Achieving the art of the possible


October, 2016

Cities are complex ecosystems, buffered by numerous competing forces of needs and aspirations. At its base level, the ‘Maslow Hierarchy of Needs’ for cities is simple – for example, the need to feel safe and have a decent home –  underpinned by a network of systems keeping core services functioning.

 

Yet happily, over the past few decades, the web of people involved in city making have strived to go further. Now most of us city dwellers have started to expect – even subconsciously – city life to climb well beyond basic essentials: it’s become increasingly important to think about ‘quality of life’.

 

This catch all phrase has expanded to mean anything from expecting a good night’s sleep, litter free streets, a local park or a perfect coffee within a mere stroll and – relative new kids on the indicator of success block - to having walkable and cycle-able neighbourhoods.

Trafalqar Square

London is just one city that has been resetting the dial towards more liveable places, unravelling some of the twentieth century infrastructure, priorities and thinking that had been shaped around our relationship with vehicles.  Yet change - both spatially and in the way we behave – is complicated.  

 

As we move ever higher up the Maslow’s triangle – expecting great places, not just spaces between buildings – city stewards cannot simply rely on the existing systems and ways of working. Striving for ‘great’ adds a new layer of complexity, requiring disciplines and sectors to work together, not in isolation, with a different approach to thinking and working.

 

Successfully evolving cities, balancing economic success with ease and enjoyment, require vision and a belief in the ‘art of the possible’.

 

We now talk readily of providing ‘delight’ in our cities – whether that is the joy of kids playing in fountains in public plazas, walking and sitting in traffic free, tree lined spaces, or enjoying beautifully lit buildings, turning out in our thousands to experience large scale cultural events and festivals.

 

Inspired change is a priceless ingredient in making places special. It can come from many directions and should be valued and nurtured. The critical success factor is people believing in possibility – from architects and urban designers, artists and makers, transport engineers, utilities, retailers and developers, politicians and many more – seeking ways to achieve something, not ways of saying no.

 

If our cities are underpinned by systems, it’s the risk takers and visionaries, collaborators and boundary pushers, who will keep them moving up the Maslow Hierarchy to be the truly great and thriving places we deserve.

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