If we want cities that are great, or even good, there are only a few things (three, actually) that we need to do to allow this to happen. These three things won’t guarantee that a city will turn out great, but if these three things aren’t done, then it is guaranteed that we won’t have a great, or even a good, city (or town, or suburb, or village, or anything else that we populate collectively).
To be clear, a good city is a place that makes me and my neighbors want to walk everywhere we go, that makes it as easy as possible to change uses and buildings, that makes efficient long-term use of collective resources (utilities buried under public streets, for instance), and that has great public places. That’s it. Beyond that everything can and will change.
Manhattan is a giant, dense place. It’s a great city. Paris is a historic, dense, but less regular and lower scale place than Manhattan, but it’s also a great city. Tokyo, San Francisco, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Antiqua, Sydney, Saigon, Marrakech, Washington, Cairo and so many others are also all great cities (or at least the centers of some of these places are great). But Kansas City, Siem Reap, Luang Prabang, Nice, Genoa, Colonia, San Juan, Adelaide, are also great cities, particularly, again, at the centers of these cities. All of these cities, or the parts of them that are good or great, share three things in common. They have small blocks, streets that aren’t too wide and parks, squares and other public places that are clearly public (note: a shopping mall is not a public place).
If these three things are done, we might end up with a good city, and if things really work out, we might even end up with a great city. If these three things aren’t done, however, a good city is highly unlikely, and a great city is simply impossible.
Beyond this there is nothing that has to happen. Buildings can be modern or historic, tall or short. Sidewalks can be narrow or wide, with or without trees, benches. A city may or may not have transit, lots of cars (and parking lots) or fewer cars and no parking lots. Blocks may be on a rigid grid or more randomly laid out. Parks may be many and small, or fewer and larger, or both. One or one-hundred languages might be spoken. People may be mostly poor or mostly rich.
In the great historic, and even not so great historic cities, the elements of the city, described above, and many others, have changed over time. Rome was not perceived as a great city 300 years ago, but it was 600 years ago, and it is today. Washington DC wasn’t thought of as a great city 30 years ago. Today it is held up as model for great cities. The constant about DC through its ups and downs are the three things that are critical, small blocks, narrow(ish) streets and clear public spaces. When people decided to start caring about the city again, the blocks, streets and parks allowed for the resurgence of the city. The dimensions of the city were such that with the right buildings, ingredients placed in the blocks, it could become vibrant once again, easily replacing buildings that had outlived their usefulness, or didn’t contribute to a walkable environment. Yes, there has been significant displacement, gentrification, and other social impacts. There always will be, but those things are social issues, issues of policy, not issues of the plan of a city. Everywhere in the world, a house or a neighborhood, without changing its physical characteristics too much, has been a place for the rich and a place for the poor. Paris, New York, even the neighborhood where I lived for 25 yeas in Atlanta, were all very different places socially, economically and culturally those 25 years ago. In 1985 Paris the Marais was a borderline slum, while in New York Soho was marginal at best (although I have to say I loved it), and now of course it is very different.
When I moved into Candler Park in Atlanta, in the late 1980’s the houses, beautiful old craftsman and various other idiosyncratic styles, were primarily rental and rented out as boarding houses. My neighbors were hippies, older folks who had been there for decades, students, families, but generally people who lived on the fringes of convention. But everyone walked the neighborhood. They populated the center of the neighborhood, a great place called Little Five Points, with local shops and dive bars. Not a craft brewery anywhere in sight. 30 years later, houses were renovated, many more families moved in, and the neighborhood moved back to what it was, more or less, as a trolley suburb in the first few decades of the 20th century. The shops changed, things were renovated, more money came in, the local high school was converted to lofts, but the physical structure of the neighborhood never changed. It was still small blocks, streets, and parks. Later suburbs would do well to emulate this, extending and connecting streets as much as possible, removing cul-de-sacs, and allocating public parks. Yes, this will mean taking some houses down, but the return on this would be significant. Of course it isn’t very popular.
People will complain about this idea of marginalizing their pet issues, their passions. Yes, everything else about cities is important, but all of these things change. But they are, and sometimes this is hard to take, only important in relatively fleeting timeframes; several years, a decade, even a century. While I am interested in the arguments over gentrification, building styles, affordable housing, density, parking, use restrictions, hours of operation, traffic calming, rentable carriage houses, transportation demand, congestion; you name it, I am much more concerned with making sure that cities have a physical structure in place that will allow much smarter (and passionately driven) people to have these arguments; as long as they let the blocks, streets and parks remain, or as long as they put them in in the first place.
I will do everything I can to ensure social equity, economic success and sustainability, or whatever else makes sense to make the most people happy and the fewest marginalized, but without a walkable, adaptable city, we are fighting a losing battle. Everything else is secondary.
Manhattan is, and has been, sustainable, resilient, adaptable, walkable over the past two centuries because of the Commissioners Plan. To date it is the most logical piece of resilient sustainability (or whatever I should call it) ever created. Yes, the city is going to someday disappear, sink back into the ocean, and we can put a wall around it, and batten down the hatches to basements and the subway, but these things don’t have to do with the design of cities. They are stop-gap measures against our stupidity as a civilization. Again, these are critical issues, but not my main concern, and quite frankly, not the main concern of those who design cities.
But back to the three things every city should have. Of course, one can find lots of cities that have these three key elements that are not great, or even good, cities. To make these cities, towns, suburbs, villages, good requires commitment, thoughtfulness, creativity, and everything else that we as human beings strive for. But you will also find, in each of these, the potential to become a good, or even a great city. What you will never find is a city that is great (or I would argue even good) that doesn’t have these elements. It just doesn’t exist.
Of course we can redefine a good city as place that always has available parking, allows me to drive fast, get my coffee at a drive-thru window and everything else that epitomizes the way we have been designing and planning cities for the past 90 years. In that case, I think we need far fewer good cities.
So everyone, please continue to argue about the hundreds or thousands of things that affect cities. I am going to simply keep trying to design cities that let each of you win your argument, but not at the expense of future generations.