Urban Attraction

15 July 2015

Sondra Sheriff, KREAB

Cities make up just two percent of the earth’s surface, yet they are home to over half of the world’s population. In Europe, the proportion of urban dwellers is even higher. Today, nearly 75% of all Europeans live in cities and urban areas, and this is expected to rise to 80% by 2020.

Cities are complex environments, where private and public stakeholders often have conflicting goals, which can have repercussions outside of city governance intentions. Urban dwellers often choose to live in urban areas so they can enjoy a better quality of life. They want to be at the heart of economic activity, to have more job opportunities and other social and economic advantages.

What makes one city better than another? Each of us has our personal favorites, but what are the specific key criteria and qualities that really make a city attractive to its visitors and inhabitants alike and how can we work to improve and sustain this attractiveness?

The Nordic city model, is consistently at the top of all international rankings for sustainable cities. What is it about these cities: Copenhagen; Stockholm; Oslo; and Helsinki that produces the magic formula that drives their attractiveness and what can we learn from them? The Nordic city model delivers urban living of a very high standard, employing many different layers of infrastructure to make them sustainable. Not just in terms of hard infrastructure: roads and hospitals, but also in economic, social and cultural infrastructure – the ‘soft qualities’ that provide their inhabitants with a happy and stimulating life.

These Nordic cities have identified and acted upon the qualities people value most. Recognizing the value of and investing in initiatives such as high-quality public space, which provide long-term improvements to people’s health and daily well-being, whilst appreciating the need for economic robustness.

“Looking at global competitiveness, cities were until recently assessed in relation to economic activity and people’s economic prosperity. Today, there is a clear understanding that cities themselves must be attractive to people. This requires global cities to think in a more holistic way when considering what kind of urban life they wish to offer,” says Dominic Balmforth, Director of City Planning at Ramboll.

“When people and companies choose which city to locate in today, they look beyond the individual building and its view. They look at the full picture; social and cultural atmosphere, opportunities and activities for learning, clean and attractive streets, accessibility and inclusion. Cities must create and communicate exactly why and how their city offers the best conditions for human habitat.”

This does not necessarily mean that a good city is a global and competitive city. The conditions, qualities and potentials of city areas can differ greatly. There is also no guarantee that the cities scoring highly on the Global Cities Index are also home to the happiest people. There is a clear indication that people expect more from their cities than commercial activity alone.

The point is not competitiveness at all costs, but rather that cities with high levels of social, cultural and professional interaction, clean air, safe streets, and short travel times provide the best conditions for people and therefore the highest quality of life. For example cities like Beijing and Shanghai (number 24 and 21 on the Global Cities Index) score well on economic activity, but lower on human capital, cultural experience, and political engagement.

This could lead to problems in the long term if this imbalance is not addressed. It is not inexplicable then that ‘fresh air’ is frequently cited as an attraction for Chinese tourists visiting Europe.

Cities and not merely concentrations of buildings and businesses and traffic; they are networks within themselves and networks without themselves. They are incredibly sophisticated and complicated organisms and depend on a very sensitive balance between harmony and diversity; in embracing this dichotomy the Nordic model cities have demonstrated that creativity, quality of life and economy can flourish. After all, cities are built by people and exist for people.

Hammarby Sjöstad, Stockholm. Photo Credit: Ola Ericson/Imagebank Sweden

The pulsating heart of every city is in its stock of individuals, building their lives within these vast constructions of concrete and steel; going to work, raising children, eating, sleeping, simply living. At the very core of it, a city is ultimately a home; perhaps for some only during working hours, for others it’s longer term and what makes these cities thrive is interactions.

The relationships between people and urban fabric, life and the infrastructure that supports it, the integration between different cultural groups – the natural tension inherent in such relationships requires cohesion and cooperation in order to achieve good city governance, for the good of all stakeholders which also brings benefits beyond city borders.

While living in close proximity to our daily activities can lead to more resource efficiency and so contribute to sustainability, urban living brings a range of challenges. These conflicts can take the form of fiscal efficiency, toxic emissions and unwanted pollution, unbalanced land use and disability in mobility systems - just a few of the issues that must be constantly monitored and addressed to achieve a high quality of life without high environmental costs.

However, if well managed, cities offer important opportunities for economic development and for expanding access to basic services, including health care and education, for large numbers of people. Providing public transportation, as well as housing, electricity, water and sanitation for a densely settled urban population is typically cheaper and less environmentally damaging than providing a similar level of services to a dispersed rural population but again takes a colossal level of coordination and communication; a city cannot naturally run itself.Central to making these relationships work is communication.

The effectiveness of any initiative is not just down to the technical wizardry of the ICT or the apps that help you to find a parking space, but dependent on communication: Communication facilitates sharing within and between networks, of data and information, of skills and of ideas. The technology can be there but to make it effective it needs to be adopted and used and shared by people.

With communication comes culture. Culture is vital to the long term development of sustainable, attractive cities. As the marathon mantra goes “train the mind, and the body will look after itself” - the same applies to cities. Cities need to build infrastructure, but they also benefit from thinking how they can change the way people think about the city.

Of course there is no single answer - each city has its own particular qualities and its own potentials although it is noteworthy that Copenhageners value their time and their physical environment equally to their own economic prosperity.

Well-governed cities and towns that involve their citizens in environmental decision-making will lead to better planning for the future and help to ensure the sustainability of the systems we create, the attractive cities that we build around us, that we want to call home.


To hear more about the global challenge of growing cities, join the Chamber on 17 September at Marriott London County Hall for this year's Urbanisation Forum.

Featured Image: Cecilia Larsson/Imagebank Sweden

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