Unpredictability is an important factor in making a metropolis great

By Edwin Heathcote – June 1, 2016

Financial Times

How can we design great cities from scratch if we cannot agree on what makes them great? None of the cities where people most want to live — such as London, New York, Paris and Hong Kong — comes near to being at the top of surveys asking which are best to live in.

The top three in the most recent Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability ranking, for example, were Melbourne, Vancouver and Vienna. They are all perfectly pleasant, but great? The first question to tackle is the difference between liveability and greatness. Perhaps we cannot aspire to make a great city, but if we attempt to make a liveable one, can it in time become great?

There are some fundamental elements that you need. The first is public space. Whether it is Vienna’s Ringstrasse and Prater park, or the beaches of Melbourne and Vancouver, these are places that allow the city to pause and the citizens to mingle and to breathe, regardless of class or wealth. Good cities also seem to be close to nature, and all three have easy access to varied, wonderful landscapes and topographies.

A second crucial factor, says Ricky Burdett, a professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics, is a good transport system. “Affordable public transport is the one thing which cuts across all successful cities,” he says.

For example, when Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogotá in Colombia (he held the post from 1998 to 2001 and was re-elected at the end of last year), introduced a fleet of public buses he transformed the city. They could be brought in quickly and relatively cheaply — unlike, say, an underground train system. The buses could travel to the urban slums — favelas — and the more precarious hillside communities. Mr Peñalosa also introduced bus lanes that excluded cars, to the fury of car drivers, that made taking the bus quicker than commuting by car. A successful city, Mr Peñalosa said, is not “one where the poor move about in cars [but] where even the rich use public transportation”.

A city built from scratch must also be capable of accommodating change. The architecture and the infrastructure need to be robust enough to adapt.

If we think of the industrial buildings of New York’s SoHo or Chelsea, or London’s Shoreditch, these solid structures have been able to accommodate successive waves of activity, from garment manufacture to warehousing, from studio space to loft apartments.

What is also critical is the kind of space that is left open — the cracks between and beneath buildings that can adapt quickly to anything from workshops to nightclubs.

A city’s structure can be established with relatively anonymous architecture if it is robust and resilient enough to accommodate change. But most new cities, from Brasília, capital of Brazil, to India’s Chandigarh, never learnt this lesson and instead have buildings that cannot be easily adapted as conditions change.

The great cities were rigorously designed with good infrastructure, wide streets, a variety of buildings and rules about what could be built — whether height restrictions in Paris (tentatively being abandoned) or setback skyscrapers in Chicago that allowed the light to reach the sidewalks no matter how high the buildings rose.

In a laissez-faire era, when development is left to the private sector, rules become more important. In London, the sudden explosion of high-rise towers is not leading to a greater city but to a sense of resentment among residents that the historic skyline is being wrecked because of a lack of coherence in the rules.

In New York, the rise of the “skinny skyscraper”, super-tall towers rising around Central Park and casting shadows across the city, is causing similar resentment in an environment known for its tall towers.

A fascinating analysis of why cities have been successful comes from Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York: “One of the reasons that cities have outlasted all these other more powerful and organised systems of power is their incompleteness.

“That gives them a longevity because no tyrant can truly run a city, it’s too diffuse — the city will always fight back.”

So perhaps it is precisely the unpredictability of the great cities that makes them so exciting and so resilient. The paradox is, exactly how do you plan for unpredictability?

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