“How to Make an Attractive City”, a video by The School of Life, recently gained attention in social media. Well presented and pretty much aligned with today’s mainstream urbanism, the video earned plenty of shares and few critiques. This is probably the first critique you may read.
The video is divided into six parts, each with ideas the author suggests are important to make an attractive city. I will cover each one of them separately and analyze the author’s conclusion in a final section.
1 – Not too chaotic, not too ordered
The author argues that a city must establish simple rules to to give aesthetic order to a city without producing excessive uniformity. From Alain Bertaud’s and Paul Romer’s ideas, it can make sense to maintain a certain order of basic infrastructure planning in to enable more freedom to build in private lots. However, this is not the order to which the video refers, suggesting rules on the architectural form of buildings.
The main premise behind this is that it “is what humans love”. But though the producers of the video certainly do love this kind of result, it is impossible to affirm that all humans love a certain type of urban aesthetics generated by an urbanist. It is even less convincing when this rule will impact density by restricting built area of a certain lot of land or even raising building costs, two probable consequences of this kind of policy: a specific kind of beauty does not come for free.
Jane Jacobs, one of the most celebrated and influential urbanists of the modern era, clearly argued that
“To approach a city, or even a city neighborhood, as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life. The results of such profound confusion between art and life are neither art nor life. They are taxidermy.”
The video also makes a factual mistake when it states that London skyscrapers are carefully planned. Their location, in fact, is based on preserving specific viewing corridors established almost 200 years ago. As The Economist reported last year, views of these landmarks have completely lost its relevance in contemporary London.
2 – Visible Life
The video argues that cities full of street life are more desirable. That is observably apparent, as people’s preference is observable in their chose to be drawn to these spaces. Nevertheless, the video makes a contradiction: first saying that Hong Kong is an example of a city with street life, then claiming cities full of skyscrapers aren’t conducive to street life. Cities with “anonymous commercial towers” do not necessarily lacks street life: New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo and City of London are examples of cities full of skyscrapers that have active street life.
3 – Compact cities
Suburbanization and sprawl has been vigorously incentivized by public policy, most massively in the United States. United States policy featured an Interstate Highway System with massive investment in large road projects; education funding that favored good public schools in the suburbs; subsidies that favored owning larger-and-larger homes such as Mortgage Interest Deduction; zoning restrictions such as minimum lot areas and setbacks, as well as state support for the auto and oil industry. These programs fueled a form of urbanization we’ve come to know as suburban sprawl. Compact cities, which the videos celebrate have typically grown spontaneously without significant interventions.
The historic European and Brazilian downtowns typically have shorter commute distances, an intensive street life and a smaller dependency on the automobile.
4 – Orientation and mystery
It is true that people have diverse preferences for urban form, and that an attractive city can supply a greater variety of forms. However, it is dangerous for a city to dictate a certain kind of urban form for the city as a whole, even if it is a mix between different models. Although we can control form within a neighborhood or a large-scale development, municipal norms with these goals in mind can generate distortions exactly because of the infinitely varying preferences of the citizens. Incapable of catering to all the subjective preferences of everyone that participates in the city environment, planners inherently lack the capability to determine ideal quantities of orientation and mystery the video suggests. In a truly organic and complex city, orientation emerges in a truly spontaneous and decentralized way that brings more “mystery” than any planner can fathom.
5 – Scale
Here the author quotes Joseph Campbell: “If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to”, and deduces that we don’t actually collectively value sports shoe corporations, tax specialists, the oil industry and pharmaceuticals, as a few examples. But is that in fact true? A certain citizen may even say that he does not value these corporations and services, but he is a daily consumer of shoes, he pays his taxes, burns fuel and uses plastic products. And when he gets sick, he relies on pharmaceutical drugs. In the behaviors of each person, a preference for these goods and services is in fact revealed. The video misunderstands how the complexity of the economy actually works and how preferences in society are be manifested.
What happens within tall commercial buildings is never as simple as their appearance. They often house the companies that produce or support the computers we use, the planes we fly in or the milk we have with our everyday breakfast. Such a city reflects the social valuation of a complex network of voluntary action that generates the products and services that make our lives better.
Soon the author argues for preserving views and limiting building heights to five stories. The rule itself is a paradox, as a four story building will have its view blocked by a five story building. Going even further with this reasoning, we can infer that a single-story house can block the view of another single-story house. Arguing for the preservation of views is, in fact, a direct contradiction with what it means to live in a city.
In any case, it is not reasonable to limit buildings within a city to five stories. The height of the old cities the video refers to was not defined by planning norms, but by practical necessity of walking up and down stairs in an era before the elevators we now take for granted. In contrast to today, top floors in pre-elevator buildings were always the cheapest as they were the hardest floors to reach. Limiting building heights to five stories suggests an artificial and arbitrary limit to real estate supply, a tangible side effect of the “sense of insignificance” the producers of the video talk about.
6 – A local city
The video says that buildings must not look alike everywhere in the world, as his trips get boring and because each city has a specific climate, needs and different positive and negative attributes. It argues for a strong local character and for the use of local forms and materials.
This is very true with commercial real estate in Latin America, where developers have built several glass towers which are totally inadequate for a tropical climate. These designs are intended to copy temperate climate buildings in developed countries, where the “greenhouse effect” within glass-enclosed buildings is conducive to indoor working environments. Smart builders will certainly learn from these mistakes and develop more adequate local solutions instead of imitating inefficient and inadequate forms.
The use of local forms and materials, however, is a major problem. Aesthetic and architectural form – trying to separate it from building technology – were always globalized, being influenced by different cultures and ideas. The same argument goes for materials: locally available materials will hardly be the best for every specific building. This principle can be applied to any object. It is impossible to imagine a pencil, a single and relatively simple object, to be produced only with local materials, much less an entire city. The historical examples given in the video were built that way mainly by lack of options, not by an aesthetic or functional preference. The only contemporary example given, architect Glenn Murcutt, does not use local materials and whether he designs are distinctly “Australian architecture” is a very subjective interpretation.
In the last section, the author asserts that the greatest challenges to implementation of these ideas are a lack of political will and intellectual confusion about aesthetics. This was one of the most dangerous ideas the video communicates. In saying that it is possible to affirm what is inherently beautiful or ugly, is realistically impossible as these are not universal truths. I personally know people who find the glass towers the author hates beautiful. Others think the Brazilian favelas or the shantytowns in Bangkok are the most amazing and spontaneous expression of humanity. Some even think Paris is not the romantic city travel guides tell us, but instead a repetitive and boring vision of the past. The stand the video takes is worrying, as it argues for a correct and universal aesthetic enforced by increasing political power.
The tourism statistics used in this argument is simply false. Dubai, Singapore, New York and Hong Kong are part of the top ten most visited cities in the world and represent urban aesthetics and form opposite to the one argued in the video. For example, my personal experience of Frankfurt does not align with what the video says: I had the opportunity to spend a few days there on vacation and thought the city was amazing.
The final conclusion is an attack on real estate developers, who apparently greedily fight to make the city an ugly unattractive place. Unfortunately not everything is easy in this world. Some developers invest in renowned architects to serve niche clients and citizens that are willing to pay a premium for aesthetic extravagance. However, those who build for the masses cannot budget for extravagance, as real estate is usually the largest expenditure in someone’s life – and the burden of housing costs ever growing in most part because of very regulations the video is promoting. The given example of New Town, Edinburgh is actually perfect, as it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in town. Ironically it’s probably the neighborhood with the least amount of street life because of it’s strict residential zoning.
Another contradiction is when the video argues a city cannot be shaped by a free real estate market. However, most of the cities the video uses as good examples were, in fact, built by within extremely deregulated real estate market compared to today’s standards. This is true for almost all medieval cities, old London neighborhoods, the Marais in Paris (what was untouched by Haussmann’s renovation) with the additional examples of Hong Kong, New York and even the historical centers of Brazilian cities.
By understanding the city as a complex, emergent environment, we should let go of the urge to impose our personal interests in urban form. The video’s final conclusions, calling for an increase in government control and a rigid regulation of the urban environment is as dangerous and has the same mindset as the failed plans of Brasilia. And as dangerous as modern urbanism theory in general, which sees the city as built physical space that can be modeled by what planners want to achieve. Cities must be the result of spontaneous and voluntary action by all its citizens, not of a committee that decides what is right, wrong, beautiful or ugly. Restraint from imposition by those who arrogantly proclaim they know what’s best for the extremely complex organisms we call cities will eventually lead to what I like to call planned chaos.