Why are cities important?

An oft-cited UN projection is that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in cities. That’s just about one generation away. Today, some 55% already live in urban areas. These figures underline the importance of cities to people: their quality of life, experience of living and working, as well as potential for growth, are inevitably influenced by what cities offer and provide.

Without cities, there would not be the development of art, literature or science as we know it. There would not be the invention of steam power and electricity, nor industry and machines, nor the internet. Without cities, it is unlikely there would have been the famed repository and culture bed of knowledge that was The House of Wisdom in medieval Baghdad, nor Shakespeare’s plays, nor would we have astrophysics today giving evidence-based explanations of the universe – plus, of course, plagues, crime, pollution and dystopia.

Clearly, with cities being the cradles of human civilisation and the prospect of the vast majority of people living their lives in cities, the quality of cities becomes fundamentally important.

Two aspects of cities

Modern cities have physical infrastructure – roads, rail, water and sewer pipelines, transmission lines, petrol stations and so on. Naturally, the larger a city’s population, the greater the quantity of physical infrastructure in terms of kilometres of pipelines or the number of petrol stations.  However due to economies of scale, physical infrastructure does not need to be increased in direct proportion to population growth. For instance, studies have shown that if a city population was to double, the number of petrol stations or total length of roads need only increase by about 85% instead of 100%. (See Geoffrey West’s 2017 book, ‘Scale’).

What is more interesting, however, is when it comes to socioeconomic measures like the number of patents and professionals, or wages, GDP and crime rate in a city: the increase is greater than 100%. Thus, a doubling of city population leads to an increase of about 115% in the number of patents achieved by the city. Agglomeration leads to a ‘superlinear’ increase in socioeconomic output.

But clearly, just growing a city’s population is insufficient by itself. A city has to provide the conditions for people to be mobile, network and exchange information, services and goods. The two aspects – physical infrastructure and people – are deeply linked. A poorly planned, unliveable city will not facilitate superlinear contributions from its people. People are a city’s essence.  Malaysian cities will continue to grow. How can we address the important link between a city’s physical and communication infrastructure and how that enables its population to thrive and be happy?

One answer is to strategise, plan, develop and implement city plans in ways that are holistic, consonant with the way cities are necessarily complex, multi-layered and integrated. Indeed, it could be argued that a proper, holistically planned city might even enhance positive indicators such as patents and number of professionals while reducing the superlinearity of indicators like crime and poverty and, most important of all, resource and environmental degradation.

Integrated City Planning

Cities are, by definition, many sided. There are aspects to do with governance and administration, other aspects to do with transport, infrastructure and land use, and yet others with socioeconomic conditions, resilience and general liveability – all underpinned by sustainability.

Quite typically there will be departments in a city’s administration that are assigned jurisdictions such as planning, traffic, transport, health, waste management, buildings, drainage and the like.  These jurisdictions do not necessarily work seamlessly and they run the risk of compartmentalisation. Thus, it is unlikely to find, say, an office or department of integrated city planning.

Governance by jurisdictions is in various ways an efficient way of dividing up the many areas and levels of work and managing them efficaciously. But it can easily happen that the framework that administers by departments extends also into city planning and implementation without an integrated platform.

But the nature of a city is that its many aspects are interlinked. How do we link transport with urban transformation, land use, opportunistic funding and social housing? How do we establish and implement policies to ensure that transport and related projects comply with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and reduce car use? How do we create urban neighbourhoods that are attractive and enhance liveability?

Clearly, it cannot just be engineers and planners, important though they will be. They will need to be joined by people with knowledge and experience in city economics, urban design and planning, sociologists and resource planners. Equally, they should also be joined by city advisers and urban designers who can give guidance on, say, the planning of innovation districts and mixed neighbourhoods that attract talent. Or perhaps who will see a cultural advantage to, say, planning for a local partnership with an international design and art museum. Importantly, the team must include sustainable development experts.

Indeed, prior to all this, we would do well to ask in the first instance, what sort of future city vision do we want? In which case, we might involve people whose work and research it is to understand the present and investigate the future and, thence, provide foresight. Foresight and scenario testing would help governments decide on a vision for which strategic advice could be sought from strategy advisers.

Any aspiring global city cannot properly plan without a strong eye to technology change. But therein lies the pitfalls. Where do we start? What challenge are we really trying to solve? What kind or level of technology planning and enablement do we need for the vision we have? This question is important because the technologies on offer are beguiling. It is all too easy to embrace much more than we actually need and, hence, eventually pay more. Technology vendors provide ready-made answers, but would an independent digital consultant that helps to underpin a city master plan be better placed to advise on the appropriate technology and vendors according to a city’s needs and budget?

Any aspiring global city cannot properly plan without a strong eye to technology change. But therein lies the pitfalls. Where do we start? What challenge are we really trying to solve? What kind or level of technology planning and enablement do we need for the vision we have?

Tong Veng Wye

Principal, Arup

What about our hot and humid Malaysian weather which is neither walking- nor cycling-friendly? Yet it is recognised how liveable and attractive cities are often walkable. Is it possible to plan our tropical cities and transport links with attention to walkability and accessibility? The answer is yes. Environmentally sustainable consultants can model walkways and cycle paths with designed shading and ventilation features that optimise walkable conditions of temperature and humidity. Such considerations can be incorporated into city planning.

Finally, can governing and administrative agencies be supported by capacity-building so that they are coordinated in implementing the objectives of an integrated city master plan? The challenge of able and coordinated implementation of an integrated city plan is not something to be underestimated.

It is clear that cities and their master plans are multi-faceted. They are complex and multi-disciplinary. To be meaningful, their planning and implementation need to be integrated across many jurisdictions and benchmarked against other cities and the future. The inherent multiple dimensions cannot be properly addressed by limited or single-system approaches.