Why is progress so slow in city-making?

In the age of the digitally interconnected cities the speed that ideas spread around is phenomenal. From our experience collaborating with communities and professionals the internet and platforms such as instagram has democratised access to exemplary projects. So, for cities or rural areas, the examples which people bring to project engagement are very similar (if not the same) in towns, small regional cities, or in a suburb in a metropolitan city. This demonstrates a desire for creative, people-friendly places regardless of the scale of the place where people live.

Yet, it appears that a barrier exists in transferring and executing ideas from one place to another for public spaces. The barrier seems to affect the private sector less with developers and business owners more rapidly implementing global trends and copying design languages in order to stay relevant to customers. But with public space projects involving multiple voices the familiar “that won’t work here” or “this isn’t [insert place name]” arguments easily dominate. It’s a frustrating situation when there are clearly so many good examples of urbanism which could be ported from place to place with little effort. The additional effort required to manage these common arguments and community dynamics is a massive source of waste.

We are not suggesting that all ideas which have worked in one context will work in another, but we are suggesting there’s a problem with the transfer of city-making ideas, with the way that ideas for how we might use urban space are being proposed to communities, and how cities manage learning from failure.


Designers and place makers such as Jan Gehl, Project for Public Spaces, and many others around the world have created good examples and a great demand for people-friendly places. Thanks to their work over the last few decades the qualities and features which make great places are well understood, as are methods for assessing, mapping and communicating the state of existing places.

This analytical side of making a city for people is maturing and now moving into digital with new platforms and services such as State of Place and Place Score now available. Innovation in this area is ongoing and sure to explode with urbanists tapping into technology, social media (such as www.neighbourlytics.com), and computer vision (www.placemeter.com) for analysis as well and applying startup methods to solve urban problems.



Professional design consultancies are for the most part, competent in making well-designed, functional places with beautiful aesthetics. Yet, often the degree of people-friendlyness appears to depend on a designer’s focus or passion, and the client’s preferences and brief. A common criticism is that these places can feel too sterile, but when they’re done well (such as Sydney’s Goods Line or NYC’s High Line) people use them in great numbers. Sometimes design-led projects include prototyping but the focus may be on materials testing or the planting palette.

The Goods Line in Sydney is a transformational project which demonstrates the benefits of the design-led strategy. The project is of a high quality and is well used. It is not an original idea but it is a great example of transfer of the linear park concept to reuse a railway corridor from Paris to New York to Sydney. At this stage in its life you can clearly see the hand of the single-designer.

Design-led projects tend to be larger and require greater resources and longer timeframes to implement. This leads to the feeling that they’re too slow, and become out of touch as the context can now change quickly around them. In addition, large projects are politically fragile and can become first on the chopping block when an administration changes despite the waste involved in scrapping years of planning, design, and community goodwill.

The dynamics of built masterplanned projects leads to new places needing ongoing nurturing to ensure long term success. This is place management and by layering experiences over time, truly amazing destinations can be developed as the details and fine grain character of a place begin to complement each other.


The other strategy comes from the people operating in the placemaking and tactical urbanism movements. They have showed its possible to overcome inertia of governments and community impasses through experiments and short-term wins, and that you do not need professional designers to make successful places — that within many people there is an inherent skill to make places which others would enjoy.

A riverfront plaza on the Thames South Bank activated by a Bar — a diversity of types of seating meshed well with the landscape to create a lively spot.

These parallel and interwoven movements have rightfully put the spotlight on community and user involvement in place projects, and injected resourcefulness and fun into making parts of cities better. The movement has identified that at times the thinking learned in design, planning, and engineering education fails to create great places.

In contrast to traditional design processes the focus is on action and may be followed by a professional design process. When compared to design-led projects, these places usually express their character more quickly through the actions of many diverse groups, and feel more authentic such as the Thames South Bank. Recently the Tactical Urbanists Guide to Materials and Design has been released further strengthening the body of knowledge for this approach. Criticism of these types of projects is that:

  • they don’t address fundamental design issues
  • they lack in professional prestige and respect
  • they won’t make a bigger enough impact or be robust enough to last
  • execution can be perceived as low-quality, cheap, or tacky
  • and that actions can be spread too thinly and lack cohesiveness — appearing a bit random — with diluted impact.


By this time you might have been involved in both masterplanned projects and in tactical urbanism/placemaking projects, and had success with both approaches in driving change. Yet, given the pace of urbanisation this century, it still feels like cities need a way to accelerate progress to make themselves more people-friendly — a method of running projects which is consistent around the world, scalable, and allows a common language for professionals and participants. We believe the Lean Startup offers advantages to combine the best of the design-led and place-led approaches by:

  • valuing design expertise
  • demanding testing in the real world with real people
  • being strategic and focussed
  • having a bias toward action
  • valuing metrics which demonstrate success rather than vanity metrics or awards

And by being a validated method to:

  • Change mindsets about how to achieve your teams mission
  • Test out and remix ideas from other places
  • Focus on users / customers
  • Prioritise effort and reduce waste effort and resources
  • Anticipate failure and turn it into a positive

Importantly, the Lean Startup isn’t owned by any single business, profession, or academic involved in city-making, and it aids collaboration by adopting non-technical language specific to built environment professionals.

Our next post about our experience in Napier, NZ illustrates the rapid advances that can be made by a city adopting the startup approach to make a city for people.


We do this to reduce the waste involved in re-branding and reinventing processes for city-making, and to align the processes and language of city-making with innovation in other industries.

Get in touch with us to discuss how your city-making could be strengthened with design and innovation approaches such as the Lean Startup.

Originally published at urbankin.co on December 15, 2016.