Remember the times when cities were designed by architects and bureaucrats from the heights of an ivory tower? Neither do I. Ever since I have been professionally active, the act of city making is a multi-stakeholder, multi-scalar and multi-directional proposition.
City making requires carefully balancing the top-down view with bottom-up expectations, conceptualising and delivering outcomes that are bold and visionary, while inoffensive and conducive to social cohesion.
Some of the new entrants into the ranks of city makers are the commentators of these very cities, the people who observe and write about city culture, local economies and urban trends. We’ve all picked up an issue of Monocle, or indulged in the latest Broadsheet. These and other players like them are often important tastemakers that influence a substantial cohort of followers in cities like Melbourne and Sydney, but also in Rio de Janeiro, Bangkok and Tel Aviv.
Developers and other city makers are starting to engage with these players in the development phases of projects as they offer a fresh perspective, one that isn’t anchored in stuffy built environment jargon but rather speaks to the public about cities in an experiential way, in a way that people can visualise and understand. They sell an interpretation of the city that is real, current and inevitably intertwined with fashion, consumer trends and culture.
The question I’ve been wanting to ask for a while is: how well do the tools and knowledge of these tastemakers equip them to advise on building the cities we need? What are the limits of trend-based urbanism?
Nowadays, people expect cities to change at the pace of the media cycle: pop-ups, events and festivals are all ways in which we make the content of our cities renewable, almost on a daily basis.
We are starting to conceive of our cities as platforms for experiences and content that must change to maintain our attention and interest. Gone are the days when the city itself was the attraction; we now expect a more pronounced programmatic overlay to our cities.
This expectation has gone all the way up the supply chain: development briefs from government and the private sector increasingly demand respondents to address this performative aspect of the city, pushing developers and their teams into new territory.
And to do so, they enlist the help of the tastemakers, the city commentators to capture their intimate understanding of their audiences: the culturally literate, educated inner city dweller with an international perspective; those who are able to lead a lifestyle of inner city grit and glamour.
Inner city audiences are demanding and fickle, always on the prowl for what’s new. And the Monocles and Broadsheets of the world put a lot of effort into developing a loyal audience for whom they become a source of knowledge, status symbols and taste. They recruit from their ranks to produce content, and partner with the brands urbanites buy from for advertising revenue.
And that’s all well and good as long as you are indeed dealing with inner city projects for inner city audiences. Their urban strategy and activation credentials lie in their ability to curate a city experience for people who have similar preoccupations and tastes, just like they would approach the editorial of a magazine.
But does understanding the city as media and catering to the tastes of an inner city audience mean that you understand how cities work? Is this the right voice to have at the table when decisions are being made about the long lasting legacies of urban renewal? What is needed to make cities inclusive places with ongoing relevance?
I feel it is necessary to state clearly: I don’t intend this article as an attack on anyone or any project in particular (not even Monocle and Broadsheet). This is a commentary on an industry-wide phenomenon worth raising in a public forum such as this publication. And, to be clear, in some instances, trend-based urbanism is entirely warranted, especially as a project nears completion and engaged in early leasing activities.
But I argue that this logic of the city as content, of urbanism-by-trend, when deployed without a broader understanding of strategic urban issues, is missing the larger context of how cities become places that stay with us for centuries, not just a season.
The process of urban renewal is one that operates on several time horizons: the rewiring of an area into the fabric of the city through rezoning, infrastructure planning and fundamentally changing the productive condition of a site is a process that starts well before any ground is broken and concludes well after practical completion of the built components of the city. This is a “long wave” process that takes place over decades.
Then we have the scale of development, the “medium wave”, if you will. This is the time horizon where buildings are planned and designed, where street networks materialise and landscape is seeded to deliver a physical precinct.
Finally, there is the experiential “short wave”: the events, the culture, the activation, and the retail economy of a site. These layers of the city that ebb and flow several times over the time it takes to make a “bit of city”. These are the layers that are influenced by the cultural, political and social context, but also by the taste and trends of the moment.
Trend-based urbanism, by definition, concerns itself with the design of this short wave layer of the city. It is focused on city styling, not on city building. Yet it is often being deployed as a city shaping force in its own right. It is this conflation of the “urban trend” with the “urban trendy” that has led to the gross overestimation of both the relevance and appropriateness of trend-based urbanism.
The broader dynamics of economic development, population growth, aging population, social equity, infrastructure planning that are at play in urban renewal, the real difficult issues, often take a back seat, and instead, it is the visual and experiential language of current trends that is prioritised and sold to the public and stakeholders. It projects and embeds the future of our cities with our current thinking of what is trendy and therefore desirable.
It is undeniable that the current market conditions, in New South Wales in particular, have created an insatiable appetite for inner city experiences for the well-to-do, but it is difficult to ignore the fact this audience only represents a minority of urban citizens. Catering to their tastes, wants and needs alone won’t deliver a real city.
What we should be designing is a city that holds potential for further programmatic definition when the time is right, one that is built on principles we know have longevity and that supports the fundamental economic, social and environmental objectives of our society.
Michelle Tabet is an independent strategy director at michelletabet.com