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Creating 21st Century Cities - a new cottage industry PDF Print E-mail
Written by david brunnen   
Friday, 30 May 2008 09:18

[David Brunnen reports from the MIT workshop in Stockholm, May 2008]


ImageWhen billions of private and public sector funds are being poured into large-scale urban regeneration schemes it may seem less than generous to classify this creative energy as ‘a cottage industry’.

But, if we define 21st century cities as being something much more than yet another business park or housing scheme, it soon becomes clear that there are only a handful of visionary urban leaders around the world who are determined not to let go of ideas that others have not yet fully grasped; and here in Stockholm it seems as if the entire population of this small tribe fits comfortably into one room.

The MIT-led New Century Cities Workshop at the European Trends conference of the Urban Land Institute brought together leaders from around world to identify the common themes from their very diverse and massively ambitious projects. For these developers, the challenges reach way beyond the narrow confines of corporate real estate or the nuances of architectural design.  Developing new century cities, major mixed-use urban quarters, demands more than routine responses to land-based opportunities or the desperate needs of failed community environments or even the ambitions of politicians looking for a legacy.

So how do exceptional responses happen?  What drives these 'place-makers' to stretch and share their collective imagination, to deliver effective living and working places to rival those that have had several centuries to evolve? 

Common Ground

Their first common ground is the story of the place.  Each can all tell a story of how they came to be commanding a patch of property on which to build their dreams.   Many of these opportunities are born of decay and dereliction, of disregarded communities where now, in desperate times, desperate measures are needed.  Very few new city schemes are truly ‘un-called for’ ideas where the spaces or opportunities are entirely optional - but all are very large and have sufficient scale to embrace a broad range of uses.   With these large spaces comes commitment; significant management 'air-time' and a need to pay attention to stakeholders – not least in order to find a route through the complexities of planning permissions and gain sufficient authority to adopt a bold approach.

Sharing the dream

Then, almost as soon as the space has been secured, they must start giving it up; they must recognise the need to share the dream, to build a wide-ranging eco-system of near-minded supporters – all of whom have arrived with varied motivations.   Few indeed have the luxury of any centrally commanding government remit that would allow plans to proceed unchallenged.   It is argued that such an easy ride would, even for the most creatively disciplined of leaders, fail to provide the rigour needed to forge truly exceptional and sustainable solutions.

Many developers might bemoan bureaucracy but the effort needed to gain political leverage and sufficient degrees of freedom is a long-term investment.  The role of those interfering stakeholders – especially the people who ultimately are going to make it work as a real community - is to create asset values, ‘human and social capital’, that would never normally appear on any real estate developer’s balance sheet.  Even in the top-down command and control culture of Asia-Pacific countries, projects such as Seoul’s Digital Media City are informed by a range of public and private partners. 

The re-defining moments

What also becomes clear is that our dream developers are particularly astute – recognising the brief windows of opportunity to refresh, to re-define, their vision; not least because the story of the place soon becomes passé and the coalition of willing interests needs new dragons to slay, new hurdles to clear and new reasons to hang together.

These ‘break and remake’ points, these re-defining moments, must be taken at the flood.   Any delay in dealing with diversions leads directly to drift and a loss of momentum.  Ørestad Nord in Copenhagen well illustrates a bottom up approach that dynamically adapts its master-plan to reflect the interests of new arrivals such as DR – the Danish Broadcaster.  Since 2002 their vision has always been at a crossroads where the choice of direction could not be constrained by pre-set notions of infrastructure technologies that were themselves rapidly evolving. 

All this may be obvious (even if oft ignored) but three further talents are part of the recipe for 21st century city-building.

Events & Experiences 

Firstly, contrary to notions of creating concrete permanence, the value of the ephemeral seems remarkably high on their agenda.  Events, pilot projects, tourist attractions, visitors for all manner of reasons and seasons, help to sustain and develop the vision. New audiences with new experiences are layered onto perceptions of the place – bolstering the brand, giving it identity and ensuring that the new habitat is not some exclusive enclave. 

Milla Digital, Zaragoza in Spain provides stunning evidence of ‘event places’ where the public are invited to engage and interact with water walls, digital pavements and urban screens, as well as museums, galleries and ‘living laboratories’ – a stream of unexpected experiences. Art and design is also central to community development at Arabianranta in Helsinki with a full program of artwork and events in all public spaces and in every building - fulfilling a investment requirement of between 1-2% of total development cost for public art. 

Open to innovation

Secondly, and again in contradiction to the initial need to gain control, the new-found ideology of Openness is writ large.  We are generally familiar with the ‘Open-source’ software movement and will soon begin to understand Open Access ‘carrier neutral’ telecoms networks where future ‘unbundling will not be needed to remedy a lack of competition because the Access utility will never again be confused with Services.  In these developments ‘Openness’ is re-interpreted to avoid fossilisation and to allow the place to adapt and thrive.

Both in Singapore's, ‘one-north’ and in Northern Ireland's, Titanic Quarter, the developers have perceived the need for future-proofed fibre networks managed independently of service providers in order to enable innovation.  


Thirdly, those who dare to dream must also embrace diversity.  It should come as no surprise to know that 10% of all adults in England are doubly-disconnected – both disengaged from the digital world and from society on account of a range of deprivations or inabilities that do not equip them (or their children) for 21st century living.  This reaches way beyond the provision of healthcare, educational, social housing and community facilities.  It requires a determined, proactive and on-going effort to stretch the imagination of service providers – yes, even those clever clogs with computers who think they understand the market for on-line network services.

Salford’s Media City, with the migration of the BBC from London, may never now be short of clever clogs but the development is layered on a locale that can still amply illustrate how its desperation once inspired Marx and Engels to write Das Kapital.


There is, of course, no shortage of technologies to meet the challenges of these new places: new forms of interactive street lighting, fibre networks to support ‘Connected Health’, breath-taking public artworks, and automated garbage collections.  Only time will tell if this new multi-billion cottage industry of 21st century city developers will deliver their dreams and create successful communities that thrive and mature.   

Collaborative Advantage

You might think that the competitive nature of this creative effort would inhibit the sharing of ideas.  The common cause, the unifying passion of these people, is that they cannot countenance a failure of imagination.  They need to feed off each other.   Flying in the face of convention, they need ‘Collaborative Advantage’.   As Michael Graham, the delegate from Titanic Quarter, Belfast, neatly observed, “A rising tide lifts all the boats”; and, let’s be in no doubt, whilst they are going with the flow, these exceptional ‘place makers’ are well-able and determined to anchor their dreams before the tide turns.


The New Century City Developments program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is led by Michael Joroff and Dennis Frenchman.

See also:

Belfast Northern Ireland ,

Salford, England ,

Finland ,

Spain ,

Singapore ,

Denmark and ,


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