Robert Bosch Academy (Berlin)
We are experiencing the biggest wake-up call in our lifetime – a global pandemic. That is not surprising as we are witnessing for the first time something that effects directly every one of the 8 billion people on this planet – and it is scary for many. So, what in that context are good or great or creative cities in a pandemic era. In many ways the same as before but how we define them shifts as do the priorities and so do many details. Yet whilst everything changes some things stay the same, such as the big themes that I believe make great places. They remain true, I think, cross-culturally and through time as for over 25 years I have asked people in various continents what they want from their city.
I have summarized these under five overarching themes: ‘Places of anchorage and originality’ as we still need to belong and be distinctively ourselves. The second theme is ‘places of connection and communication’ as we are social beings and want to be physically close and the pandemic has shown how vital human touch and being together is, we want to embrace, to hug, to hold someone’s face. This remains important even though the pandemic has speeded up digital connections dramatically so as to meet, shop and work virtually. A third theme is the desire to have ‘places of ambition and connection’ as people still need to explore, to believe in themselves, to desire, to create possibilities, to want to achieve success. This will not go away even though success will be reinterpreted, such as finding innovations to solve the problems that the pandemic throws up. Now as never before, the fourth theme moves centre-stage and that is ‘places of nurture and nourishment’. The pandemic shown us all what really matters – health, care, social justice and environmental sustainability. Great places care for us, they value those who keep us healthy and who help us when we are in trouble. Celebrity culture then seems less relevant – trivial and superficial. Finally, we still have to lift our sights, to be aroused, to hope for the best and to be able to reimagine what could be and this requires ‘places of inspiration and imagination’.
In the crisis there was a hidden opportunity – a silver lining. We saw a glimpse of possibilities as it turned out briefly to be the biggest experiment ever in climate change emissions as the lockdown created a slowdown. We could breathe clean air, hear birds sing and were able to reassess how we live and governments in guaranteeing debt for many companies could establish obligations for them to operate more sustainably. The opportunity for a big reset remains, perhaps a vanishing one, as for many the old normal still feel like a exotic destination.
So, when we say everything changes but some things stay the same – we mean also that cities might look the same but how they work or their operating dynamics will be different. There will be houses, apartment blocks, big and smaller streets, parks, varieties of shops, offices, transport systems, logistics to get goods from A to B. Yet the digital turn is here to stay – it changes work patterns, we might not need to go to the big city an – an opportunity for smaller places. It changes sadly our streets as the internet takes trade away especially from smaller shops, yet personal services like hairdressing retail with perishable good will stay
Putting this all together reminds us that great placemaking is an art not a formula, yet some strong principles can help us along the way. These include fairness, focusing on solidarity, social justice, being sustainable and creating resilient places and this involves foresight involving those affected by your decision making. Unfortunately, more places disappoint and are ugly rather than please. Some places make us feel good and others bad. Some open us out and others close us in. In some the atmosphere feels safe and stimulates in us the desire to connect and to socialize, yet in others our tribal instincts come more to the fore when the changes around us seem out of control. People increasingly ask “where do we belong when everything is on the move” and when the world is becoming more nomadic, more diverse and more under pressure. All kinds of cities can satisfy us as citizens if the conditions are right. Primarily, of course, people need sustenance – the means to survive and good shelter. And even shrinking cities that are losing energy can work as can those that attract the ambitious, the highly skilled and resources.
Everybody knows there are obstacles, to implement some of the main characteristics and qualities of great placemaking, such as how our current economic order is materially expansive, environmentally hostile and socially divisive or that movements of global capital can erase local distinctiveness or a property development community that too often does not care about quality. Below I encapsulate the five themes.
A PLACE OF ANCHORAGE & ORIGINALITY
THIS PLACE FEELS LIKE HOME. IT GENERATES A SENSE OF THE KNOWN, THE FAMILIAR, THE STABLE AND COMFORTING. IT FEELS SAFE, THIS IS WHERE I HAVE SHELTER. IT CREATES A SENSE OF BELONGING.
This place celebrates where it comes from. It acknowledges its past, its heritage, its traditions and core assumptions about who it is. Its multiple identities, its ideas, its visions are etched into its way of life and what makes it special and unique. This place explains to itself where it comes from by its history, built fabric and urban design, its rituals, behaviours and activities. The routines of daily life and their predictability seem ordinary, but this ordinariness makes people feel rooted. Ironically, by feeling at ease about itself gives this place confidence about where it is going and more relaxed about any changes that may unfold – so it dares to be innovative.
A PLACE OF CONNECTION & COMMUNICATION
THIS IS A PLACE OF RELATIONSHIPS FROM THE INCIDENTAL AND CAUSAL TO THE DEEPLY PROFOUND. YOU CONNECT AND COMMUNICATE FACE TO FACE WITH NEIGHBOURS, WORK COLLEAGUES, FRIENDSHIP NETWORKS, ACQUAINTANCES AND THOSE DIFFERENT TO YOU. YOU LINK TO THE WIDER WORLD, DIGITALLY AND PHYSICALLY, AS WELL AS WITH YOUR PAST AND POTENTIAL FUTURES
This place is locally bonded. It is at ease with itself and with the wider world. It reaches out. It is relaxed about meshing its diversities. There is seamless connectivity enabled by high quality urban design, good gathering places and possibilities for chance encounter. Its walkability and varied transport modes internally and externally focused connect beyond the city confines. Its digital infrastructures reach out to virtual worlds stretching out far and wide. It is the hub from which your transactions with the world flow – both those near to you and those afar.
A PLACE OF OPPORTUNITY & AMBITION
THIS PLACE FOSTERS OPEN-MINDEDNESS. IT ENCOURAGES A CULTURE OF CURIOSITY. IT PROVIDES CHOICES, OPTIONS AND POSSIBILITIES IN OUR DIFFERING PHASES OF LIFE. IT HAS A “CAN DO” ATTITUDE. THERE IS AN EXPERIMENTAL CULTURE. THIS KEEPS IT FLEXIBLE AND ADAPTIVE TO EMERGING CHANGES.
Some places provide opportunities and others less, yet this is a place to have ambition, ideals and aspiration. It sparks in you the desire to give free rein to your exploratory instinct and to open out. The raw materials of the city create the potential and are embodied in peoples’ creativity, skills and talents as well as its resources. These are “things” like buildings and also symbols, activities and the repertoire of local products in crafts, manufacturing and services. They are our historical, industrial and artistic assets including architecture, urban landscapes or landmarks as well as our indigenous traditions of public life, festivals, rituals or stories as well as hobbies, enthusiasms or amateur cultural activities. This draws attention to the distinctive, unique and the special in any place. These resources are all potential opportunities. Acknowledging this can engender a spirit of generosity. It can create the desire to give back to your city. This helps generate civic pride, loyalty and trust.
A PLACE OF NURTURE & NOURISHMENT
IN THIS PLACE PEOPLE CAN FLOURISH, AND THERE ARE MANY POSSIBILITIES TO SELFIMPROVE FROM THE FORMAL TO THE INFORMAL. THIS IS A LIFELONG LEARNING ENVIRONMENT AND A PLACE WHERE A DISCUSSION CULTURE IS VIBRANT. IT ALLOWS YOU TO ENVISION WHAT COULD BE.
Here you can grow personally and professionally and the city helps you in this endeavour. It cares. It reinforces your necessary ladders of opportunity to move forward. It enables you to be more fulfilled and to widen your horizons. You are fed by these broadening perspectives and so learn and reflect. This can help citizens become more competent and confident and thus willing to participate in helping to shape, make and co-create their evolving city. To make this happen requires pre-conditions and these include good facilities be they in education and research or health care, social provision, affordable housing or anything that makes a place more liveable.
A PLACE OF INSPIRATION & IMAGINATION
THIS PLACE HAS A VISIONARY FEEL, IT LIFTS YOU UP FROM THE DAY TO DAY. YOU FEEL AT ONE WITH YOURSELF AND YOUR CITY. IT PROVIDES A HEIGHTENED LEVEL OF EXPERIENCE BY ITS BEAUTY AND ITS SPIRIT OF POSSIBILITY AND EXCITEMENT.
Here aspiration and good intent is made visible in the built fabric or through the vitality of its culture and urban programming. Each reinforces the other and this creates a positive virtuous spiral. This visionary dimension reflects the ideals and ethics that the city wishes to project to its citizens and to the wider world. These greater purposes beyond self-interest change over time and today three foci are important. First we need to heal the division between the city and nature and a changing climate; second to be imaginative in working through how we live together with our differences; and third how we unleash the creative potential in each one of us. Cities able to do this will be admired.