What is a city?

Malcolm Smith, Arup Fellow and global leader of masterplanning and urban design discusses cities and their complex and contradictory nature.  

I don’t think it’s possible to understand or describe cities; a city is not one thing, but many things in negotiation. Cities are complex, contradictory and in a continual state of increasingly rapid flux. 

Yet cities are central to the nature of human settlement in the 21st century like no other time in human history. I believe the city of the 21st century and beyond will be fundamentally different to the cities that have gone before – reflecting the increasing complexity of urban living. 

To address this complexity you need to remember that, ultimately, cities are places where people gather, either by choice or by circumstance. These people have needs that must be fulfilled – needs that are common to all cities and needs that are unique to that particular city. A city is characterised by the way it identifies, responds to and continually re-evaluates these needs. As sociologist Richard Sennett says: “The quality of life in a city is good when its inhabitants are capable of dealing with complexity.”

As designers we need to understand the nature of these needs in different places. We need to understand their priorities. To help cities grow and improve, we need a way in which to start to understand their contradictory and transactional nature. How can we get to grips with the fact that cities are physical and non-physical, immediate and temporal?

The answer lies in the fact that the complexity of a city results from addressing specific issues. Yet often particular needs such as housing, the environment or wellbeing are considered in relative isolation. I think the creative response is to identify the key inter-relationships. I know this is the approach we take at Arup.

At La Rinconada in Caracas, what started as the construction of a new bus interchange was quickly transformed into a major regeneration initiative with housing, parks and a 50,000-seat football stadium. And in Foshan, China, we were able to adjust the route of a new metro line to prioritise station locations that will drive growth. 
Similarly, in our work with the Rockefeller Foundation on the Framework we considered how multiple inter-related issues affect cities’ ability to weather shocks and stresses.

By taking this approach, I believe we can help shape successful, authentic cities. And while cities are complex, changing places, the test of their success is possibly much simpler: a successful city is a place that people want to be in, can afford to be in, and possibly most importantly, want to stay in.
Malcolm Smith, Arup.

Malcolm is a panelist at CIRIA's upcoming evening debate, Sustainable Cities: Is there a future? Is it green?, which will explore issues of environmental sustainability in a new Urban Era on June 22 at The Royal Society, London. The event will bring together highly regarded senior professionals from the engineering and built environment sector to discuss 21st Century challenges in balancing economic growth, environmental protection and social inclusion for future cities and infrastructure systems. Click here to find out more and register for this event.

You can also find out more about CIRIA's 2016 debate, Cities - adaptation without mitigation is immoral, by clicking here.