The Making of a Great City

An abridged version of this post was originally published at JUNE 11, 2017 by @vanessaortynsky

As someone that’s spent the last decade living in, travelling to, and immersing myself in exceptional cities, I’ve always been fascinated by the question, ‘what makes a great city?’. I’ve also been living with a planner and fellow urbanophile (Nick) for the better part of that decade and we often find ourselves discussing the traits that make some cities stand out from others.

This question seems particularly pertinent, as I watch the city Christchurch rebuild around me. So, I sat down with Nick to identify how my favourite cities fit within the framework of what urban thinkers deem great cities.

Dundas Street in Toronto is a vibrant mix of young and old (photo credit City of Toronto)

Vanessa: I benchmark every city against Toronto, a city I once called home, and a place I loved for its people, culture, ideas, and fashion. Toronto is the most diverse city in the world and this is reflected in its architecture, neighbourhoods, cuisine, acceptance of ideas and ways of life.

Nick: One of the most influential urban thinkers of the twentieth century, Jane Jacobs, called the city home for the latter half of her life. She was a champion for urban diversity in every sense of the word. She observed that mixed-use neighbourhoods where people could live, work, recreate and educate within close proximity were quantifiably more vibrant than cities that separated land uses. When those conditions are enabled, you end up with residents from all different backgrounds, generations, and walks of life. Diversity isn’t found in every city, but it’s a key ingredient that makes great cities stand out from the rest.

Christchurch has traditionally been lambasted for being monoethnic but is now experiencing much higher rates of immigration by attracting workers and their families for the rebuild. Recent projects like Diverscity are celebrating and underscoring a more diverse Christchurch.

Strøget in Copenhagen is one of the busiest pedestrian spaces (Source Global Designing Cities Initiative)

Vanessa: Probably not quite as diverse as Toronto, Copenhagen is another incredible city. I travelled to Copenhagen on my own, but never experienced loneliness or isolation. This Scandinavian city is filled with public spaces, lively walking environments and plenty of places to go, stay, sit and people watch.

Nick: Jan Gehl is a Copenhagen native and the foremost expert on the importance of human scale and places for people in cities. Typically, where cities get this wrong is in the wasted opportunity cost of allocating space. In the early 1970s, just a few years after WWII, cars had begun to dominate almost every available piece of public space in the city. This was taking place in cities all over the world, but famously, Copenhagen was one of the first cities to set out and reverse it. New Regent Street in Christchurch is an excellent example of this; in the 1970s it was just like any other street in the city with cars parked down either side. It became a pedestrian mall in the 1990s and is now one of the best people-watching spots in the city. Today there are many more new pedestrian laneways and public plazas are taking shape which will certainly become a hallmark of the new post-quake Christchurch.

The bustling Streets around Shibuya Station at night.

V: On a completely different scale, I recently visited Tokyo and was captivated by the hustle and bustle throughout the day, no matter where I went. Whether 3AM or 3PM, the city was alive and thriving. I experienced a similar feeling in London, where each distinctive neighbourhood felt vibrant and unique.

N: One of the things that distinguishes a city from a town is its ability to attract commerce and trade at a whole new level. It’s the trading of ideas, services and experiences that give a city a sense of hustle and bustle. Often the most competitive cities are trading amongst a global marketplace, meaning traditional hours of operation no longer apply. Great cities are always on, day and night, making them abundantly more productive, vibrant and safer. It’s not just about bars and clubs either, dozens of cities are appointing unofficial “night mayors” to formalize and capitalize on the creativity, productivity, and culture that emerge after dark. In his latest book, Nick Dunn encourages residents to explore and understand their cities. Cities that consider, and meaningfully respond to night activities are more competitive are better placed to attract and retain people . Christchurch is really struggling in this regard post-quake, but events like FESTA and night rides are fantastic ways of showing a different side of the city at celebrating night activities. When it is dark and cold, it can be tempting to retreat home and watch netflix, but great cities are make it equally enticing to out explore and interact throughout the morning, evening and night.

The Old Port of Montreal is a 2km stretch of adaptive reuse along the the city’s waterfront

V: Cities in in North America appear to have so much character, Boston, New York and Montreal seem to be constantly evolving and changing while holding on to their stories and interesting narratives. I was especially intrigued by the old Meatpacking District and how it’s been re-imagined with the High Line.

N: Cities aren’t static and the ones that stand out manage to tell a story about their past, but know where they are heading in the future. Most western cities outside of Europe were founded and grew during the industrial era. It’s heartbreaking to see legacy cities that haven’t been able to keep pace and have become shadows of their former selves. Some of the most interesting places within great cities are products of adaptive reuse’, acknowledging that which they once were, while at the same time taking a new form in a modern city. Examples include New York The High Line, Brew Works Pittsburgh, and City Works Depot. It’s why people are drawn to converted loft studio spaces or apartments, knowing they were formerly warehouses. In Christchurch, we have C1 Espresso (which was previously a post office) and of course, The Arts Centre, (The University of Canterbury) now more open and inviting places for the public than they ever have been before. John Ruskin established the basic theory of historic preservation in the mid nineteenth century, although he abhorred contemporary restorations he did argued for preservation to go beyond simply retaining aesthetics. There is also a rich history in Christchurch stretching back generations, preserving and acknowledging the stories and narratives through the built environment is an important part of looking to the future. The Matapopore charitable trust have done an incredible job of weaving those narratives and identities into the built environment.

The Toronto’s Skyline is best viewed from the tranquility of the Toronto Islands Park

V: Sometimes what captivates me about cities is more than just their downtowns. I couldn’t get over the beauty of Cape Town, wedged between mountains and the sea, its remarkable skyline is immediately recognizable.

N: Some of the most recognizable city vistas are so breathtaking because of their combination of natural and artificial landmarks. City skylines are often best complemented by their natural geographic surrounds. it’s by design rather than accident that a cities are often located where they are today. People choose to locate on natural harbors, fertile valleys, rivers, and lakes for survival but eventually became iconic landmarks. Often neglected, we’re today becoming better stewards of our local environment. Daylighting streams, replanting forests, and cleaning up rivers and harbours are now seen as top priorities for citymakers. It’s the combination of urban and natural environments that often give cities their aesthetic, and sense of livability. However these natural features often bring with them increased risks. Ensuring the built and natural environments can sustainability coexist in the face of increases hazards is one of the biggest urban challenges in the 21st century. Christchurch is making strides in this regard with storm water detention ponds, rain gardens and by placing a greater focus on the health and vitality of the Ōtākaro river.

All cities possess these some of these elements to a greater or lesser degree but it’s the great cities that truly embody these characteristics and stay with us long after we’ve left. I think astute visitors to our city might observe that it possesses many of the basic ingredients to be a great: growing in diversity, increasingly walkable, a re-emerging nightlife, as well as rich built and natural heritage. It’s important to acknowledge and understand these underlying elements for success so that we can keep our eyes open though the rebuild process and take pride in being a model for a twenty first century city.