I’ve always been fascinated by the question, ‘what makes a great city?’. I’ve spent the last decade living in, travelling to, and immersing myself in exceptional cities. I’ve also been living with a planner and fellow urbanophile (Nick) for the last six or so years and he’s taught me a thing or two.
It can be difficult to articulate what specifically makes some cities stand out more than others. I find myself pondering this question as Christchurch rebuilds. So, I sat down with Nick to identify how my favourite cities fit within the framework of what urban thinkers deem great cities.
Vanessa: I benchmark every city against Toronto, a city I once called home, and a place I loved for its people, culture, ideas, and fashion. Toronto is the most diverse city in the world and this is reflected in its architecture, neighbourhoods, cuisine, acceptance of ideas and ways of life.
Nick: One of the most influential urban thinkers of the twentieth century, Jane Jacobs called the city home for the latter half of her life. She was a champion for urban diversity in every sense of the word. She observed that mixed-use neighbourhoods where people could live, work, recreate and educate within close proximity were quantifiably more vibrant than cities that separated land uses. When those conditions are enabled, you end up with residents from all different backgrounds, generations, and walks of life. Diversity isn’t found in every city, but it’s a key ingredient that makes great cities stand out from the rest.
Vanessa: Probably not quite as diverse as Toronto, Copenhagen is another incredible city. I travelled to Copenhagen on my own, but never experienced loneliness or isolation. This Scandinavian city is filled with public spaces, lively walking environments and plenty of places to go, stay, sit and people watch.
Nick: Jan Gehl is a Copenhagen native and the foremost expert on the importance of human scale and places for people in cities. Typically, where cities get this wrong is in the wasted opportunity cost of allocating space. In the early 1970s, just a few years after WWII, cars had begun to dominate almost every available piece of public space in the city. This was taking place in cities all over the world, but famously, Copenhagen was one of the first places to set out and reverse it. New Regent Street in Christchurch is an excellent example of this; in the 1970s it was just like any other street in the city with cars parked down either side. It became a pedestrian mall in the 1990s and is now one of the best people-watching spots in the city.
V: On a completely different scale, I recently visited Tokyo and was captivated by the hustle and bustle throughout the day, no matter where I went. Whether 3AM or 3PM, the city was alive and thriving. I experienced a similar feeling in London, where each distinctive neighbourhood felt vibrant and unique.
N: One of the things that codifies a city from a town is its ability to commerce and trade at a whole new level. When trading ideas, services and experiences amongst a global marketplace, traditional hours of operation no longer apply. 24-hour cities are abundantly more productive, vibrant and safer. It’s not just about bars and clubs either, dozens of cities are appointing unofficial “night mayors” to formalize and capitalize on the creativity, productivity, and culture that emerge after dark. It’s an important part of attracting and retaining people to a place. Christchurch is really struggling in this regard post-quake, but events like FESTA are doing a fantastic job of showing a different side of the city at night.
V: Cities in in North America appear to have so much character, Boston, New York and Montreal seem to be constantly evolving and changing while holding on to their stories and interesting narratives. I was especially intrigued by the old Meatpacking District and how it’s been re-imagined with the High Line.
N: Cities aren’t static and the ones that stand out manage to tell a story about their past, but know where they are heading in the future. Most western cities outside of Europe were founded and grew during the industrial era. It’s heartbreaking to see cities that haven’t been able to keep pace and have become shadows of their former selves. Some of the most interesting places within great cities have adapted from what they once were, and are given a new life as something different in a modern city. Examples include The High Line, Brew Works Pittsburgh, and City Works Depot. It’s why people are drawn to converted loft studio spaces or apartments, knowing they were formerly warehouses. In Christchurch, we have C1 Espresso (which was previously a post office) and of course, The Arts Centre, (The University of Canterbury) now more open and inviting places for the public than they once were.
V: Sometimes what captivates me about cities is more than just their downtowns. I couldn’t get over the beauty of Cape Town, wedged between mountains and the sea, its remarkable skyline is immediately recognizable.
N: Vistas and skylines are what make up a city’s urban form, but they’re only recognizable once you’re able to move to the right vantage point. Natural geographic assets are generally responsible for why cities are found often alongside rivers, oceans or mountainsides. Today, many of these features have become iconic landmarks. It’s the combination of urban and natural environments that often give cities their aesthetic sense of liveability. Everyone identifies Christ the Redeemer with Rio and Rangitoto with Auckland. Christchurch has been fortunate to have the Port Hills, Southern Alps, and the Pacific Ocean so close, by but it’s by design rather than accident. There is a renewed focus on ensuring the natural assets are underscored amongst the urban environment.
All cities possess these principles to a greater or lesser degree. It’s the great cities that truly embody these characteristics and stay with us long after we’ve left.
Featured image by Tim Gouw