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Markets & Geopolitics

City competitiveness in the age of urbanisation

The importance of cities is widely recognised. Already home to the majority of the world’s population, cities generate 80% of the world’s economic output and are increasingly seen as attractive places to live.

Lisette van Doorn, CEO, ULI Europe
10 April 2018

Unsurprisingly, businesses and investors are focusing almost exclusively on cities to find value. Competition between cities for businesses and investment can be fierce.

For cities to be successful in this competitive climate, they must focus on people. Building a great city requires attracting and retaining talent. This means creating vibrant communities where people want to live, work, and play—and, by extension, where businesses want to set up their offices. This is especially important for the tech and creative sectors, which often work as catalysts for job growth and talent attraction through spill-off effects into secondary and tertiary services.

So how can cities best attract talent? There are several key elements to consider:

Strong Governance Framework

The most competitive cities are ones that have a long-term vision and strategy for the future. City leaders should evaluate the city’s key assets on a global scale; develop a clear and forward-looking plan for infrastructure projects; identify opportunities for growth, including investment and emerging export markets; and mobilise different levels of government around a common set of objectives. Bold leadership, collaboration between the public and private sectors, and transparency are key factors in a city’s competitiveness. 

Placemaking and “good” density

To create vibrant and dynamic communities, placemaking and “good” density play a crucial role. To be competitive, cities should offer appealing, accessible, and well-connected places that include a mix of uses, amenities, and public spaces used for a wide range of activities and events. If executed well, placemaking can be a means for developing an authentic urban identity that sets a city apart from its peers.

Key to successful placemaking is well-managed and well-serviced densification. By densifying cities in the right way—ensuring a mix of uses, green space, and good connectivity—we create the business case and critical mass to provide sufficient public transport and services and cultural amenities that people can enjoy in their own neighbourhoods. This creates communities that are vibrant, liveable, innovative, productive, and sustainable, while reducing energy consumption and emissions.  Generally, density is the best way to accommodate economic change and population growth. It makes our cities more flexible and provides optimal returns for society and the environment whilst also creating value that can be captured and shared.


Many cities are transforming from a traditional, often industrial economy, to a more innovation-led and diversified economy. Influenced by technology, innovation is becoming a key driver for economic and job growth. Successful implementation of placemaking and good density provide the right fundamentals for the development of a stronger innovation economy, an important job provider for the talent attracted to the city. Cities that can attract more start-ups and creative, tech-powered industries and firms will be better able to meet future challenges.

Social Inclusion

Social inclusion is vital for improving economic vibrancy and quality of life in cities. Prioritising inclusivity through the mixing of income and population groups can help foster lively, diverse, and attractive communities.  Cities can become more inclusive by creating sufficient affordable housing and increasing efforts to integrate migrants into existing communities.

Critical mass

In order to perform well in terms of economic diversification, workforce, and investable assets, it is important for cities to have sufficient critical mass. Given the modest size of many cities, especially in Europe, it is important and beneficial for these cities to collaborate with one another to increase their competitive edge.  Lately, we have seen the rise of “megacities”, clusters of cities collaborating formally or informally to create cohesive regions, following a polycentric urban development model. By building complementary strengths, the cities within these regions become more appealing targets for businesses in different sectors and international investment.  The success of the Oresund region and Holland Metropole exemplify the potential of cooperation between cities.

The World Built Environment Forum facilitates industry leading discussions harnessing the enormous potential of the 21st century's people and places.