In praise of “Goldilocks urbanism”

Cities generate benefits from concentrations of talent, but also from “spreading it around.” Getting the balance “just right” (neither too hot nor too cold) is not just about fairness; it turns out to be better for everyone’s bottom line too.

jacobs curve
The goal of urban planning and policy, as Jane Jacobs pointed out, is to maintain an optimum of diversity, in incomes as well as other kinds—neither too many poor in one area, nor too many rich. Drawing by the author.


In recent years, we at the Future of Places have celebrated the power of urbanism: the capacity of cities and towns to create economic dynamism, expanded life choices, opportunities for active living, and healthier, more resource-efficient lifestyles. This power is perhaps most obvious in the dense cores of cities, where people interact with each over across a wide spectrum of private and public spaces that are all connected to that ultimate public space system, the street.

In that celebration we have joined people like Edward Glaeser (author of Triumph of the City) and Richard Florida (author of The Creative Class). In their own works they have described cities as powerful engines of creative social and economic development. They and others acknowledge a debt to the urbanist Jane Jacobs, who championed the humble sidewalk as an arena of human interaction, occasionally producing exchanges of information and “knowledge spillovers” that are surprisingly important for economic as well as social development. “Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear,” said Jacobs, “sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.” We are learning that other kinds of wealth also grow from the network of seemingly-modest interactions in the city’s public spaces.

But along the way to this very necessary “re-urbanism,” it seems that things have gotten terribly out of balance. The story is distressingly similar in many cities around the world. Newly popular city cores are drawing more people, pushing up prices, and driving out small businesses and lower-income residents. City leaders, alarmed at the trends, try to build their way out of the problems, on the theory that more supply will better match demand, and result in lower rents and home prices. But the efforts don’t seem to work— and even seem to exacerbate the problems.

That’s because cities aren’t simple machines, in which we can plug in one thing (say, a higher quantity of housing units) and automatically get out something else (say, lower housing costs). We can’t just “build, baby build” and solve our problems of affordability. Instead, cities are “dynamical systems,” prone to unintended consequences and unexpected feedback effects. By building more units, we might create “induced demand,” meaning that more people are attracted to move to our city from other places – and housing prices don’t go down, they go up.

Unfortunately, we have been treating cities too much like machines, but for an understandable reason. In an industrial age, that has been a profitable approach for many at the top, and over the last half century, it seemed to fuel the middle class too. More recently, we have begun to see very destructive results—creating lopsided cities of winners and losers, and large areas of urban (and rural) decline. Even government programs meant to address the problems have seemed at times like a game of “whack-a-mole”—say, building some social housing in one place, and seeing more affordability problems pop up in another.

In the years after World War II, and especially in the United States, the largest areas of decline were often in the inner cities, leaving the “losers” of the economy behind, while the “winners” (often wealthier whites) fled to the suburbs. But more recently it has been the cores of large cities that have become newly prosperous, attracting the winners of the “knowledge economy”— and displacing the former long-time residents.

Meanwhile, the inner-tier suburban belts and the smaller cities and towns have suffered marked decline, resulting in predictable political backlashes, including the “populist revolt” of the so-called “white working class.” In the larger cities, lower-income and minority populations have been relegated to more peripheral suburban locations, with limited opportunities for economic (and human) development. This gap in opportunity means a gap in the lower-end “rungs of the ladder” that are so essential for immigrants and others to advance.

Like its Postwar counterpart of suburban growth, this more recent pattern of core gentrification and geographic inequality has also been an unintended result of conscious policies. This time we aimed to achieve not suburban expansion, but the urban benefits of knowledge-economy cities, and their capacities as creative engines of economic development. That is indeed a powerful force to harness. Clearly, however, we failed to recognize the need to temper this growth, and maintain a just balance of opportunity.

Florida and Glaeser, to their credit, have both acknowledged some deep problems with their models. In a 2016 interview, Florida confessed, “I got wrong that the creative class could magically restore our cities … I could not have anticipated among all this urban growth and revival there was a dark side to the urban creative revolution, a very deep dark side.” Glaeser also admitted, in a panel discussion with Florida in 2017, that recent years had seen a blowback from this re-urbanization, in the increasing segregation of winners and losers, and the political fallout that has resulted: “Let me agree that we are facing something of a crisis.”

Too much of a good thing?

The problem with the simple formula of densifying urban cores by concentrating the “creative class” can best be understood from the point of view of network theory, and especially, the theory of how people form economic networks in an urban setting. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing—to over-concentrate, and to rely too much on what are known in the theory as “rich club networks.” These are nodes of concentrated connection that are particularly well-connected, and that therefore offer access to concentrated resources—in this case, concentrations of talent and wealth. Just as in everyday life there is a great benefit to “who you know” and being on the inside of exclusive insider networks of knowledge, wealth and opportunity, “rich club networks” capitalize on similar concentrations of access within them. The trouble is, the benefits may not spill over to other areas outside of those networks.

As Luis Bettencourt of the University of Chicago points out, this network inequality can put a drag on the overall urban system, economically and socially. This is not only because of the costs in areas that are excluded, from problems like crime, policing, incarceration, social services and so on. It’s also a more basic effect of the dynamics of social networks, in what is known as “Metcalfe’s Law.” Networks—in cities or in other structures—benefit from the number of overall interconnected nodes, not just the advantages conferred by elite sub-clusters.

As Bettencourt put it, “the view of cities in terms of social networks emphasizes the primary role of expanding connectivity per person and of social inclusion in order for cities to realize their full socioeconomic potential. In fact, cities that for a variety of reasons (violence, segregation, lack of adequate transportation) remain only incipiently connected will typically underperform economically compared to better mixing cities,” he said. “What these results emphasize is the need for social integration in huge metropolitan areas over their largest scales, not only at the local level, such as neighborhoods.”

Put differently, urban equity and environmental justice are not just about fairness—they’re good for everyone’s bottom line.

But the idea that we should concentrate at the top of the pyramid has its counterpart in supply-side economic theory, which holds that if you promote the interests of those at the top who are creating supply (by giving them tax incentives and other forms of stimulus) they will generate wealth that will “trickle down” to everyone else. George Bush Sr. famously criticized this idea as “voodoo economics”—and yet it became a dominant force in the world’s economic development after 1980, including urban development. We can see now from network theory what the problem is. It is not that the network phenomenon isn’t real, but that it can get out of control. Cities do generate powerful benefits from concentrations of talent—but also from “spreading it around,” and we need to strike a balance between the two approaches.

Perhaps the trouble with Glaeser’s triumphant city cores, and Florida’s creative class, was that they were too exclusive, too dependent on an isolated population of elite knowledge workers, and a limited secondary population that would mainly service their needs. We needed more than densification of cores with walkable, well-connected street grids and mixed use—as beneficial as those are; we needed a more “polycentric,” well-connected and diverse kind of city, geographically speaking too.

In many cities today, it seems, we are seeing the consequences of this “voodoo urbanism” play out. It was thought that if we just take care of the creative class, the universities, the technology industries and their knowledge workforces, then the output of all that urban critical mass, like some kind of economic nuclear reactor, will generate immense wealth that will trickle down to all. This idea is so pervasively seductive that it has been embraced by those who might otherwise resist supply-side economic theory (like the officials in my own home town of Portland, Oregon).

But once again we can turn to Jacobs for an early and prescient warning about the dangers of this approach. She warned against “money floods” which were no less destructive of good-quality and equitable urban development than “money droughts.” More fundamentally, she warned against “the self-destruction of diversity,” in any neighborhood that allows itself to tip over into monocultures of any kind—including monocultures of creatives, or Ph.D.s, or any other sort. Diversity of all kinds is an asset to be maintained, with careful tools and strategies—not only as a matter of social justice, but one of economic vitality too. Again, this is good for everyone’s bottom line.

This was Jacobs’ central argument: that the core task of city planning was to ensure the “generators of diversity:” of people and their numbers, of uses and activities, of pathways, of building ages and conditions—and of geographic locations. Instead of over-concentrating in the core, she suggested, we need a “polycentric” city, with lots of affordable pockets full of old as well as new buildings, and multiple opportunities waiting to be targeted. In such a region, economic growth—and likewise the demand for housing—can be tempered and modulated to remain more even and equitable. We do have tools available to do that: funding incentives, catalytic tools, taxes to dampen speculation, and many others.

At the same time, it seems more important than ever to provide good urban fabric in the suburbs too, where increasing percentages of the population live (including increasing numbers of the displaced poor). “Good urban fabric” means walkable, mixed, transit-served, with expanding opportunities in older as well as newer buildings. It means the same kind of geographic as well as other kinds of diversity, achieved through conscious strategic actions to dampen, incentivize, catalyze, and use other kinds of tools.

In place of voodoo urbanism, we might call this “Goldilocks urbanism”—curating an urban growth that is not too hot and not too cold, nor not too concentrated in any one place. The former approach has done an effective job of destroying historic fabric, raising prices, fueling gentrification, and leaving our cities less sustainable and less equitable. It has also done an effective job making some people very wealthy in a short period. But we continue to follow their simplistic formulas at our cities’ peril.

This post also ran on the CNU Public Square web journal.  Our thanks to them.

Exploring the central importance of public spaces at the AfriCities Summit

Implementing the New Urban Agenda, and delivering on the promise of cities.

Participants at the session, “Creating Safe, Inclusive and Accessible Public Space in Urban Africa: From Inventory to Implementation” at the AfriCities conference in Marrakesh.

Something alarming is happening in African cities.

Like many parts of the world, Africa today is experiencing an unprecedented period of rapid urbanization.  This is not in itself a bad thing, since urbanization tends to bring major improvements in health, education, well-being and life opportunities, particularly for women and children.  Of course this is a core reason that people are attracted to cities in the first place: they are engines of creative opportunity, bringing people together into “socio-spatial reactors” with expanded capacity to generate wealth, social interaction, cultural creativity and well-being. Recent research has clarified how this process actually works.

The alarming trend, however, is that even as they expand, African cities are seeing a loss of good-quality public spaces. These include parks and other green spaces, but also walkable streets, squares, markets and other key parts of the “urban commons.” It is not just that public and green spaces offer many important benefits, as most of us recognize: exercise, social interaction, attractive ambiences and so on. As our research and others’ has shown (REF), it is these networks of public space that provide a critical connection between private spaces, and that bring people into contact with opportunities, ultimately allowing access to the benefits that cities offer.  The evidence suggests that when people are deprived of access to public spaces – unless they already have access to expensive and resource-intensive automobiles, digital networks and the like – they will be deprived of much of what cities offer, and we will increasingly experience “a tale of two cities.”

In short, public space is a kind of “spine” of cities – the essential framework for healthy, sustainable and resource-efficient urbanization.  And yet, in many places in Africa – and elsewhere – good quality public space is in decline.

This challenge, and its promising solutions, were examined in two notable sessions at the just-completed AfriCities Summit in Marrakesh, Morocco (November 20-24).  The summit, hosted by United Cities and Local Governments of Africa, brings together local authorities, administrators, NGOs, universities and other stakeholders to examine the challenges and opportunities for African cities.

The first session, “Overcoming the Loss of Green and Public Spaces in Urban Africa,” was hosted by the City of Johannesburg (Ayanda Roji, organiser), in partnership with the South African Cities Network (SACN), United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), and the Centre for the Future of Places (CFP) in Stockholm.

Group Shot - Thursday Session copy
Session participants in ““Overcoming the Loss of Green and Public Spaces in Urban Africa.”

The session was chaired by Hon. Mohamed Sadiki, Mayor of the capital city of Rabat, Morocco.  Joining him was Dr Ntombi  Khumalo, City of Johannesburg; Ms Nachi Majoe, International Council for Local Environmental Initiative – Local Government Sustainability; Dr Collins Adjei Mensah, University of Cape Coast, Ghana;  Mr Adrian Peters, Ethekwini municipality; Ms. Laura Petrella of UN-Habitat;  and this author, Michael Mehaffy of the Centre for the Future of Places.

All the panelists agreed that public and green spaces are under threat, and the situation is urgent.  On the one hand, informal settlements tend to use up available land, leaving inadequate spaces for streets, squares and parks.  On the other hand, so-called “market-rate development” is increasingly segregated, privatized, and car-dominated, leaving little true public space open to all.

The panel noted the crucial importance of green space for exercise, health benefits, ecological benefits, air quality and other factors. At the same time, other kinds of public spaces are also critical, for example walkable streets that provide access to green spaces.  Distribution is also critical: it does little good to provide large green spaces on the edge of a city if most people don’t have access to it.  Quality as well as quantity is also critical: a smaller amount of quality public space can be more beneficial than a larger quantity that is not as high-quality.

Key conclusions of the session:

  • City authorities need to start prioritizing public green spaces in their cities and start to better integrate the topic into existing spatial plans and urban development agendas.
  • Better collaboration is needed in all spheres of governments within countries and partnerships between, city authorities, the private sector, local communities, business sector and institutions of higher learning to exchange knowledge and experiences and to provide adequate technical and financial support;Strong support should be given to research on green and public spaces and urban landscapes in Africa.
  • Training programmes are needed for city agency officials across departments to understand the benefits of public space, and the mutual advantages from supporting its development.
  • Curriculum is needed for universities to engage with public space development across disciplines including urban planning, architecture, landscape architecture, and others.
  • A pan-African network should be built for peer to peer learning and exchange of lessons, tools, guidelines, principles and strategies on how to effectively and efficiently plan and manage urban green and public spaces to ensure that they are accessible, inclusive, safe and sustainable.

The second session, “Creating Safe, Inclusive and Accessible Public Space in Urban Africa: From Inventory to Implementation,” was organized by UN-Habitat (Mark Ojal, speaker and facilitator) with partnership of the City of Johannesburg Parks (Ayanda Roji, speaker) and the Centre for the Future of Places (yours truly, Michael Mehaffy, speaker).

Mark Ojal moderating exercise
Mark Ojal of UN-Habitat reports on participant comments in the session.

This training session examined challenges and opportunities in implementing SDG 11.7 in urban Africa. Goal 11.7 is a call to action on national governments and city leaders to provide universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible public spaces, particularly for women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities by 2030.  The training explored a range of best practices from various cities, showcasing innovations on building urban safety, and city resilience through public spaces, and sharing experiences and strategies on how to provide, improve and secure safe, inclusive, vibrant, and accessible public spaces. The session brought city leaders and stakeholders together to learn about basic steps on conducting citywide inventories and assessments of public spaces.

Key conclusions of the session:

  • There are many tools and strategies available, and methods to share them are urgently needed. “One size does not fit all” and localization is needed, especially to the African context, and to specific city contexts.
  • Tools and strategies needed center around three areas: governance, finance, and design. Within governance we could include zoning code reforms, public involvement processes and “catalytic” pilot projects. Within finance we could include land value capture mechanisms, local improvement districts, and public-private partnerships (taking care to avoid privatization and gentrification). Within design we could include new models of city-wide spatial frameworks prioritizing public space, diagnostic tools to assess where we are and where we need to go, and an evidence base for design (such as research findings and best practice recommendations).
  • Safety is not only a matter of policing but of “natural surveillance” including the co-presence of many people at different times, which in turn requires reform of single-use zoning codes.
  • Gentrification and privatization are issues to monitor and manage; at the same time, they should not dissuade us from taking careful balanced approaches to creating better-quality and better-funded public spaces.
  • Public space is not only produced by central agencies but is “co-produced” by a range of stakeholders and users, and so a broader “placemaking” approach is needed.
  • A “pan-African network” is urgently needed to share knowledge, tools and strategies among practitioners.

The participants all pledged to remain in touch, and work together toward establishing this pan-African platform.

Participating partners:





Resisting the privatization of the public realm

A defeat of a new Apple store that would have occupied part of a park in Stockholm shows that some are still willing to fight for public space.


From Feargus O’Sullivan, writing in the US blog CityLab:

Apple is not coming to Stockholm. At least, it’s not coming to a new location at the Swedish capital’s heart.

Last month, Stockholm announced that it would block plans for a new Apple Store in the city’s center, overturning the agreement of a previous administration following widespread public outcry. As this article in The Guardian notes, the objection wasn’t against Apple as such (the company already has three Swedish stores) but against the site they chose. Had the company’s plan gone through, the electronics giant would have been camped at the end of Stockholm’s oldest, most central park: a lovely oblong oasis of greenery and paving called the Kungsträdgården, or King’s Garden. In doing so, Apple would have also taken over (but not necessarily built on) 375 square meters (4,037 square feet) of the park surrounding its store—a small chunk of the park’s overall footprint, but a sizeable privatization of public space in such a key, pivotal site.

…The sheer force of resistance—a public consultation received not a single petition in Apple’s favor—shows that there’s something more at work here than a simple debate over shopping space. Stockholm’s resistance is powered, it seems, by widespread concern about corporations taking over public spaces.  

Indeed, Apple’s Stockholm plans form part of an international pattern. The tech giant has sought to set itself up in key public areas across the world’s cities, often taking over previously non-commercial spaces such as, in certain cases, former library and museum sites (more of which in a moment). They then present their store facilities as natural extensions of this public space, even as cultural institutions…

It’s not really fair to only blame Apple for this: It’s just a company that, following the imperative encoded in all companies, seeks profit and market position. It has found, one assumes, that promoting itself (erroneously or not) as a sort of neutral custodian of the public sphere ultimately helps its bottom line, which is, and must be, its purpose.

The problem is the ground ceded to Apple and corporations like it by the state, which (partly under corporate pressure) is relinquishing its role as place-maker and ensurer of democratic access to public space. Apple’s ability to plausibly present their stores as new town squares rests on a tacit, erroneous assumption that the old, existing town squares are gone or broken. There’s no consideration, for example, that a new, truly public function for an underused library could be found.

Read the full article here.

Report from the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development: “Quantifying the Commons”

A session on developing Indicator 11.7.1 of the Sustainable Development Goals shows that remote sensing is powerful, but must be supplemented by field assessments — and public involvement

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The author (L) with Didier Vancutsem of ISOCARP, Alice Siragusa of the European Commission, and Cecilia Andersson of UN-Habitat.  To the left (not pictured) are Ayanda Roji of the City of Johannesburg and Jon Kher Kaw of the World Bank.

I am pleased to offer a report on this remarkable side event of the July HLPF in New York.  The objective of this session was to assess the current status of and next steps required for measuring the quantity, quality and equitable spatial distribution of public space. This event sought to advance the implementation of SDG 11.7 which states: “by 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, particularly for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.” The indicator 11.7.1 specifically focuses on gathering data on the “average share of the built-up area of cities that is open space for public use for all, by sex, age and persons with disabilities.

The specific objectives of the session were to:

  • Introduce and advocate for the importance of gathering the data for target 11.7.1.
  • Converge towards a methodology for gathering comparable data on public space (Quantity, quality, distribution, age and sex disaggregated, and other factors TBD).
  • Define the next steps in engaging local and national governments in gathering this data to monitor implementation of the SDG 11.7 but also to inform city-wide public space strategies.

The speakers were:

Didier Vancutsem, Secretary-General, ISOCARP (Moderator); Jon Kher Kaw, Senior Urban Development Specialist, World Bank; Alice Siragusa, Project Officer, European Commission, Directorate General Joint Research Centre; Cecilia Andersson, Urban Planning and Design Branch, UN-Habitat; Ayanda Roji, Department of Parks and Zoo, City of Johannesburg; and the author, Michael Mehaffy, Senior Researcher and Project Leader, KTH Centre for the Future of Places

Didier Vancutsem began by welcoming attendees and introducing the panel.  He reiterated the objectives of the session and commented on the wider context of public space and its importance, and the importance of Goal 11.7 in particular.

Jon Kher Kaw of the World Bank presented their work to develop an indicator for public space and livability factors using remote sensing data and other datasets. He presented their pilot study of Dhaka, Bangladesh, which has many challenges for livability. They gather data of three kinds — very high resolution, high resolution, and other data sets.  They then overlay layers, confirming assets on the ground.  Their system is capable of object-based image recognition for such features as marketplaces, parks etc.  They will be able to use the GiSAT-1 satellite data and other sources. Their system uses a rule-based analysis, taking data and combining with rules, e.g. if the target site is next to a road, adjacent to water, etc.  This gives a remarkably detailed mapping of the overall distribution of public spaces, and also patterns of changes over time. They can also perform a connectivity analysis for streets and paths.  They are able to identify proxy indicators such as road connectivity, open green space, amenities. Jon concludes that remote sensing doesn’t mean you don’t also do on-the-ground analysis and “ground-truthing,” but a lot can be done with just the remote sensing.  They start with the neighborhood level.  They are able to prioritize assets and spaces for upgrading, then develop detailed design concepts and so on. With this data they can work on multiple systems at the same time, e.g.   drainage systems, greenery, pathways, etc. Using multiple layers gives a stronger picture. Also they are able to use analyses to identify proxy “unseen” systems, e.g. infrastructure or lack of it (e.g. no irrigation, etc).   They can also combine big data sources from bicycle riders, cell phones and so on to determine usage patterns.  These do pose privacy issues, but they are optimistic that they can be managed.

The audience asked a few questions, including clarifying whether they measured the average distance to public space – they do.  They do not measure health impacts directly but of course they are indirect results of better-quality public spaces.

Alice Siragusa of the European Commission, Joint Research Centre, spoke of their mission to support EU policies with independent evidence. They use indicators and analysis to identify trends, policy changes needed. They also do territorial modeling. Their focus is Europe although they have gotten involved in non-European projects as part of European assistance projects – for example, the LUISA Territorial Modelling Platform for Africa. They are able to analyze patterns of change in five-year timesteps, including population, land use, and so on. Base maps are generated, but then complications can arise because of discrepancies between satellite and official data on specific land use classes. They typically use Copernicus high-resolution land cover maps as input data, as well as national official statistics, censuses and surveys. She discussed a test case of theirs in Accra, Ghana.

Regarding the 11.7.1 indicator, they propose to measure how many residents can reach green areas of a minimum size within a minimum walking distance. They are also looking at a minimum size of .25 hectare, inside the urban area, that intersects with a street or pedestrian path. They can do this as an automated analysis, including a network analysis, density of street intersections, accessibility.  The results can be displayed in an easily understood graphic.  Still, the remote sensing cannot entirely replace ground-truthing but can provided data on a large number of cities, ensuring the comparability of the information

Cecilia Andersson of UN-Habitat presented their current work on developing an indicator.  She explained that they do knowledge management, tool development, technical cooperation, pilot projects and other implementation actions.  She noted that we have to know where we are in order to know where to go. It will be important to know the quality, quantity and distribution of public spaces.  So the assessment tool needs to be able to do this, as the first step: assessment, then strategy, action plan, design principles, pilot projects, monitoring and evaluation.  It is also important to have a city-wide public space assessment. We need to know the share of land dedicated to public space, what is the ownership, who has control and so on. So they are working on a toolbox – allowing us to know where we are. Public spaces are also not just green spaces, but crucially, streets and public facilities.  We need to know about quantity per person, typical access, distribution, and other aspects.


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WHAT ARE WE MEASURING EXACTLY?  Analysis matrix at the city scale.  Slide by Cecilia Andersson of UN-Habitat.


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Analysis matrix at the side scale.  Slide by Cecilia Andersson of UN-Habitat.

Key tasks include gathering data, doing the “data cleansing,” and report writing.  At the site scale, we need to know accessibility, use, comfort, facilities, environmental and biodiversity, and green coverage.  At the city scale, we need to know spatial accessibility, quantity, location and distribution, environmental and biodiversity, and network characteristics. Cecilia presented the example of Wuhan, a city of 10 million. In the Jianghan District, they looked at key indicators — users, facilities, comfort, sound disturbance, and other metrics of public space quality.

Ayanda Roji from the City of Johannesburg discussed their development of parks as a pilot project for public space development.  There is a crucial on-the-ground need to improve quality of life, a high motivation for social justice. They have made great progress in South Africa, but there are still many areas of overwhelming need.  The unequal distribution of tree canopy, easily seen in remote sensing data, is an indicator of other inequalities.  The most immediate challenge to get to a park is to improve the walkability of the street.  We must also take into account the needs of the homeless and others.  Privatization is a major problem for public space. At the same time, public space is not just empty; it needs to offer services, uses and activities. They have found that universities can be very good partners, e.g. conducting research, mapping etc. We need to ask, is there equitable distribution? Relevant data is needed to answer, and diagnosis is crucial. We must also use evidence to make the case for public space.  We also need to use research to address issues of gentrification and privatization.  It is not only a matter of doing research from afar — we also need to engage communities, and start a conversation.

Michael Mehaffy from KTH Centre for the Future of Places stated that, as the last speaker, he understood it would be his job to try to summarize what had been presented and invite discussion.  He said he was greatly impressed by all the progress made by the other organizations represented, and the question now seemed to be how to tie all this together and move forward on a politically and practically acceptable set of indicators. He gave a brief introduction to the Future of Places partnership and its emphasis on public space as a fundamental urban network, as well as some “key messages” that emerged from the partnership, with their focus now on research into practice.  He noted that the New Urban Agenda calls for knowledge-sharing and user-friendly data exchanges, of exactly the kind under discussion. Regarding the SDG 11.7.1, the remote sensing capability is very impressive, but all agreed that “ground truthing” will be required, i.e. gathering supplemental field data regarding access, barriers, proximities, adjacencies, detailed configurations, etc. This could also be supplemented with social surveys of patterns of use, exclusion, and other disaggregations of the goal.  Because this could be an overwhelming task and simplicity is needed, he suggested that a statistical sampling method could be used.  He concluded that the metric needs to be both technically and politically feasible, and very user-friendly. Municipalities will be the main agencies responsible for gathering the data, but could enlist many partners, e.g. universities, local NGOs etc.  The resulting indicator might take the form of a single composite metric comparable to “Walkscore” with sub-metrics that are straightforward, even if the remote sensing technology uses complex data sets and big-data sources.  He also suggested that perhaps the data-gathering could be a step in engaging the stakeholders and implementers, particularly if they could be engaged through an open-source platform, e.g. Open Street Maps etc.

An active discussion followed.  Opposition was expressed to the idea of a “global standard” — local municipalities need to have local control, while at the same time the indicator needs to offer a baseline to be compared.  One person raised the issue of public toilets as a key aspect of public space. One person stressed the importance of public space access for the elderly. The group also discussed different technology platforms, and open-source versus proprietary (official) systems.  All agreed that the remote sensing as discussed has impressive capabilities, but “ground-truthing” will also be critical. The question was also raised of how built-up areas are defined, and how those relate to municipal boundaries.  It will be necessary to exclude non-built-up areas, and at the same time identify municipal boundaries. These two geographic boundaries are overlapping but non-contiguous, and this needs to be recognized, since it will be up to each municipality to gather the data.  Other challenges were discussed, including the problem of complexity and need for simplicity, the question of who will measure, and the political acceptability of different approaches.  Another major question is how to determine actual control of spaces, e.g. ownership, leases, contractual rights, private space used by the public, public space used exclusively by private entities such as permitted restaurant seating, etc.  A simplification will likely be needed!

(L-R) Hyunji Lee, World Bank; Didier Vancutsem, ISPCARP; Cecilia Andersson, UN-Habitat; Ayanda Roji, City of Johannesburg; Alice Siragusa, European Commission; and the author.



Thinkers in the Tropical Shade: Empowering Lessons for Livable Places

Thanks to the Australian-American Fulbright Commission and UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign, fundamental relationships at the heart of urban public health and livability are under scrutiny in tropical Australia.

Charles R. Wolfe, Silvia Tavares and David Sellars

Cairns, Queensland, Australia—avoiding the humidity using active transport.
Photo: Chuck Wolfe


In The City in History, Lewis Mumford once properly characterized the essence of cities as a dynamic that unfolds between two poles of human life: “movement and settlement.” Between these poles, we see the intersection of the built and natural environments, and the ongoing interaction and evolution of transportation nodes and land uses. The roles of walking, shelter, and movement between places, and the impacts of the urban form on public health, are ripe for observation in cities across the world.

Fast forward to modern cities, where leaders, municipal staff, design professionals, and other stakeholders often discuss walkable, transit oriented, and mixed-use communities as the inevitable next steps for evolving urban areas. However laudable these ideas might be, our recent work in tropical Australian cities (under the auspices of the Australian-American Fulbright Commission, UN-Habitat, and the World Urban Campaign) suggests an understanding of the climate-influenced patterns of urban life is essential for the contextual application of these tried and true tenets of good urbanism.

Beyond paradise and the importance of context

When reviewing traditional postcard imagery or the portrayals of stage, screen, and modern social media, the words “tropics” and “paradise” often seem synonymous. However, in today’s complex urban settings, this simplicity is inaccurate, because the movement/settlement dynamic is skewed by climatic conditions. Livability and human interaction is often compromised by intense seasonal heat, severe humidity, and torrential rains. Without adjustments or safeguards, outdoor activity becomes highly undesirable during certain parts of the day, and social cohesion may be inhibited or lost entirely.

In the context of tropical cities, some would characterize the reality of human movement and settlement as defaulting to a modified convenience, premised on avoidance of severe conditions. People move between insular, temperature-controlled dwellings to temperature-controlled cars to temperature-controlled offices, and vice versa. Under these conditions, as others have noted, traditional urban design and planning approaches to the movement/settlement dynamic—particularly when applied to fostering active and healthy lifestyles—requires considered reflection.

In particular, beyond familiar calls for light rail and reduced speed limits, what do transportation improvements that emphasize walkability and bicycle-oriented solutions look like in a small, tropical city? How must urban design and infrastructure (e.g., examples of planning for shade-creationand lighting) change to assure healthy activity? What are the associated roles of green spaces as activators of human recreation and social activity, beyond mere design ambience on auto-centric streets?

Given how the planning and design (or haphazard evolution) of urban spaces largely dictate the way we live, we set out to re-examine daily urban life in the tropical context. Our efforts, with our funders and supporters, has centered on the use of methods and tools from the book, Seeing the Better City, to explore how such planning and design in two Australian cities impact residents’ health in many ways. We aimed to explore whether current conditions encourage or discourage active lifestyles, social cohesion and access to healthy food choices.

The relevance of the New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda [pdf], drafted by UN-Habitat, and endorsed in late 2016 by the United Nations General Assembly, contains an empowering “call to action.” It enables everyone to benefit from inevitable global urbanization trends, based on implementation of equitable frameworks.

In particular, through Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 (Sustainable cities and communities), the New Urban Agenda provides a guide for developing safe, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable new cities that promote social integration and equity. This goal also provides the impetus for more contextual conversations about the growth, redesign and redevelopment of existing urban spaces.

Successful local implementation of the New Urban Agenda depends on more than planning document verbiage, regulatory revisions, or “cookie-cutter” imports of familiar “good urbanism tenets” (cited above) to the tropics. Even within the Far North Queensland tropical region, the climate varies. Cairns experiences a tropical monsoon climate (wet tropics), while Townsville is exposed to a tropical savannah climate (dry tropics).

Just as Cairns and Townsville deserve distinction from the settings of other Australian, European, or American cities, public space design must also vary within the tropical climate zone. We designed the Urban Thinkers Campus sessions (described in this video, as well as further below) to enable a broad range of local participants to first identify current behaviors, reflect on how planning and design impact public health, and to suggest relevant planning and design improvements.

How did we facilitate this local input into contextually appropriate design? What have we learned so far about how to adapt general tenets of good urbanism in tropical Australia?

Urban Thinkers Campuses: Understanding Cairns and Townsville through the urban diary tool

We posed these questions to groups of over 50 people in each city—though UN-Habitat World Urban Campaign Urban Thinkers Campus sessions in Cairns and Townsville in June, 2018. Drawing on the urban diaries described in detail in Seeing the Better City, these events provided the fundamental basis for understanding the context of each city through a local lens.

Urban diaries are premised on the importance of local history, values, and knowledge. They implement a scalableapproach, intended to “distinguish underlying organic relationships between people and cities from indiscriminate prescription imposed upon place.” We offered the urban diary tool as a way to enhance personal observation, increase individual awareness, and create positive urban change.

In our investigation, we invited a range of citizen, professional, governmental, and academic participants (and provided associated written guidance [pdf]) to take and caption photographs of their surroundings, noting how the urban environment in which they reside impacts public health and livability. Participants actively contributed and described their photographs, and shared these images through two Facebook Groups, which we used to capture ideas and start conversations at both the Cairns and Townsville Urban Thinkers Campus sessions.

The urban diary approach helped participants clarify how urban design in Cairns and Townsville impacts the health of residents within these tropical cities. Participants further realized the empowering nature of citizen submittal of visual feedback to urban planners. In turn, municipalities are seeing the ongoing power of guided visual engagement with residents in planning processes, aligning closely with the New Urban Agenda principles.

Place-based urban planning and design

Climate-responsive planning and design are important to assure that urban residents in tropical climates incorporate incidental exercise into everyday routine. We believe that people can better use public spaces if they are designed with the premise of mitigating the negative impacts of tropical climates.

We presented three overarching questions to Urban Thinkers Campus participants to determine how existing urban infrastructure and amenities promote or restrict:

  • Active lifestyles
  • Social inclusion
  • Healthy eating

The lessons so far

We will be finalizing an Urban Thinkers Campus report for UN-Habitat, the Cairns Regional Council, and the Townsville City Council in the coming months. Based on our preliminary data review, some provisional observations follow.

The public health issues faced by first world populations living in the tropics generally coincide with health problems of first world nations worldwide. Campus session presentations by public health professionals in both Cairns and Townsville showed how diabetes and cardiac conditions dominate the preventable hospital admissions and mortality statistics in Far North Queensland. It is well documented that the way to decrease our reliance on the increasingly strained health system, is to keep people moving[i].

Our initial review of session data also shows a general citizen desire to reconnect with one another. Participants emphasized that physical activity often occurs after the sun goes down (a time-shift effect) to avoid debilitating heat and humidity. They advocated for effective urban design and lighting solutions to ensure public safety.

We also found that participants viewed their first world tropical cities as auto-centric, but reiterated a desire for change to incorporate more active lifestyles. Finally, participants expressed a significant interest in using public space for food production, as well as capitalizing on this focus to offset gentrification and to foster more purposeful social inclusion.

The Cairns and Townsville Urban Thinkers Campus sessions provided meaningful input to conversations about how to improve public health through sustainable urban design for the tropics. Each Campus session also entertained the ongoing use of citizen-submitted visual material to assist in more meaningful dialogue and outcomes. These conversations need to expand, and we believe that they can provide a paradigm for other contexts around the world.

Do we currently have all the answers for the people of these cities? Definitely not. But we can now state with confidence that the urban diary approach provides people with a chance to meaningfully engage with the decision-makers who will influence the cities of the future.


London and Seattle-based author, consultant, and attorney Chuck Wolfe is serving as the Fulbright Specialist for an Australian-American Fulbright Commission grant to James Cook University (JCU) related to the subject of this article. The grant design and implementation has involved close collaboration with the co-authors at JCU’s Cairns Campus: Silvia Tavares, a lecturer in urban design, and David Sellars, a senior lecturer in environmental health.

This post originally ran on Planetizen at  We thank the editors!

[i] Arem, H., Moore, S. C., Patel, A., Hartge, P., De Gonzalez, A. B., Visvanathan, K., … & Linet, M. S. (2015). Leisure time physical activity and mortality: a detailed pooled analysis of the dose-response relationship. JAMA internal medicine, 175(6), 959-967.