What words describe a successful city?

John Kraus

Director of External Affairs (RICS)

When asked what words describe a successful city, experts at the 2017 World Built Environment Forum Annual Summit in Shanghai suggested the following list. Connectivity, capacity, character, resilient, efficient, having identity, healing, inclusive, healthy, bold, leading, authentic.

As if that wasn’t enough, summit participants also suggested liveable, aspirational, caring, smart and sustainable.

Your choice will probably depend on your values, your aspirations and your life experiences. And you will probably say that the words above overlap, and need careful definition.

You might also say that any successful city needs to take account of threats and challenges posed by shifting economics, globalisation, a changing environment, demographics, and the availability of finance. It needs to offer physical security and – increasingly – cyber security. It needs to be affordable.

Evolving challenges

Our experts highlighted the relentless competition between cities, meaning that the most successful would provide the places and public services that people want. Get this right and cities would attract talent, and employers would follow: arguably a change from the 20th Century when people moved to where the jobs were.

In practice, competitive cities need to offer the transport and telecoms connectivity that businesses and populations want and need. High quality office space attracts high quality jobs. But more jobs means more commuters, with the need for smarter and more efficient use of street space, with reduced traffic and alternative forms of transport.

By realising that most buildings are empty most of time, we can begin to make every square metre count, not just for habitation, but also for generating solar power, and managing water and carbon. Ultimately such measures improve both efficiency and quality of life.

Panel discussion: what makes a city successful?

Putting citizens first

Cities also need to make a human connection. More than a collection of buildings, cities have to be collections of communities. Sometimes cities need to heal self-inflicted wounds, such as busy highways that separate communities from each other and from essential services.

Increasingly, cities are realising that they have turned their backs on their waterfronts, many of which have become post-industrial no-go areas. By removing roads that kept people from riversides and coastlines, and by investing wisely, cities could heal their waterfront districts, creating amenity and adding value. This approach had helped Pittsburgh to reduce the average age of its citizens by four years in one decade, after industrial decline had driven it up to the fourth oldest in the US.

China’s One Belt One Road is expected to spur rapid growth and development in the cities along its route. They need to learn from each other, in order to avoid repeating past mistakes. They must also avoid the trap of adopting the same approaches everywhere; above all a city needs to be authentic – to its culture, location and context. It needs to be truly distinctive  from other cities. From distinction comes character and from character emerge the reasons for people to love where they live.

About the World Built Environment Forum

The World Built Environment Forum demonstrates responsible leadership for the built environment and hosts summits which take place around the world.

This forum creates and sets the standard for dialogue and collaboration among professionals, clients, policy makers and regulators with the aim of driving up standards so that our profession and our industry show responsible leadership in enabling sustainable growth.

Find out more about the WBEF, access videos from the event and get details of upcoming events.

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