Cities are becoming increasingly influential players in shaping our world. But will the growth of the city help solve global problems? Or will smaller cities get left behind in the wake of mega-cities? And how can city branding play a role?
The New Cities Foundation aims to address these questions and many more, in its global summit next month in Jakarta. Placesbrands speaks to Marina Bradbury, director of communications, ahead of the event.
How exactly was the New Cities Foundation concept created?
Marina Bradbury: The New Cities Foundation was set up in 2010 in order to provide a much-needed, neutral, cross-sector platform to shape the cities of today and tomorrow. Our belief is that cities are centres for economic, social and environmental progress.
In order to tap into this potential we need to adopt a more collaborative approach to city planning and governance. At the Foundation we foster collaboration through international events, research and innovation projects.
What are your thoughts on the rise of the city-state?
MB: Urban statistics prove to us that cities are becoming increasingly important on the world stage. Today, 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in cities and this trend is only increasing. The UN predicts that by 2050 the urban populace will rise to 66 per cent. As a result, cities are fast becoming major political and economic players, attracting business and investment and developing their own strong brand identities.
People often feel more engaged in their local environment. This can be advantageous in building more collaborative modes of governance and finding new ways to address social problems. Some urbanists and forecasters argue that encouraging the growth and dominance of megacities such as Tokyo or London can help solve national challenges.
However, it could prove detrimental to lay too much focus on the importance of megacities, without also fostering the creativity and potential of smaller cities. Smaller urban metropolises like Manchester and Osaka also play a significant role in the society of today and tomorrow, providing jobs and nurturing innovation alongside their bigger counterparts.
Do you think that cities will eventually overcome nation-states and reshape the world?
MB: In a world where technology is transforming the way we live and offering many possibilities to solve social issues, cities can act as important hubs for social progress and innovation. They are increasingly the key places where problems are solved and where new ideas are tested out. In this way, cities will definitely take a leading role in reshaping the way we live, work and plan for the future.
What’s the difference between running a city and governing a country?
MB: Since a city is a smaller geographical entity than a nation, the issues it deals with are more specific and local. The governor or mayor of a city therefore has the advantage of being able to listen more closely to citizens and respond accordingly with tailored solutions. Take the City of Paris, which has recently launched two fantastic citizen participation initiatives: the world’s largest-ever city-wide participatory budget and a global call for projects that will transform 23 derelict municipal-owned sites.
These are fantastic, highly ambitious projects that engage huge numbers of people, but still have an acute “local” significance. If these projects were to be run on a national level they would be completely different. They would take a lot longer to plan and manage, and it may be more difficult to engage people in projects that don’t directly impact them.
How do you think the world could benefit from a problem-solving approach that transcends national borders?
MB: In this digital age, individuals and communities across the world are able to communicate and exchange ideas in ways not possible before. The benefits of pooling expertise and sharing great ideas cannot be underestimated when it comes to urban development.
Take the Parisian Participatory budget: unprecedented in its sheer scale, with 65 million euros allocated between 2014 and 2020. Yet it isn’t a completely new idea. Recife in Brazil had already experimented with this innovative model beforehand, providing inspiration for other cities in Brazil, and indeed the world. This is a good example of how, if an idea works in one city, others can reap the benefits.
How do local communities help revitalise struggling cities?
MB: Community participation is absolutely vital. Take the fantastic initiative called Renew Newcastle in Australia, which allowed artists, artisans and designers the possibility to set up shop in disused buildings and go on to rebuild the city’s struggling economy.
Or take the many citizen participation apps out there, that connect citizens with responsive city authorities to help report and fix city problems: Colab in Brazil, PublicStuff in the US and QLUE in Indonesia are just a few inspiring examples.
The High Line in New York is also an interesting example of a decaying municipal site that, thanks to community residents, became a dynamic public space that has revitalised the neighbourhood and gained international recognition.
Is the future all about cities?
MB: Yes! Cities may encapsulate many of today’s challenges but they are also major drivers of positive change. It’s up to all of us to tap into this potential by fostering collaboration, innovation and openness.
And finally, how can developing a city’s image help make life better for its residents?
MB: Developing a city’s image or brand identity is crucial in order to instil a sense of engagement and belonging among citizens, and also to attract new residents, investors and tourists. A dose of healthy competition between cities is therefore a good thing.
City branding can ensure that city leaders think strategically about what they want their city to be now, and in the future. It goes without saying that citizens play a crucial role in shaping their city’s brand identity.
Shoreditch in London is a great example. Artists, designers and tech innovators began flocking to the area in the early 2000s and helped make it into a hub for creativity. By 2009, the ugly Old Street roundabout had become known as “Silicon Roundabout”. The government went on to brand the area “Tech City”, helping to draw in even more talent and tech-expertise.
This transformation couldn’t have worked if both local government and inhabitants hadn’t invested in and implemented the brand when making key decisions. City governance can help foster change and shape identity, but the identity also needs to grow organically.
The New Cities Foundation has a mission ‘to shape a better urban future for all by generating and scaling ideas and solutions through events, research and urban innovation projects.’ The foundation works with leaders from business, government, academia, civil society, the media and the arts. Find out more here, or follow New Cities Foundation on Twitter.