The Triumph of The Walkable City

“Some places will, however, be left behind. Not every city will succeed, because not every city has been adept at adapting to the age of information, in which ideas are the ultimate creator of wealth.”

Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier

Lessons from Urban Architects and Developers

dark streetWe have probably all been on urban streets which never see the light of the day, because of the poorly thought through vertical plan of adjoining buildings. Or we have been driving in a highly urban setting and been temporarily blinded by the sun reflecting off mirror-tinted windows of the office building a block away.

What can be good from the real estate developer’s perspective is not always resulting in good urban design, and this reflects on the overall ordinary people satisfaction from being in such a place.

On the contrary, recent demographic shifts of the creative class and new international talent attraction strategies have produced a strong demand for high quality urban settings. This requires collaboration between place managers, urban designers, architects and real estate developers to succeed with attractive and sustainable place development.

clip_image002The Harvard economist, Edward Glaeser wrote in his already classic book “Triumph of the City”: “The world isn’t flat, it’s paved.” Most of the places where people prefer to reside are paved. More than half of the world population nowadays lives in cities and other urban areas, and every month 5million people move from the countryside to a city somewhere in the developing world.

What makes some places more attractive than others? Why do some places succeed and some fail? Common features that enable places to thrive are their ability to attract people and to enable them to collaborate.

In the developing world cities attract the poor with the promise of a better life then the assurance of basic human needs available in the countryside. For example, in Nigeria around 75% of Lagos’s population have access to safe drinking water, whereas the Nigerian average is less than 30%.

In the developed countries, the majority of the urban population has long had their basic needs assured which allowed surplus energy and time to focus on softer factors and values, such as personal and professional connections, sense of belonging, lifestyle decisions and a capacity to innovate through a belief in tomorrow.

The underlying driver for much of todays place development and place branding is the desire to move up the “hierarchy of needs”. As a matter of fact we can trace many current place development projects back to the concepts at the top of Maslow’s pyramid: self-esteem, self-actualization, spontaneity and creativity. All these concepts point in the direction of innovation, quality of life and sustainability – some of the megatrends of place development.


A challenging conclusion is that too many place managers have got stuck in the lower parts of Maslow hierarchies where most business development is translated into square meters (m2) and other one-dimensional facts and figures.

Christopher Leinberg, land use strategist and Brookings Institute fellow, has written about the recent shift from drivable to walking urbanism where most daily needs can be met within walking or rail transit distance.

Los Angeles trafficThe old paradigm, the drivable urbanism formula was based upon access by and parking of automobiles and trucks. This sub-urban development trend, being the strongest in United States, became overbuilt and collapsed in 2007-2008, which contributed to the Great Recession.

This type of urban development had many unintended social, economic, health and environmental consequences, among others:

  • Dependency on a car/truck-only transportation system, which put financial pressure on household budgets.
  • Social segregation and the secession of financial elites.
  • The dependency on others of the population who do not drive.
  • Subsidized drivable sub-urban public and private infrastructure that is too expensive to continue building and maintain.
  • Lack of unintentional daily exercise, which can contribute to the obesity and diabetes epidemic. Obesity is considered the second greatest health cost in advanced economies after smoking.
  • Generating over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, and, therefore, the #1 contributor to climate change.

imageAs a natural result many businesses and households, from the population of the rising Millennials and soon-to-retire Baby Boomers, wanted something else, which resulted in the demand for walkable urban development alternative.

According to Leinberg, this includes downtown and suburban downtown revitalisation, New Urbanism, transit-oriented development, green field mixed-use development ("lifestyle centres"), regional mall redevelopment, among other new ways of building.

Public policy responses that allow for and promote this kind of development includes smart growth, balanced investment in all transportation modes, strategy and management of walkable urban places, impact fees that "level the planning field", affordable & workforce housing development and engaging in scenario planning for the economic development and transportation future of metropolitan areas.

To give an example of successful such development, in Stockholm, Sweden there is a concept for the walkable city, which is written into the Stockholm city plan.

One of the tasks of modern place managers is to check performance metrics instead of intellectual purity of ideological models, to look at how the observations from developers about what projects work and why have shifted from quantitative to qualitative aspects.

cbaCost and benefit analysis (a concept that is well-known for us consultants) expressed in the quantitative metric, is still the ultimate guide, but it is now widely realized that inclusion of some kinds of costs that would have been in past times characterized as external costs can be part of a project’s value proposition, and ultimately improve returns. (Klaus Phillipsen)

Investments that used to be financed with public funds might now become development costs in public-private partnerships, if the developers can be convinced that it will maximize their returns.

High-Line-Park-Fuji-X100-660x469-customFor example, strategically placed open spaces and parks can be openers and value enhancers for projects of various kinds. It is a win-win situation for all place stakeholders. One well-known example is the Highline park in New York, shown in the picture to the right.

Understanding and utilizing developer’s experience can guide to better urban plans than many theories written for other times, as what the developers know has been tested and shown to work.

Organizations such as Urban Land Institute, ULI, put together all practitioners who participate in real estate and in the process of building cities and developments. Architects, planners, academics, economists, real estate agents, investors and developers are able to have an active dialogue in a global format through conferences and publications.

orthophoto-aspern-seestadt-20131029Aspern, Vienna’s Urban Lakeside district, is one of the examples, where the quality of life and cooperation rank at the top of the agenda. The district will cover around 240 hectares, where fifty percent of the space is reserved for public areas – plazas, parks, and recreation areas.

The master plan for the Urban Lakeside was created by the Swedish architect Johannes Tovatt, the responsible departments of the City of Vienna, developers and citizens’ representatives. Urban planners and stakeholders defined both the target group expected to live at the Urban Lakeside in the future, and the positioning of the appropriate work-life balance theme.

The central brand promise, Vienna’s Urban Lakeside district as the place for life, is formulated in a mission statement.


In a new book about Place Excellence which we aim to publish in 2015, we will pay a close attention to the new roles of progressive place managers for the successful development of regions and places. The new soft-concept skills are crucial today when governments have less control over economic development than they used to have in the past, due to globalization and the debt crises in many countries.

Quad Helix HQToday, successful place management is in the process of making places better through programmes to improve or to maintain a place’s already desired standards.

In other words, a focused and systematic, area-based, multi-stakeholder approach has to be adopted to develop and brand the place by harnessing the competences and resources of those in the private and public sectors. This will allow the development of really smart liveable cities.

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