The question of what makes a city great is an old one but has never been asked more than it is right now. It is usually couched in terms of the urbanisation of large parts of the world but it is important for other reasons too, not least because the urban environment is an increasingly important part of the virtual workplace many of us now inhabit and offices themselves increasingly resemble the agglomeration of spaces we have typically associated with our towns and cities. Recently, McKinsey published a report into urbanisation, based largely on the usual premise of the proportion of the world’s people involved, but it is an issue that touches all of our lives and in unexpected ways.
The McKinsey report claims that large cities generate about 75 percent of global GDP today and will generate 86 percent of worldwide GDP growth between 2015 and 2030. It found that population growth has been the crucial driver of cities’ GDP growth, accounting for 58 percent of it among large cities between 2000 and 2012. However the report also identifies a clear distinction between cities in developed countries and those in the rest of the world. Many cities in the developed world are seeing a marked slowdown, and even reversal, in their population growth as a result of demographic changes and the options afforded to people to work where they want.
While this sort of report addresses the big issues, the effects are felt at a neighbourhood and personal level because the design of cities highlights the complex interactions between the built environment and the way we think, behave and interact with space and other people.
As long ago as 1970, a researcher called William H Whyte decided to carry out a project looking at the impact of urban spaces on people from an anthropological standpoint. Using techniques then most commonly associated with studies of indigenous tribespeople, The Street Life Project examined the relationship between people and their immediate environment in parts of New York. They specifically focussed on parks and other social spaces, trying to established what worked about the spaces and what didn’t. Their findings were ultimately reported in a short book called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and a film, which can be seen here. Many of these issues are also raised in this Ted Talk from Amanda Burden.
What becomes apparent in both is that the most interesting aspects of human interactions take place in ritualised and predictable forms and that the best spaces can foster those interactions. Whyte writes about our tendency to engage with chance meetings in particular ways, to say goodbye as part of a three phase ritual and our propensity to mirror the gestures of the people with whom we come into contact.
He also identifies the characteristics of the best social spaces including the proportion of sitting space to circulation space and the way we like different levels of light in a space. Crucially he also reports that if you want a space to be used, it should be stimulating and enticing.
The rise of Third Space
Similar issues are addressed in the work of Ray Oldenburg, who popularised the idea of the Third Space as a way of describing how we interact with people in shared places. Originally his ideas focussed on cities, but it’s no coincidence that the language he uses is now in common usage in a workplace context.