Cities evolve constantly, sometimes seemingly without anyone planning or guiding the process. But new ideas about how they work and can be improved abound, for those interested in taking them on.
In the past neighbours helped each other. They read and wrote for the illiterate, nursed the sick, lent money and cared for children. The poor were most likely to be enmeshed in these networks of mutual support, as neighbourly assistance mitigated the effects of poverty, disease and squalor. But once welfare bureaucracies began extending help to struggling households, neighbours were no longer expected to help out in every crisis. Their taxes paid the state to do it. Social workers, emergency services, hospital staff, teachers and childminders all fill roles that neighbours once undertook.
Our social instincts have now become atrophied through decades of underuse. We may not be equipped to recognise our neighbours’ needs, or know how to respond to them. The people most likely to be let down by our benign indifference are the marginal and the elderly. We are hesitant to offer help for fear of seeming interfering, and reluctant to ask for it for fear of rejection or dependency.
Physical proximity challenges the tendency to be emotionally distant. In the brouhaha surrounding a survey suggesting that 3.5 million people in the UK have never seen their neighbours, it was overlooked that this meant that over 90 per cent of the population have. In cities, our neighbours are still part of the soap opera of our lives, even if we see them fleetingly. We speculate about them using fragmentary information – their taste in music, how often they fill the recycling box and whether it heaves with gin bottles. We realise that we leave clues too – so we compare, adjust and make changes to accommodate them – within limits.
Different housing configurations bring different numbers and locations of neighbours. Flat dwellers might have neighbours to their left and right, as well as opposite, above and below. A detached rural house has fewer neighbours. People in cities generally have more, so urban neighbouring can be more complex.
Neighbours are less intimate than before but there are still sociability rituals. People might not sit on their doorsteps as they once did, or “hang out” (their washing) together, and so opportunities for profound knowledge have diminished, replaced by a nuanced repertoire of waves and nods. These are expressions of friendliness, if not friendship.
Neighbouring was never entirely “what it used to be” anyway. Slums bred enmity as well as friendship. Fights broke out on streets that were used as social spaces. Indeed, modern neighbourly sociability might be more desirable. Richard Sennett has argued that “people can be sociable only when they have some protection from each other; without barriers, boundaries, without mutual distance... people are destructive.” Slum dwellers of the 19th century had flimsy barriers and scant mutual distance. We have double glazing and a sense of privacy.
Architectural and social developments have allowed modern households previously unknown levels of privacy. The effect of this became clear in the mid-20th century, when keeping oneself to oneself became the cornerstone of neighbourly relations. Although reciprocal networks of support have largely broken down, we still find comfort in having neighbours and can elect to have strong or weak relationships with them. We can choose to enjoy the barriers provided by privacy, or to open the curtains and reveal our intimate selves.
People with less share more. They have little choice. In affluent societies, few neighbours share domestic items such as they once did. However, people still gift items in modern cities via Freecycle, or through spontaneous kerbside exchanges and offerings. This week, a television sat outside on my street until an invitation to ‘‘TAKE ME” – whimsically fingered into the screen dust – was accepted.
Friendships forged through sociability and not through the reciprocal bank of mutual favours are more likely to survive when one neighbour moves away. On the whole, the system of non-committal neighbourly sociability works well; most people have either a neutral or a friendly relationship with their neighbours. Surveys mostly reveal trust to be high among neighbours and I doubt we would trade our current relationships for traditional neighbouring and the poverty and lack of privacy that fostered it.
Neighbours. Everybody needs good neighbours. With a little understanding you can find the perfect blend. Neighbours should be there for one another. That’s when good neighbours become good friends.
“Do you realise what you’ve done, honey? You’ve taken a city that’s been graft-ridden for 40 years under the same old gang. You’ve kicked over the whole City Hall like an applecart. You’ve got the Mayor and Hartwell backed up against a wall. You put one administration out and another one in. This isn’t just a newspaper story, Hildy. It’s a career.”
Walter Burns, His Girl Friday, 1940
Howard Hawks’ screwball rom-com is a remake of 1928’s The Front Page – a cynical take on the manipulative headline-chasing editor of a fictional US city paper, the Morning Post, doing his best to keep his best reporter, cover an execution and beat his rivals to the scoop of the year. It is no dewy-eyed paean of praise – all the reporters are gamblers, drunks, liars and often thieves. They pay local crooks to do their dirty work, conceal evidence from the police and will even help a convicted felon escape if it beats the opposition to a story. The only reason they don’t hack phones is because the technology hasn’t been invented. Surely the city would be better off without them? Sure it’s a good job most of them have gone?
The year His Girl Friday hit the screens, almost 700 US cities had competing daily newspapers. By 2011, that had fallen to 11. In His Girl Friday the Morning Post has at least five rival city papers. Today, it would be lucky if it was still clinging on. “City newspapers are in a rapid long term decline in the west,” explains Douglas McCabe, media analyst at Ender Analysis. “It’s slightly slower in heavily regionalist countries like Germany, but the future’s still bleak. It’s possible to see a time where the majority of European and American cities are lucky if they have a daily paper.”
There are a variety of reasons for this and it’s not all down to the internet. Big city dailies in Anglo-Saxon countries are usually owned by publicly-quoted companies which have huge debt burdens and are cutting costs and staff to a level where original, well-researched stories or a good local investigation is impossible. Remote printing means “evening” titles have deadlines the previous afternoon.
Listen to new media experts and they will tell you this does not matter. The internet is ultra local – citizen journalists are best equipped to report their city and newspapers just depress us with negative reporting. Newspapers can no longer break news and cynical journalists bring us all down and can hurt important things like brands.
“These days the public want a direct relationship with brands,” explains Jane Wilson, CEO of the UK-based Chartered Institute of Public Relations. “From citizen journalists to customers with trigger happy twitter fingers, we are communicating directly with the public in a more engaged, dynamic and effective way than ever before.”
Which is a joyous concept, no? Local citizen hubs talking directly to brands about exciting new concepts as they upload five star reviews from cleaner streets, now those screwed-up balls of newsprint are gone. Can you name one good thing a city paper has ever done?
Well… how about this? Last spring, Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido – economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis – published a working paper based on four years following life in Cincinnati after one daily paper – the Post – closed, leaving another – the Enquirer – in full control of city and suburbs. The results are disturbing for any city dweller with an eye on democracy: after the Post closed fewer candidates ran for office, incumbents were more likely to stay in power and voter turnout fell, apparently permanently.
There’s been a slew of research over the last 10 years showing how vital newspapers are. The presence of a city newspaper raises voter turnout for local and national elections and countries with higher newspaper circulation per capita have less corruption – but in the shiny new 21st century even Schulhofer-Wohl and Garrido were surprised at the huge impact from losing one low circulation city newspaper (the Post only sold 27,000 copies by the time it ran off its last edition on New Year’s Eve 2007).
“Although competing publications or other media such as TV, radio and the internet may take up some slack when a newspaper closes, none of these appears so far to have fully filled the Post’s role in municipal politics,” Schulhofer-Wohl explains. “It may be down to the newspaper ripple effect – broadcasters and bloggers use newspaper stories as sources far more than the other way round.”
Schulhofer-Wohl seemed at a loss to explain this. Richard Lett – my first news editor on a daily paper in Cardiff – could have told him. I was only there for a year, but he taught me more about what makes good reporting than anything before or since. On quiet days when we would be sitting in the office chatting over coffee, he would storm in and yell: “What are you going to find out in a fucking office? There’s a city outside: get out and don’t fucking come back ’til you’ve got something. I don’t care how long it takes.”
It was Richard who told me how to put people at the heart of a story. It was his lessons I took with me when researching a book called The Road to Wigan Pier Revisted – following Orwell’s 1936 footsteps as he patrolled the industrial hinterland of North West England.
Early on I met Sarah Greenham – 19 years old, full of life, with a troubled family history and living in a women’s refuge in Manchester. She was pregnant and full of hope. I went back three weeks later and she had disappeared – her pregnancy no defence against two men who tempted her into leaving with them – offering food, warmth, hot water and a big screen TV. She has not been heard from since. The reasons for her poverty are complex but at heart there are new rules hitting the poor and unemployed in the UK. You won’t find coverage of benefit sanctions, crisis loans or zero-hours contracts in the national media – but you will hear similar stories in city papers like Metro and the Manchester Evening News.
Perhaps that is why Superman, when picking the perfect job for a hero keen to save Metropolis, chose to be a reporter on the city’s paper, The Daily Planet. He knew that if a city is a person, the newspaper is its soul. It can be difficult, noisy, messy, chaotic and sometimes overstates its case. But it is also keen to find out and desperate to tell – from the best new bar to the crooked councillor to the frail and vulnerable struggling to cope.
Schulhofer-Wohl proves that in the complex social ecosystem of a city’s self-knowledge, the newspapers are generating the raw energy of understanding to be picked up and picked apart by the rest of the commentariat – online and on TV. It takes proper training for a beat reporter to understand the court system, council meetings, local cops and vested interests, learn where the good things and the bad things happen, turn a city to face itself, feeling pride and shame, but learning and understanding along the way.
It should not be a surprise, therefore, to find that as the bric countries shake free of their controlled economies and their increasingly literate middle class populations race to the metropolis, city newspapers are booming. The latest Global Press Trends survey from the World Association of Newspapers shows circulations climbing, new papers launching and China and India flush with city papers. While national papers may toe the government line, city papers have an independent reputation – adept at asking tricky questions.
In Shanghai, it is the local papers Xinmin Evening News and the Shanghai Morning Post that account for 60 per cent of the entire newspaper market. India, meanwhile, boasts an astonishing 62,000 newspapers. Delhi alone hosts 1,933 separate titles according to the Registrar of Newspapers for India. Hyderabad’s daily paper Eenadu sells over 1.6 million copies every day, while Chennai’s The Hindu tops 1.4 million – offering boisterous editorial like the recent investigation into India’s corrupt defence bureaucracy.
In the UK, meanwhile, it is a Russian who has shown how city papers can be saved. Alexander Lebedev is a former KGB man who owns a third of Aeroflot and Putin’s gadfly – the independent Moscow paper Novaya Gazeta. In 2009 he purchased the London Evening Standard, then struggling with low circulation and freesheet competition. Over the year, he ditched the wannabe-national identity the Standard had clung to and focused on city stories. In October 2009, he took the paper free – handing it out instead of selling it.
“Lebedev shows what can be done with an audacious approach,” McCabe enthuses. “He now distributes 800,000 free copies, is aiming for a million and has improved the editorial quality in two ways: a better overall standard of journalism and columnists, and a return to local campaigning editorial. The result is plain – the Standard is relevant again, and commuters care about it in ways they had forgotten about for several years.”
Of course, there are some fundamental changes going on. Local is becoming important again, after decades of “local” decreasing in relevance. Mobile technology substitutes for print media because we use tablets and smartphones in six locations – and six moments in the day – that computers rarely reach: bed, bathroom, kitchen table, sofa, commute and outdoor. Alan Mutter, a former top editor at the San Francisco Chronicle who now reports on the industry in his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, asks: “Is it a newspaper if it goes digital or publishes two days a week?”
The answer is obvious – who cares? The city newspaper is more than printing presses, more than iPads, more than frequency and more than a Facebook page. It is the voice of the city in the hands of professionals. Richard Lett would not care where the story was going to appear – he wanted it as fast as possible, properly sourced, checked and edited to answer the basic question: how does this help our city get better?
So perhaps it is not the city newspaper that is essential – it is the city news journalists that count, wherever we read them. They are the people who watch the watchmen – with the same things asked and required of them now as back in 1940. These qualities were beautifully defined by Sunday Times reporter Nicolas Tomlin back in 1969:
“The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability. Other qualities are helpful but not diagnostic. These include a knack with telephones, trains and petty officials; a good digestion and a steady head; total recall; enough idealism to inspire indignant prose (but not enough to inhibit detached professionalism); a paranoid temperament; an ability to believe passionately in second-rate projects; good luck; the willingness to betray, if not friends, acquaintances; a reluctance to understand too much too well (because understanding means forgiving and that makes dull copy); an implacable hatred of spokesmen, administrators, lawyers, public-relations men, and all those who would rather purvey words than policies; and the strength of character to lead a disrupted life without going absolutely haywire.”
If that’s familiar even though you’ve never read it before, it is because it describes what it takes to live in the best of cities – except with writing thrown in. Hildy Johnson was like us only more so, and we would all be worse off if Walter Burns could not keep her in town.
The city newspaper as we know it may be dying in the west but it’s thriving elsewhere. With a bit of love – and a belief in quality – it can make a comeback.
For the better part of three years I’ve watched a new crop of office towers inch their way into view on my morning run. By Japanese or Korean standards the progress has been quite slow (I often think a Mori or Mitsui Fudosan would have completed the job in 15 months) but by London planning and construction standards the pace of development has probably been quite normal. Perhaps an over-enthusiastic sales agent might even go so far to suggest that the collection of blocks were even ahead of schedule. As I trot east along Regent’s Park the buildings neither offend nor inspire, they’re perfectly pleasant, exceptionally functional and handsomely bland – the tallest one the tanned groom and the others the buffed, plucked and pumped best men. As a group they fit in nicely with the surroundings and seem very approachable yet somehow a clique unto themselves.
As this issue was just shifting into production I had the opportunity to finally pay a visit to the clutch of structures. While I’d driven past many times, with the nearest entry point no more than a five-minute walk from my flat, I never felt like I was welcome despite the wide-open canyons between the blocks and the comings and goings of thousands of workers and residents. But there I was at 08.55 on a Tuesday morning waiting for my colleagues and surveying a box-fresh precinct in the heart of London coming to life. Or was it fighting to stay alive?
With the sun already high in the sky, the wind gently rustling the trees in the park and the temperature warm enough to dispense with a blazer while walking to work, it was about as good a morning one could hope for in London at the end of May. As I shifted my gaze from the coral blossoms in Regent’s Park to the snaking concourse of the development, I was surprised to see that everyone was moving at one pace – shoulders down, eyes low and a quick-step to their designated doorway. There was no gossiping amongst colleagues at a leisurely shuffle, there was no lingering by a lamppost sipping coffee and swapping tales of joint office dates from the night before and, most alarming, it appeared there were no outsiders wandering through what was supposed to be an open, public space.
Then again, why would they? There was nothing inviting them in to explore, sample or even sit down. What should have been a secluded, quiet little enclave off of the smelly and noisy start of Euston Road was free from comfy seating, welcoming greenery, shade and shelter and essential nourishment. Had the developers run out of money? Or imagination? Or both? I wandered amongst the buildings and observed a lack of navigational signage (let people ask around rather than invest in way-finding), flowerbeds and shrubbery (plants need maintenance and maintenance means added head count), places to eat and shop (better to charge tenants for an expensive lobby than have the headache of managing a host of retailers and restaurateurs) and a lack of places to have a conspiratorial conversation with a trusted colleague or enjoy a bit of sunlight sneaking in between the mass of glass and stone above.
I made my way back to the place we’d arranged to meet and started to have a moment of self-doubt. Was this whole development smarter than I thought? Were none of these glaring gaps in basic comforts an oversight but in fact core to a precisely planned scheme? I started to think they were and that this whole development was deliberately designed to seem transparent while doing everything possible to keep out the public and ensure that no one dare linger. Was it all about a secret, unwritten part of the contract where the developer promised tenants that their workers would be far more productive because they’d have nowhere to hang out after lunch, no bar to dash to after work and no shops to be distracted by.
There are many offenders in the realms of urban planning and mixed-use development but none more so than a smooth, twinkling, arrow-straight wall of soaring glass. Tinted or partially mirrored, shaded or unprotected, hundreds of square metres of plate glass might be wonderful for corporate transparency but offers little in the way of warmth or welcome. As I watched staff sweep into a chilly lobby and visitors check in with receptionists (why on earth has entering an office building become more cumbersome and time-consuming than crossing a complicated frontier?), they were treated to a passing nod to a shop-front in the form of a doll’s house façade complete with dinky little seats in the middle of the lobby and a collection of random chairs that had zero presence within the environment. Steps beyond them were four elevator banks short of a workable solution to get people in and out of the building in a timely fashion and I’ll need to save the office plans above for a full essay another time.
Having spent my fair share of time in mixed-use developments from Hong Kong to Toronto, Tokyo to Stockholm, I can state with some authority that well over half of them are failures. On paper and in cad animations they look like clever utopias where everything is thought through and residents, workers and visitors will never want to venture out into the unplanned world again. In reality, most suffer the same problems – density and intimacy is lost, no one can be bothered with getting the tenant mix right and few are interested in playing the role of mayor of these vertical cities. In some cases these structures eventually grow into themselves and strike up a relationship with both their occupants and users and the city surrounding them. More often, however, they’re islands that have poor relations with all. Decades later both Battery Park City and Canary Wharf still haven’t integrated with the streets and residents around them. Both have never managed to connect with the street – in part because they never really wanted to.
This is not to say I’m against mixed-use development – far from it. Done well, a combination of good planning, smart architecture and the right tenants offer up a winning combination that revitalise a whole corner of a city and chart a course for regeneration. Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills may not be everyone’s bag (it can be frustrating to navigate at its core) but it opened fully landscaped with mature trees and gardens, a full set of essential services (and even more non-essential) and connected seamlessly with its surroundings. Moreover it has lawns and lakes, corners to linger in (no fear of mugging), benches to rest on and a relationship with the street. Across town the Daikanyama T-Site development is another example (see Monocle issue 50) of weaving a mixed-use development into an already dense core but making it feel like it’s long been a member of the family. Developers need to recognise it’s essential to build it right the first time and let things flourish from there. Trees need to be mature, surroundings and scale need to be humane and everyone needs a place to congregate – both culturally and commercially.
On an office block, plate-glass windows once seemed to symbolise corporate transparency and, in a domestic setting, a liberated freshness. Today people just wish their office windows were smaller and would open and that the large expanses of glass on their apartment didn’t leave them gasping for cool air after the first blast of sunshine.
Am I missing something or is the visceral what’s gone missing here? It’s a rare joy to indulge your ordinarily idle city-planner fantasies on paper but I’d love to take you somewhere that might move you more. Yes: quality of life is a bit about street furniture and dog salons, and sure, we’re definitely happier when we don’t have to trundle into a – bleurgh – city centre just to browse a half-decent selection of newspapers (before buying The Times, anyway) and who on earth could argue that international living standards have been transformed by the appearance of coffee shops run by people from New Zealand? But, frankly, what about going really fast on a motorbike, for God’s sake?
I promise I’m not having an early-onset midlife crisis and that the hair in my nose is growing no quicker than the hair on my head is falling out. What’s more, I really like well-integrated transport infrastructure and elegant retail offerings. But I also feel strongly that screaming about on a capricious two-wheeled monster affixed to the road by a mixture of gravity and good fortune is more exciting and better adept at providing life with not just that almost-adjective “quality”, but the actual one, “good quality”. Going for a spin cheers everyone up.
And it doesn’t need a motor, this notional escape, this imaginary red-blooded badness; it’s about an experience that makes your heart leap a little – swimming in the surf will do, or playing a team sport a little harder than you thought you would, or receiving the sacrament of blissful inclusion among a big football crowd, or wandering off the beaten track and getting home in one piece and with a story. It’s regaining that bit of the wilderness we lose in organised societies and pristine-planned places, perhaps.
In previous incarnations of this midsummer issue, people argued that cities with a little grime are good: you need the grit that makes the oyster. I’d agree, while adding that this also works on a smaller level: move to an imperfect street and get back the glint in your eye as it changes; buy a house that needs just enough doing to it so you can take pride in something that isn’t your day job; get your jeans paint-stained; get the sun on your back in the garden by building, not bathing. To get up early and get your hands dirty with a little labour is a wonderful thing. Don’t always get a man round, man.
Of course, as I write, someone is delivering my Kiwi caffeine while the cab is reserved over the internet for a day of shifting words on a page. But you should see the catalogues I’ve got on order for Hondas and Harleys and harpoons and scuba gear and season tickets for unsavoury football clubs. Actually, street parking’s a nightmare around here, and I love reading Hemingway on the bus. But aren’t our favourite cities just made of dreams?
If a motorbike isn’t your sort of thing, try deep-sea diving. Or taking up rugby. Or spend an afternoon on a German football terrace. Anything that makes the heart beat faster.
The billboard screamed “Welcome to Manchester”. Set high above the road at the beginning of Deansgate, the gateway to the city of Manchester, the sky-blue poster featured a silhouette of Carlos Tévez, the Argentine footballer who, that summer, had left Manchester United for their bitter local upstart rivals, Manchester City. The poster was an attempt to show United, for decades the big team in town, that City were on their way back. It was also a sly dig at their neighbours who aren’t technically based in Manchester.
Yet as well as being a neat marketing trick, the poster also performed another task which no one within the city council had bothered to think much about. It welcomed visitors to Manchester.
Without people cities are nothing: empty, lifeless concrete shells. City leaders need to do whatever they can to attract newcomers, be they tourists or would-be residents, yet all too often hardly any thought is given to persuading people to come in the first place, let alone stay.
Or perhaps more accurately, hardly any of the right thought is given to persuading people to come. Ask any mayor, governor or council leader how they hope to bring talent to their city and they will probably be able to reel off a 10-point plan. They will talk about their investment in infrastructure, their business-attracting tax-rates, their green spaces and cultural highlights. What they won’t talk about is signposts. Or the design of the train station. Or, as anyone who has recently arrived to a London airport will know full well, passport control.
In recent weeks the queues for immigration at Heathrow airport have stretched down corridors, around corners, down stairs. Some have had to wait up to four hours simply to show a passport. Tired and angry passengers became even more furious as they approached the front of the queue and saw half of the checkpoints closed due to lack of staff.
There has been chaos too at Gatwick as tourists and business travellers tried to board a train, the humorously named “Gatwick Express”. Ticket machines have replaced train conductors. All tickets now have to be bought before travel but there aren’t enough machines. So instead, we have queues.
In both instances, a desire to make savings has caused the sort of damage that money can’t repair. The amount it would cost to employ enough staff at passport control or hire some ticket conductors is, in the grand scheme of things, relatively tiny. But at no stage has anyone at Gatwick or Heathrow appeared to have given any thought to the impression that such shortcuts create.
The chaos has led to damaging headlines across the world, which have been all the more embarrassing since London is preparing to welcome the world for the Summer Olympics – and all the more amusing since the UK is currently funding a massive global pr campaign proclaiming that “Britain is Great”.
A desire to save money is not the only reason so many cities and countries create a bad first impression. Since the September 11 attacks security concerns have trumped any attempt at niceties. US airports now have their own particular brand of “welcome” that makes most arrivals to jfk, Dulles or lax think twice about returning. Forcing immigration staff to say “Welcome to America” when they hand back your stamped passport with a grimace does not make up for the queues and the questioning which preceded it.
From austerity drives to security concerns, too often other priorities take precedent. And then there is the third major problem: responsibility, or lack of it. Who is responsible for creating the right impression at an airport? The airport’s owners? The mayor of the city? The country’s government? All of them? None of them? As an increasing number of stations, ports and airports have been sold off, lines of accountability have become increasingly blurred.
The debacle at Heathrow is a classic example. It was the government’s failure to supply enough immigration staff which led to the long queues, something which prompted a furious reaction from the owners of the airport, baa, and frustration from the mayor’s office. Yet the government could complain with equal vigour about the state of terminal three, an embarrassing, dimly lit hell-hole which closely resembles a doctor’s waiting room during flu season. Until baa decides to knock it down and start again (and don’t hold your breath) there is nothing anyone else can do.
But if a mayor is angry about the state of the train station he has no control over or the queues at the airport run by a foreign company, that doesn’t mean that he or she can do nothing about it. They just need to think creatively. In most cases, they just need to start thinking. Because while creating jobs, growing the economy or creating a community may traditionally be seen as the most important aspects of running a city, all of those things are made far easier if a city presents a great first impression.
First impressions matter. We might not always like to think they do, but we know it’s true. We do judge a book by its cover. We do take a person’s clothes or haircut into account when we first meet them. And we do start to form a view on a city the minute we get there.
What you see at the moment you step off a plane or train, drive into a city or disembark at a port shapes the whole way you view your destination, whether it’s a fleeting visit or the place you plan to live for the rest of your life.
Three examples stick in my mind. The first time I visited Liverpool, a city that would become my home for four years, it wasn’t until I crossed the Mersey bridge, a grand steel Victorian structure stretched across the mouth of the river, that I felt a sense of excitement. The bridge was the perfect metaphor for the city it led to: an imposing, rusting structure that had seen better days, while emphasising the separation that most Liverpudlians felt from the rest of the country. Every time I return to the city, the moment I see the bridge I feel like I’m coming home.
At the opposite end of the scale, nothing summed up my trip to North Korea as perfectly as the arrival at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang. Despite arriving in the dark, few lights were visible as the plane, an old Russian-made monstrosity, came in to land. The only light you could see at the terminal building illuminated a large portrait of the former president, Kim Il-sung.
On stepping off the plane I was greeted – if that’s the right word – by a phalanx of grimfaced men in cheap brown suits, wearing sunglasses despite the fact it was the middle of the night, who took my mobile phone and frogmarched me through a deserted terminal, past the single desk of duty free, out into the night and into the back of an old Lada. This, it was clear, was not a city I was welcome in.
And then there was Nairobi. From the chaos at immigration – long, non-moving queues that even Heathrow would blush at – to the driving-on-the-pavement, going-the-wrong-way-down-the-street, bumper-to-bumper-to-endless-bumper traffic jams, my welcome to Kenya’s capital was the perfect metaphor for the bureaucratic nightmare, bizarre corruption and entrepreneurial spirit that Nairobi living embodies.
New visitors to Nairobi also benefit – again, not sure if that’s the right word – from an additional metaphor. There are no “welcome to Kenya” signs, no “this way Nairobi” directions, but arching over the highway into the city there is now something which not only tells you where you are but also makes very clear who paid for so much of what you’re going to see. In bright green and red it proclaims two simple words: “Kenya” and “China”. Not everyone in Nairobi was so keen on heralding the new relationship in such a blatant manner. In the months following the sign’s construction small parts of it gradually began to disappear – a small, but notable, act of dissent.
Deciding to care about your city’s first impressions is probably the hardest part. Deciding what that first impression should be – and how to create it – is far easier. Three different examples – from Sweden, South Afrcia and America – show how it can be done.
Anyone who has landed at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport will understand how easy it can be. A cascade of large posters of famous Swedes greet new arrivals, reminding visitors of some of the country’s greatest achievements. It is impossible to leave the airport without being impressed at the both the scale and the range of Swedes that have reached the top of their field. Leaving the airport also impresses: a clean, chic, modern train zips passengers into town within 15 minutes. Arriving in the station, the average visitor is already looking at the city in a positive light.
The South African government realised its airports needed a makeover ahead of the 2010 football World Cup – Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo Airport, in particular, had an unfortunate reputation for employing baggage handlers who would often pick out a few favourite items from passengers’ luggage, while sometimes aggressive informal porters would offer to find taxis and give directions in return for a few rand. The new airport terminal – shiny and clean and with specially trained porters and far fewer light-fingered baggage handlers – had a huge impact on how visitors to the country felt during the tournament.
While the US has a problem with its airports, the country’s small towns show exactly how it can be done. From Arizona to Wyoming, across the country they invest in elaborate signs welcoming visitors to their home. Many still have old-school messageboards which proclaim local sporting successes or beauty pageant winners.
Whether it’s by plane, train or automobile, the examples of how to create the right impression are there. Cities need to start with the airport or train station itself. Build a Grand Central or a St Pancras and you are already one step ahead. Then they need to think about branding. For too many city politicians it has become a word they are wary of – too many newspapers are quick to criticise millions of dollars of public money spent on consultants. But creating the right image for your city cannot be something dreamt up by civil servants alone.
And finally, city leaders simply need to take charge. It doesn’t matter if a private company owns the airport – it’s in your city. Shrugging your shoulders and blaming it on someone else simply isn’t good enough.
Back in the northwest of England, the “Welcome to Manchester” poster did not have such a positive long-term effect. Carlos Tévez moaned to the Spanish press that he didn’t like living in Manchester, particularly because of the rain. Then he refused to play for the club before swanning off to Buenos Aires in the middle of the season to play golf in the sun instead.
He eventually returned and he and Manchester City have kissed and made up, but a sour taste remains for many Mancunians. The poster has been taken down. Once again, there is no-one there to welcome visitors to the city.
Forget multi-billion-euro infrastructure programmes and green-tech job schemes, what a city really needs to attract newcomers is a lovely signpost and a grand-looking train station.
I was born in the 1960s. My dad was 50, so the London he told me about living in as a young man may seem dusty and distant to you. In his twenties, for example, he commuted to work in London’s Holborn by train and tram; the latter a type of transport – like my dad – long since vanished from London’s streets.
Today, by some nice coincidence, I live in Holborn: an area of the city that sits between the busy shop-packed neighbourhood of Covent Garden and the Inns of Courts, home for centuries to the country’s leading legal folk. One of the odder landmarks in Holborn is the cobblestoned exit from a subterranean tunnel. Its black metal gates are padlocked shut. Look through the gates, however, and you can see a ghostly echo of a lost world: the rusted rails that once carried the Holborn trams. Is this where my dad would have jumped off as the tram popped up out of the tunnel and back into sunlight?
This entrance to a lost world is a red dot on my map of London, a place that catches me as others dash past. Like most people who find their veins entwining with their city’s streets, my map of London cannot be found on a satnav or by turning the page of an A-Z. My London map is personal; a map made up of places where things happened to me – or people important to me.
Take the Underground – literally and figuratively. I was on the tube with a friend and we realised that as long-term Londoners every stop had a meaning, a reference, not hinted at by simple place names. My version of the Piccadilly Line had us rattling through Clumsy Date, Missed Opportunity, Polish Dinners, Bad Trousers, Rainy Sunday, First Job, Flat Hunt and Book Pitch. Perhaps it should have been a jolting journey in some ways but these flashbacks are what makes a city and your memory bank fuse together.
We interviewed the silversmith Jocelyn Burton for the Monocle 24 show The Urbanist. She’s another Holbornite who has found quiet fame for her classically beautiful designs. But it was an aside she made that has stuck in my mind – we were talking about memory and the city (there are many layers for Burton – she works in a trade that has been practised in the same area for generations and her home-cum-studio has elements dating back to before The Great Fire of London in 1666). But it was the Burton London Map that made her smile. She said that every time she came out of Notting Hill Gate tube station she would look up at the flat where as a schoolgirl she’d had her first tryst with a man.
That’s how we see cities – they are our histories in bricks and mortar. And you can’t redraw them. You can understand why some people flee and some people are drawn back to the same places again and again. It is because the best cities offer us places not just to work, play and sleep but also for our lives to unfold in unexpected and colourful ways.
But here’s the rub: can you manufacture the ingredients you need for the maps to appear? It’s not enough to have tall towers or smart communication systems. It doesn’t help if your city is carbon neutral or has its own app. Without history, without layers, serendipity, without the chance for remembering where your dad once got off the bus, can a city have soul? We are in an epic rush to urbanise and all sorts of people are putting up their hands to create cities from scratch from Saudi Arabia to China. One of these men is Ajit Gulabchand, chairman of the Hindustan Construction Company. In the hills near Pune he’s erecting Lavasa, a hill station that looks a bit like Portofino on the Italian Riviera. He wants this town to grow to be a city and offer a new template for how to urbanise India. He’s warm and positive but he says that he has some sleepless nights. The cause isn’t the cost of cement or whether the units will sell. He frets that the masterplan may not have catered for the soul. And he won’t know until it’s built and the city runs away from him, stops being a prim and ordered model. He’ll have to hold his breath.
At least Gulabchand dreams. Too many cities-from-scratch planners pretend to care about such things but really don’t. They are throwing up perfect technopolises with the gleaming metro stations but they are ones that I fear will never get renamed Proposal Point or Love At First Sight in anyone’s mental map.
Monocle comment: Cities can be planned but the best grow organically, shaped by the people who live in them rather than the engineers who designed them.