It is common perception that infrastructure such as roads, running water and lighting are the hallmarks of a modern city. Places cast in concrete ensure that inhabitants are sheltered from the elements while high security walls discourage criminal activities for inhabitants to live peacefully.

Among others creating efficient cities means opening mega-shopping centres where purchasing everything from food to luxury watches can be done at tills with a swipe of a magnetic strip.

In his book, “Cities are good for you”, Leo Hollis talks about connections.  “[Connections] formulate the network of the city, they are basic units of energy in the city’s metabolism. As a city grows, so does the intensity of these connections.”

Humans differ from other species in our level of social interactions. We love to talk, barter, trade, joke, flirt and exchange ideas with one another. The power of communication, both verbal and non-verbal, is not to be underestimated as a key part of how civilizations developed.  Connecting is the secret to a successful city. But are we moving towards this in the right way?

Spaces for gathering are a necessity and function better if they are open. Conversations in guarded places generate suspicion and mistrust which is why secretive politicians and governments get negative public responses.

The Social Network

People like to socialize, which is why bars and coffee shops are popular particularly if they are in good locations and offer an attractive environment.  In the 17th century, Lloyd’s Coffee House in London was a popular place for sailors, merchants and ship owners where the shipping industry community frequented the place to discuss insurance deals among themselves leading to the setting up of Lloyd’s Register and several related shipping and insurance businesses. It is interesting even today to see how many business meetings are held in Starbucks or how many student assignments are composed amidst the hustle and bustle of a McDonald’s outlet.

In the 20th century, city designers faced with the challenge of expanding urban populations leaned towards infrastructure solutions: more people meant more concrete. Identities and individualism faded as brick walls and expressways disconnected communities.  Examples from New York, London and Tokyo show the flawed thinking of designers at the time.

In the 1970s, New York’s South Bronx was the most devastated urban landscape in the United States; Heygate Estate in London was designed as a massive interconnected estate which became a social disaster as tenants became isolated from one another; and Tokyo’s 1972 Capsule Tower – intended as a symbol of the country’s postwar cultural resurgence and the urban vision of Japanese Metabolism – lies in an unused state as curio of how designers thought the best way to arrange people was to stack them like sardines in a can.

People Need Space

Witness the transformation of Hong Kong’s Central district on any Sunday afternoon where bank workers are replaced by foreign helpers on their day off gathering in any piece of space available: parks, public squares, pedestrian walkways, community areas and even under expressways.  As clans and friends congregate, it is possible to detect numerous dialects. This scene is replicated for immigrant workers from other countries in most of the major cities in Asia and elsewhere. In other words, if space is not provided, people will find a way.

Space empowers people through engagement, interaction, transactions and recreation. Having a community space breaks down barriers of age, class and religion, among others. That is how cities should be designed.

So How Do We Make Urban Spaces Work? 

Public security is important. People need space that is free from crime and the threat of violence. In a way, this is about respecting public spaces. People must treat public spaces with care such as not vandalizing and littering or using spaces for political diatribes. Displays of anti-social behaviour should be tackled swiftly, hopefully by the communities themselves rather than just by law enforcement.

Physical activity is good. Spontaneity is even better. Nothing beats the exuberance of the human spirit. Dancing is a great outlet to expend energy even for the aged. Rising sports superstars probably learnt their first lessons in football or cricket as toddlers playing in parks. In addition, visitors should be welcomed rather than rebutted. Polarization of groups through nationalities, race or religion is unavoidable but those with a genuine interest in learning about others should not be barred from intermingling where possible. Differences should be celebrated not fortified.

Smart cities are the ‘must have’ of the 21st century. Having driverless cars, smart homes and smart offices may be the rage but we still have to pay attention to the need for social interaction.  This is where the power of smart technology can help not just in protecting and enhancing public spaces but also in gleaning citizen viewpoints as to what matters most in the city like jobs, education and healthcare. Resource and idea matchmaking opportunities can be formed in cyberspace and implemented through public gatherings. Even wayfinding and connecting spaces can be done through smart devices. The possibilities are endless.

In his book, Hollis concludes his statement with, “thus to judge a city by its physical fabric is a mistake; this is not the genius of the metropolis. Complexity comes from our interactions: we are constantly making connections, moving from place to place, travelling into the office in the morning, making friends, and holding business meetings, queuing for a service, picking the children up from school or later that night enjoying the pleasures that urban life offers.”

That is the beauty of cities.