How to Make an Attractive City
Cities are a big deal: we pretty much all have to live in them; We should try hard to get them right. So few cities are nice; very, very few out of many thousands are really beautiful. Embarrassingly, the more appealing ones tend to be old, which is weird because we’re mostly much better at making things now: cars, planes, or phones. Why not, then, cities? It’s crazy to settle for this and to leave something so important to chance. We need to get more scientific and identify the principles that determine how a city gets to be pretty or ugly. It’s not a mystery why we like some cities so much better than others. This is a manifesto about how to make attractive cities. There are six fundamental things a city needs to get right. 1. Not too chaotic; Not too ordered One of the things we really love in cities is order. Order means balance, symmetry and repetition; it means the same thing happening again and again, and the left side matching the right side. Order is one of the reasons so many people love Paris. But most cities are a complete mess. When it’s a mess, it seems like no one is in charge. And that’s worrying. It’s horrible when everything is jumbled up. A pitched roof next to a flat roof, a stark geometrical box next to a muddled car park, high rise towers that look as if they’ve been placed at random, like teeth in a gaping mouth. We generally have an itch to straighten things out, and when we can’t, it’s frustrating. The same urge is there when we look at cities. Often, it’s not skyscrapers that we mind in the city, it’s skyscrapers that have been dumped without planning, like they are increasingly in London, whereas New York or Chicago shows the ordered way that we love. However, you have to keep something else in mind: excessive order can be just as much of a problem. Too much regularity can be soul destroying. Too much order feels rigid and alien. It can be bleak, relentless, and harsh. So the ideal we’re seeking is variety and order. This is the idea in a square in Telč in the Czech Republic: where every house is the same width and height but within that ordered pattern, every house has been allowed freedom at the level of form and colour or in Java-eiland in Amsterdam where the pattern is quite strict: each house has the same height and width, the color range is restricted, but within this grid, each unit is completely individual. We’re perfectly in the middle between chaos and boringness here. And that’s what humans adore. That’s what more and more cities should have: order and variety. So as a general rule: too much mess, and it’s off putting, but too much simple order, and it’s boring. What we crave it’s organized complexity which you can see as much here: as here: Now, for the second thing that makes cities beautiful: they have to have visible life. There are streets that are dead and streets that are alive and in general, we crave the live ones. This is a live street in Hong Kong. This is a live scene in Venice. In the 18th century, the painter Canaletto specialized in pictures of cities everyone loved because they’re full of life. There’s always plenty going on. In this painting we can see a stonemason’s yard. The work sheds are rough, but they’re charming. It’s fascinating to see what people are up to. How do they load those huge blocks onto the gondolas? The life of the city is on display, and we’re primed to love this. Contrast this with dead streets of many modern cities. Today, the places where a lot of the work gets done look dull and dead. They’re spaced out along huge highways, and you never go there unless you happen to work there yourself because there’s nothing to see. And most office buildings are brutally anonymous; the people inside might be working
in all sorts of fascinating stuff, but we just don’t know, and it’s disorienting and cold. The street levels are dead. Contrast this with the streets we all love, where you can see things going on: a bakery, a cobbler’s shop, and markets selling carpets, a burger bar, a bookshop; these are streets we love because they’re full of life. More and more, in modern cities, we’ve hidden life away. We have lots of dead sheds, and dead towers, connected up by dead motorways where you can barely glimpse your fellow humans. Rather than the old alleyways
where you can see people at work, look them in the eye as they walk down the road and feel connected to others. Modern planners have become obessed by hiding technology rather than trying to make it nice to look at. Today we’de be outraged if we heard a huge pipeline was gonna be slapped across a lovely river; we’d be up in arms! But we book trips to go and see the Roman Pont du Gard in southern France. That’s because it’s built for beauty and practicality. We think it’s the pipe we hate. It’s not. It’s just the ugliness. So let’s make sure our streets are full of life, full of people doing stuff you can see through the windows. That’s what make certain cities
so attractive to walk along: the work is on show, the people are proud of what they’re doing and happy to let the world notice and appreciate the practical side of things. There’s a third principle of good cities: They are compact. In the past, being able to be alone or just with your partner or family, was at first, a huge achievement. Only the largest class, the poor, lived huddled together and it was horrid. As soon as people had money,
they wanted to move out, and have their own plots. Through the later decades of 20th century, more and more people tucked themselves away in a private realm. And it’s been a disaster. It’s become deadly, cold, and boring, and very, very wasteful on the environment. A compact city like Barcelona swallows a fraction of the energy of a sprawling one like Phoenix, in Arizona. We’ve built a world of endless dead dormitory suburbs connected by sterile wide motorways all because we labor under the false impression that we want to be far away from other people. But in fact it’s wonderful to have the balancing moderating influence of living close to other people in uplifting surroundings. That’s why we need tightly packed, well-ordered cities with lots of squares in public places in which we can hang out. All the most beautiful compact cities have squares. Yet, the art of the square has gone into terrible decline. We keep promoting the invention of mobile phones, but no one’s built a good square anywhere on this planet for decades. It’s not rocket science though. Look at the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome. It’s a public place, but intimate and closed enough to feel like an extension of your home. Lounging about here, having a coffee or a beer, reading a paper, you get to be around other people, their moderating, cheering affect is restoring. It takes you away from the over intense, couple obsessed atmosphere of the home. There’s an art to a good square: it should be neither too big nor too small, anything over 30 meters in diameter starts become too large by which we mean: the individual become overly small relative to the space around them, creating a sense of alienation and dislocation. In a good square you should be able to see the face of a person across the square, You could if need be hail someone walking on the other side. The ideal square must offer a feeling of containment, but not claustrophobia. There’s another principle of good cities to do with orientation and mystery. By definition, cities are huge, but the cities that a lot of people love also have lots of little back streets and small lanes where you can feel cozy and get a bit lost. We’re drawn to the sense of mystery and enclosure that these streets offer. It’s actually lovely to get a bit lost. A warren of alleyways can feel homely and intimate. At Cartagena, in Colombia, the balconies nearly touch across the street- you can see your neighbors having breakfast, you know when they’ve gone to bed, what time the children do their homework on a Sunday evening. The fact that everyone is little bit on display a lot of the time tends to make people nicer. They don’t shout at each other quite so much. They put flowers on the table more often. We like it, but we forget that we do, and we don’t quite know how to ask for it. Modern planners and developers give us maximum privacy because they suppose that’s what we all want, and because they insist that cars and lorries, which like a lot more space than people, are the most important things in the world. Of course we need balance between small streets and big ones. Necessarily, cities are large. We love small streets, but they’re a nightmare when you have to go any distance. So the ideal is to have big boulevards, grand, wide straight places, and also little warrens of streets. We need cities that offer us two important pleasures: the pleasures of mystery and the pleasures of orientation. Let’s think about scale now. Modern cities are all about big things. Joseph Campbell once wrote: “If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to”. The biggest most prominent things tell us about the actual, rather than admitted priorities of a society. We don’t collectively say we worship
sports shoe corporations, tax specialists, the oil industry, and pharmaceuticals. Our cities, however, tell another story. They’re full of enormous towers devoted to just these things. That is a bit depressing. As humans, we don’t mind things being big, per se, we don’t mind being humbled, so long as the things we are bowing to deserve homage, like a beautiful mosque, or a cathedral, or a museum. But we’ve allowed our cities to be hijacked by aggressive commercial interests, by towers that honor not God, or love, or humanity, but pizza corporations and hedge funds. They exist because we’ve made a big dumb collective mistake: we focused on who owns land, but we don’t think about who owns space, who has air rights. And in the end, who has air rights determines what you can see from your window. We suggest that the ideal height for any city block is five stories high. No more. Above that people start to feel small, insignificant, and trivial. So we say: cut down those towers and pack everything into five stories. Make it dense, compact, and tight, like they do in some parts of Berlin, Amsterdam, London, and Paris, the bits we love. Of course, occasionally there can be a huge building, but let’s keep it for something really special, something all of humanity can love. Towers have to be worthy of their prominence, they must be aligned with our best ambitions and long-term needs. Finally, make it local. Somethings should be the same everywhere. We don’t expect there to be a uniquely Venezuelan telephone or a distinctively Icelandic bicycle. But, we don’t want buildings to look the same everywhere. It’s hugely disappointing when you fly somewhere for hours, land, and feel you could be anywhere. The problem isn’t just that we like a bit of variation for it’s own sake; because of climate, history and social traditions, each society really does have different needs, different strengths and weaknesses. There are many distinct styles of happiness; many good and varied ways of conductive and collective life. The sameness of cities is a problem because it reveals how far each of us must be from engaging with an specific character of it’s own place. It’s like wearing the same clothes in all climates, or speaking exactly the same way irrespective of who you’re talking to. Cities need to have strong characters connected to the use of distinctive local materials and forms. The pale sandstone, of Millbrae Crescent in Glasgow’s south side, is a local material, A medium grained, carboniferous, blond sandstone- formed when the Scottish landmass lay near the equator. Or around Cambridge, brick from the local yellowish gault clay is a major traditional material. Or think of the way the great Australian architect, Glenn Murcutt, found ways to put up buildings that reflected the distinctive character Australian life. So the law should be: don’t make your city from buildings that could be just anywhere; find a style of architecture that reflects what makes your location specific. The obstacles to building beautiful cities and not economic. Collectively, we’ve got enough money. We face two main problems: firstly, an intellectual confusion around beauty, and secondly, lack of political will. The intellectual confusion is: we think no one has a right to say what’s beautiful and what’s ugly; we get worried about who decides; we think beauty is subjective, so surely no one should say anything about it. It’s a very understandable qualm, but it’s horribly useful to greedy property developers. It’s such a relief to these people to learn that there is no such thing as beauty; it means they can get away with murder. We may not agree to the very last point about what a beautiful city is, but we know an ugly one when we see it. No one’s ever willingly taken holiday in Frankfurt-on-Main or Birmingham, and there are good reasons for this to do with an objective sense of beauty. So let’s stop being dangerously relativistic about this. Yes! There is such a thing as beauty. Sydney and San Francisco and Bath and Bordeaux have it and most other places don’t. The proof lies in the tourist statistics. Let’s not just say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; that’s just a gift to the next wealthy idiot who wants to put up a horrible tower. The other obstacle is a lack of political will. We’ve abandoned the design of cities to the greedy rich. We’ve given up believing in democracy. We’ve faced and have lost the battle between the public good and commercial opportunism. There will always be a greedy, slick lobby fighting for ugly development, but we can say no. Beautiful cities have only ever been created when governments impose strict and ambitious regulations to keep the greedy, private guys in check. Think of Edinburgh’s amazing New Town, which only got of the ground because the government established clear rules to keep developers in check. They were precise legislation detailing heights for buildings, quality of finish, the width of pavements, and a character of the skyline. That’s the only way you get beauty. They didn’t leave it to the free market. Do that, and you will have chaos. When governments give up on beauty, people start to hate all building. We become collectively despondent. We think we hate all building, and that we can’t create beautiful places We get obsessed by restorations and opposed to anything new, which is wrong because we need places to live. Humanity hasn’t put up a single beautiful city since about 1905. When Venice was built, no one regretted the lagoons that had been swallowed up. The goal of building, should be to put up things that don’t leave us regretting the nature that’s been lost because the architecture is every bit the equal of the designs of nature. We can create more beautiful cities, but we have to confront opportunistic developers and our own intellectual confusions. Governments can only create beauty if they have enough public backing. Political will is ultimately about what all of us, the electorate, are asking for. That’s why we made this film and hope to awaken you to your power as citizens to help legislate for beautiful cities in the future These are the six rules. Now, it’s time to fight to put them in action.