Towards a humane urbanism

“We shape our buildings; afterwards our buildings shape us”

        Winston Churchill on the rebuilding of the House of Commons after the Blitz

I’ve been reflecting recently on the role of design in shaping people’s behaviour and thinking more about how we can learn from service design (rather than say product design) in how we approach urbanism. I’m interested in how we can achieve a more humane urbanism, one which encourages people to lead happier and healthier lives, while also supporting genuine empowerment for people who lack a say in how our cities are built and governed.

Cities and buildings impact our behaviour in loads of little ways. The way a city is laid out dictates whether we walk or drive, and even small details like the kind of bricks we use come together to create an experience of quality. For me the best way to experience a city is always on foot, yet architects and other designers all too often set out to design a place from an impossible perspective, the bird’s eye view, or worse the isometric drawing. How can we create humane places when we start from such an alienating perspective?

When I studied urban design we were at the height of the master-planning cult of the early naughties. My professor at UCL claimed that most of the problems in a city, from traffic congestion to health inequalities were essentially problems of design. I (like any noviciate) was intoxicated by the idea that by drawing something on paper (or indeed building a model) we could find a way of fixing the mess and chaos of cities and make them more liveable. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) which I would later work for published an impressive catalogue of research, evidence and guidance on how to make places work better for people and the environment.

We didn’t know it, but those were the glory days for urban design and architecture; the days prior to the 2008 global financial crisis, and the austerity politics that followed. CABE itself was largely wound down and merged with the Design Council in 2011. But does master-planning lead to more humane places?

Many of our favourite cities weren’t so much master-planned as evolved through centuries of cart horses carving ruts which became roads on their way to market. The layouts that you find in medieval cities or villages tend to rely on small alleyways and twisting roads, which leads to the surprise and delight of unexpected vistas or buildings. It was this sense of journey and adventure that the great landscape architects, notably Capability Brown, of the 19th century were seeking to emulate.

Cities like New York, with long grids of streets and avenues provide something different – a sense of opportunity around every corner.


You can see the possibilities stretching out in front of you, lined with cars, taxis, cyclists, and yes, the incredible buildings.


That said… one of the things that strikes me about New York is how non-descript most of the buildings are – they create an impression of grandeur through their height and the sheer number of them, but by and large, they are without distinction. They were thrown up by developers who knew they were on to a good thing and were seeking to maximise their profit per square foot, an approach often justified by the prevailing architectural dogma of the day.

In Bologna, a fairly typical European medieval city, it was the little details that really impressed me. The door furniture in particular… everywhere you go there are incredible pieces of ironmongery begging to be fondled and caressed.

These little details invite you up to the building and welcome you. They create an intimacy which is so often lacking from life in the great big city.

Between master-plans, design codes, and a particular penchant for utilitarian design, how can we as urbanists create the space for intimacy and personality when planning a new development? We need to design to include, rather than exclude, dynamism and change so that we create the features that attract us to so many historic places and encourage people to linger and make their own mark.


Out of step cities

Of the many comparisons that will no doubt be made between Trump’s victory and Brexit, one thing strikes me… cities are out of step with the rest of their country. In both cases major metropolitan areas voted against the tide of the populism. 

There are a lot of reasons as to why this is the case.

Cities are younger, less white, more foreign, they are also (increasingly) wealthy.

The statistic that struck me is that if Millennials had been the ones to vote, then Clinton and Remain would have won in a landslide.


 The arc of history will be with progress.

Millennials are increasingly choosing to live in urban areas, and while it remains to be seen if they will continue this trend when they settle down and have kids, the global trend is towards urbanisation. While it may be a step too far to claim causality between urban living and an increase in progressive politics, there is definitely a strong correlation.

When President Obama took office he set up the Office for Urban Affairs, he is a man who understood the importance of our cities, working from the ground up to build strong and resilient communities and thus a more equitable society. While the Office of Urban Affairs never really gained the kind of traction some of us hoped (and was quietly scrapped) its establishment was a statement of intent, which cities have delivered on.

Now the American people have just elected a Gentrifier in Chief; a man whose wealth comes literally off the back of displacing the urban poor. But the cities of America are strong. They have tough leaders who are pragmatic and will work to create jobs and opportunities for their constituents, while also recognising and acting to combat climate change and combat poverty.

In the UK devolution, which includes the creation of bespoke ‘deals’ between cities and central government and directly elected Metro-Mayors, has the potential to be the means by which ‘remainers’ continue to exert their influence and promote their cause of a more progressive and inclusive politics.

Progress has been made, the journey towards a more inclusive society has hit two significant setbacks in the form of Brexit and Trump. For some the progress we have made in furthering the cause of human rights has been too far and too fast for many. But given the demographic shifts – it seems that this is a temporary state of affairs.

As an urbanist with dual UK and US citizenship sitting exactly on the cusp of Gen X and Gen Y, and the mother of two toddlers whose generation has yet to be named, this gives me considerable hope for the future. And there must always be hope.

A new ending for the Post-War Fairy-tale?

(A version of this was originally given as a talk as part of KERB Crates summer 2016)

Though our dominant narrative throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries is that cities were for the young adult, increasingly I believe that cities are for growing up and growing old in. Urban living is, I would argue, particularly good if you’re a woman, a child or an older person.

But we are still living with the legacy of the Post War Fairy-tale.

It goes a little something like this:

Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to move to the city so she got herself a job, and while there she met a boy who as lovely and fun. Eventually they decided to get married and have babies, so they moved to the suburbs and she quit her job in the city and looked after the babies. Then he had an affair, they got divorced and she developed a dependency on prescription drugs.[1] Even if they stay together they end up moving out to the countryside to retire… which leaves them isolated and ultimately alone.

Some fairy-tale right? Clearly I’ve watched a lot of Mad Men. But it isn’t all fiction.

In 1963 Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique – in it she argued that women were trapped in their suburban lives and growing increasingly desperate and that the cause of this desperation was essentially boredom and isolation.

That was 57 years ago. We’ve made incredible strides in terms of Feminism and the long march to equality since then but even now we are talking about cities as places for Millennials (code for young and single) rather than families and older people. Cities are presented as places to spend your now extended adolescence until you finally settle down at 30-35.

But let’s unpack the fairy-tale a little bit.

Suburbs were designed for single income families, they are almost always car dominated, and many are what we would call ‘company towns’ where you would live nearby your job for life.

Economic realities like the rising cost of living, as well as personal ambition and an increase in women in the workplace overall, have meant that most families are now dual income. Therefore it now makes sense for both partners to be close to work and with easy access, preferably via public transport.

The importance of public transport in this dynamic is two-fold, firstly there is the very real problem of suburbanised poverty, cars are expensive to own and run, living in a car dependent neighbourhood can therefore cut you off from labour markets. Secondly, there is the climate imperative. Until a full scale Tesla revolution cars are still extremely bad for the environment, particularly when giant SUVs are used to ferry around a single driver.

The final piece of this puzzle is that we now live in a world where there are almost no ‘jobs for life’ therefore you need access to multiple firms if your career is to progress, and if you are to have choices about what shape that progress takes.

So I’d like to argue for an Urban Fairy-Tale. In which our heroine stays in the city to raise her family, and ultimately retires there as well in order to take advantage of the cultural offerings and stave off the loneliness which characterises so many older people’s lives. This is the choice that I’ve made, and while clearly what’s good for me isn’t good for everyone, I think it’s got a lot going for it.

But hang on, the Urban Fairy-tale has two tensions at its heart.

Time V Space:

It’s a calculation we all have to make. How can I drop the kids off at school, do a full day’s work and still be home in time for dinner? Easy, live in a city where all these things are in close proximity.

Yes, you spend more money for less space in a city. However, what you get back is Time.

Proximity to Community v Anonymity:

Cities provide excellent access to both friends and family which in turn provides proximity to support networks which supports young, old and everyone in between.

Cities also are big enough to get a little lost in, if (for example) you fall out with a local friend it’s reasonably easy to avoid them, whereas it would be significantly harder to do in a village with only one pub.

What’s next?

It remains to be seen if the Millennials will continue to prefer urban living as they settle down and have kids. Personally, I’m in that awkward cusp between Generation X and the Millennials and so far I’d say my friends are 50/50.

I’m also aware that to have an urban lifestyle is increasingly a privilege. Cities around the world are seeing an incredible inflation in housing costs, and so are in danger of growing so popular that only the super-rich can afford to live in them.

But the solution to this problem is simple. Share the love of cities with other cities. Not everyone needs to live in London, New York or Tokyo to experience the joys of urban family life. Other cities are increasingly becoming home to families priced out of the big metropolises. In the UK this means a resurgence in places like Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol.

I’m excited by the prospect of a city that’s truly welcomes and includes all ages and income levels. What do you think the key aspects of such a city would be?


[1] Worth noting that the Post-War Fairytale I’m talking about and its 21st century descendent is very hetero-normative. The LGBTQ Fairy-Tale (one could argue) has always been more urban. One for further exploration I suspect.