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Every time something is built in our cities it has the power to affect the quality of our lives. Buildings, parks, the amount of shade and even street layouts can impact our emotions and how we behave. Well-placed greenery can soothe or surprise us and thoughtful mixes of texturing on a piazza’s surfaces will encourage us to linger longer (in turn leaving us happier and more relaxed).

From the font choice on our signage to the depths of our kerb-side planters, every component of our cities has been designed. With that in mind, urban planners and property developers have an immense responsibility. Poor design choices will at best be a waste of space and at worst endanger lives.

Comprising a good chunk of concrete, brick and tarmac, the city is also an environment that we often believe is too rigid and inflexible to easily upgrade. However, tweaks are happening constantly. A lick of fresh paint on a door, just in time for summer, adds a touch more vibrancy to a neighbourhood and raises a smile from a passer-by. The roll-out of a higher quality or more dramatic lighting scheme can give a long under-appreciated avenue a much better glow, in turn improving the area’s night-time economy.

It’s these adjustments that can mould our modern cities into more liveable places. With this in mind we’ve collated a selection of the urban elements that we believe city-makers can learn the most from (and see page 80 for an urbanist’s grand tour).

1. More do’s than dont’s

Make ’em laugh

Liveability in even the most perfectly planned cities can be ruined by signs and announcements at every turn telling pedestrians what they cannot do. Let common sense prevail and release the pedestrians: “Please walk on the grass”, “Put your feet in this stream” and “You are welcome” signs not only raise a smile but also liberate us to enjoy life more.

2. Winning waterworks

Make a splash

From malls to modern city centres, commissioning good water fountains leaves much to be desired. We’re calling for designers and town planners to get creative in reviving this once-celebrated urban element. From the practical (public fountains that always work) to the therapeutic (those that splash and soothe with their sounds), there is plenty of room for innovation with this spritely place-making tool.

3. Wilder planters

Walk on the wild side

Deep planter boxes provide the opportunity to bring real nature back to our streets and improve a neighbourhood’s kerb appeal in the process. Chunky terracotta planters favoured in Mediterranean cities allow vegetation to sink its roots deep into the soil, encouraging the flora to overflow in a wild and lush manner. Rather than the neatly manicured planting that’s favoured in many civic districts, a more relaxed gardening approach brings a joyful touch of unkempt wilderness to proceedings.

4. Night lighting

Out of the shadows

Landmarks can take on an altogether different tone in the evening with great lighting. Part of Paris’s claim to be the world’s most romantic city is bolstered by its investment in lighting its monuments, creating a poetic atmosphere in which love can blossom. The city’s night economy has been reinvigorated thanks to a lighting masterplan by Roger Narboni.

5. Temporary architecture

Limited time only

Cities can take cues from London’s Serpentine Pavilion which, since 2000, has given the world’s best architects freedom to create a temporary building in a park. Melbourne’s MPavilion has proved the idea is transferable. Design pavilions allow for collaborations between arts institutions and the inspiring architects. They also push designers to be fearless, working with ideas that can be of a certain time and place without having to worry about their permanence.

6. Variety and texture in materials

Touchy-feely

Textures create an emotional response between people and public places. Concrete, timber, marble, grass and brick can all live together if the design is thoughtful. This multi-material approach has been deployed to perfection in Sydney’s The Goods Line, by Aspect Studios, where materials keep people engaged along a revived urban corridor.

7. Perfect promenade

Peacocks on parade

The promenade can transform a barren stretch into a liberating strip for activity. Simply planned (the views take centre stage), the best promenades provide room for exercise and, of course, a bit of peacocking. One that comes close to perfection is Costalopes’ redevelopment of the Bay of Luanda waterfront in Angola’s capital city. Alternatively, the pavement circling Tokyo’s Imperial Palace is a delight for spotting the best-dressed joggers and speed walkers.

8. Moveable outdoor furniture

Portable picnics

Sturdy public outdoor furniture with the flexibility to be moved can empower visitors and allow the area to transform throughout the day. For lazing beside the lido we’d recommend Ethimo’s portable sun loungers. Meanwhile Finnish timber specialist Nikari’s outdoor chairs, benches and picnic tables are ideal for the park and light enough to be moved into shadier spots.

9. Semi-permanent pop-ups

Revitalise an area

Pop-up retail and dining endeavours can bring new life into urban corners that are yet to blossom. Rather than plonking down the standard converted shipping containers we call for greater sensitivity to the neighbourhood to be considered in the design of these temporary venues. Developers can learn from Tabisuru Shintora Market, a low-cost experiment in transforming a central Tokyo neighbourhood as the 2020 Olympics approach. Here the developer has formed spaces for shops and restaurants with floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor seating.

10. Pace-changing planning

Stretch your legs

Town planning that encourages a change of pace, creating trails that seem to wind through quiet laneways, into busy piazzas and sweep up and down various elevations, turns the simple act of urban movement into a more natural and enjoyable experience. Add to this arcades, laneways and overhangs and suddenly you have a more inspired streetscape.

11. A good park bench

Old faithful

Hardy and unfussy, the park bench is a friend to all citizens. It is the perfect companion for contemplation and conversation, remaining honest and without judgement. Switzerland’s outdoor furniture specialist Burri refined all that is good about this item with its Landi Bench. Since its debut in 1939, various versions have made Swiss parks, squares and transport hubs more comfortable and friendly places.

12. More semi-public spaces

Room to breathe

Rents might be high in San Francisco but citizens looking for extra room can tap into a network of privately owned, publicly open spaces known as Popos. Roof terraces, leafy patios and even palm-laden greenhouses are available for everyone’s use. It’s an initiative from city officials who use zoning regulations to give the public more space and is something that we would like to see replicated in other cities.

13. Transport design that defines a city

Wheels in motion

An urban aesthetic can be deeply affected by the appearance of its public-transport system. Heatherwick Studio in London understood this when it tweaked the design of the city’s iconic red buses in relaunching the nostalgia-inducing New Routemaster bus. Whether it’s the ding of the bell on Melbourne’s iconic trams or the burnt-orange colouring of the Staten Island ferry, there’s something impactful about our connection with a city’s fleet of mobile brand ambassadors.

14. Plazas that look good from above

Bird’s-eye view

The built environment in the city is rising upwards, which means the beauty of town squares and public parks can be appreciated from all angles. The refurbishment of Penedès Square in Cerdanyola del Vallès in Catalonia has created an environment that is not only a place of leisure for the residents who live in the towers that surround it but also a remarkable piece of art to take in from above.

15. Generosity

Spirit of giving

Konstantin Grcic’s Swiss-inspired public clocks in London’s Canary Wharf shows generosity in public spaces can create a memorable place for visitors – free clocks or well-appointed drinking fountains can make a world of difference. Zürich’s tiny outdoor lending libraries are also a good example of adding a bit of charm, also highlighting the trust that comes with healthy social capital.

16. Tropical touches

Weather watch

Too many tropical-city developments in the public realm undervalue climate in their construction. Often, western design principles trump regional tradition. Yet builders in the tropics have long created cool spaces without air-con and simply looking at traditional vernaculars can often produce the best architectural ideas. The monsoon window, for example, opens up at an angle that means it can remain ajar during downpours, keeping air circulating. And a latticed brick wall can offer shade and protection from the elements without sacrificing the breeze.

17. Steaming shelters

The heat is on

In Helsinki, visiting a municipal sauna has started to resonate with a younger audience. Here, spaces for steam-infused socialising have been sculpted from timber, doubling their function by forming beautiful landmarks. The public sauna is a scaleable city element that could help freshen up urban environments in all climates.

18. More garden gates

Great divide

The click, clink and creak of a garden gate are sounds we don’t hear enough of in today’s cities. This once-common urban fixture, in ornate wrought iron or simple timber form, is an endearing divider between public and private space in our neighbourhoods. It provides a sense of entrance and arrival for visitors to a home and adds a touch of the homeowner’s personality to the streetscape.

19. Powerful produce

Freshen things up

Every neighbourhood needs a good greengrocer. Empowering citizens to make healthier choices, the colourful wares these retailers peddle should sit gracefully upon street-side shelving. The result is a vibrant highlight in the urban tapestry and the most natural of advertising displays. In Tokyo, interior designer Masamichi Katayama has worked with Vegeo Vegeco, a company specialising in fresh produce, to revive the traditional vegetable stand, known as yaoya. Food grown by farmers in Kyushu takes centre stage.

20. Signage that unites

Write stuff

While design studios are often recruited to give new urban developments a cohesive look through smart signage, many older neighbourhoods are in need of a typographic touch-up. Amman in Jordan used to be famous in the Middle East for the hand-painted signs in its downtown shops. While some of these remain, many have been replaced with cheaper, less characterful signs. Wajha is a community initiative working with traditional signwriters to create signage that injects traditional charm back into the city’s streets.

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