation of our lives and our physical environments is inefficient, ineffective, costly and time-consuming. Our lives are mixed-use; our cities should be as well – both horizontally and vertically.   

5 - Provide a Wide Range of Residential Options: The demographics of cities are becoming increasingly diverse - ethnically, culturally, socially and institutionally. In many cities, however, there may be only three or four widely-produced options for new housing: high-rise condos or apartments, single-family houses, mid-rise apartments. The inherent diversity of cities should be reflected in a diversity of housing types. This includes studying the very rich history of “missing middle” residential types historically found in most cities (19th century terrace housing in Sydney, for example), and figuring out how to reproduce them under today’s conditions.

6 - Make Places Walkable and Bikable: Walking is the most ancient, accessible and affordable mode of mobility. Almost every trip we take begins and ends with a walk. Biking is the most energy efficient form of human movement. In dense, mixed-use urban environments, a walk or a bike ride is often ideal to get from one venue to another. Both modes are very good for people’s health. Both enable extremely high levels of interaction with one’s community. Both thrive in environments that have been designed and set up to support them. 

7 – Create Dynamic, Attractive and Safe Public Places:  Most people today spend far too much time indoors. They need excuses to go outdoors, and great public spaces provide reasons to do so. However, the goal is not simply to provide outdoor space but to create well-designed civic “places.” These places need to be accessible – near at hand and easy to get to. They need to be safe. They need to be comfortable. And, ideally, they need to be exciting or, at least interesting. 

8 – Re-Think Streets: Streets are the largest form of publicly-owned space in every city, often accounting for a third of the overall area. This land should not be dedicated only to motor vehicles. Look to take back all, or parts, of street right-of-ways, where possible. Design future streets as “complete” systems providing equitable facilities for pedestrians, bikes, transport and cars. Treat the street as a civic place, as well as a utility. 

9 – Insist on High Quality Physical Design: The denser the environment and the closer we are together, the more imperative good design becomes. At the pace of an automobile, details get blurred and lost. At the pace of the pedestrian or even the cyclist, details resonate. Think of everything in the city, particularly those items and places most easily seen and used, as an opportunity to provide high quality physical design.

10 – Program Cities for Success: Recognize that cities are not just hardware. They are also the myriad daily, weekly and seasonal activities that take place within them. Formal, quasi-formal or even informal activities that give cities life and vitality often need to be deliberately planned, organized, programmed or sustained. Make sure the urban hardware has the necessary software to function optimally.

The presentation ended with a brief discussion of the “smart city,” an idea that is being pursued avidly by private corporations and municipalities, worldwide. As with many emerging topics, there is little agreement yet as to what a “smart” city is and few comprehensive examples of such ideas in operation. While the discussions surrounding the benefits potentially inherent in this new ideal are both stimulating and substantial, in ways, they echo the rhetoric of urban theorists and transportation engineers after the Second World War, a period in which the headlong pursuit of new ideas and untested theories arguably did as much damage to cities as good.