Generally speaking, people want better cities. But what do we mean by that? Is the better city you have in mind the same as the better city I have in mind? Perhaps - or probably - not.
Bigger houses or more houses? More transport or less noise? Child-friendly or car-friendly? Historic or modern? Energetic or relaxed? Affordable or luxurious? Or, at a higher level is it something like cities where people are safer, healthier, have greater amenity and are inspired by the environment; cities where we satisfy the constraints of being affordable and sustainable. There are countless conflicting influences to consider. And that is before we acknowledge global differences in economic development. In some parts of the world, better cities means adapting to change and improving on what is already a great place to live; in others, the need to improve our cities is nothing short of a moral imperative.
So where do we begin?
An interesting case in point is my home city of Canberra in Australia. Popularly known as the ‘Bush City’, Canberra is surrounded by greenery (bush anyway, sometimes it is not so green) and natural vegetation – and generally its inhabitants would like it to remain that way. The reality is, however, that without cutting into the bush, the city will run out of land in 15 years. So where can we build – upwards? Unfortunately, the type of high-rise apartment that would be perfectly acceptable (desirable even) in (say) Hong Kong is less so in Canberra. Australia remains the land of the quarter-acre dream, of gardens and of bungalows. Although it might sound impractical and obtuse, to negate that would be to negate a large part of our identity.
Canberra is also a city that is built around the car. In a century where we all rapidly need to cut our CO2 emissions, car-based cities appear to be worryingly unsustainable. Canberra compares unfavourably to other Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne who invest much more into public transport. But again, it’s a question of catering for the people who live in your city; Melbourne and Sydney’s residents are younger, they’re less likely to be raising children and their less likely to want or own cars.
I’m not suggesting that cities and citizens will not have to compromise, quite the opposite, there is no ducking the fact that all cities have to meet challenging demands both now and in the future. The real question is how to make those compromises acceptable to the residents of that city. When we ask ‘how can we make our city better’, we have to remember there is no one-size-fits-all model that will work in Narobi, London and Canberra alike. So where do we begin? I suggest we begin with the city’s citizens: their ambitions, their needs and their collective identity. It won’t make the difficult questions any less difficult, but it will at least guide us towards the answers that might work.