“I ♥ NY.” Perhaps nowhere is that iconic sentiment more evident than in New York City, where millions of New Yorkers take pride in its colorful neighborhoods, its diners and jazz clubs, its museums and theaters, and, of course, its inhabitants’ unique character. And New York’s not alone. Millions of others feel just as passionate about the cities they call home, be it Paris’ boulevards and cafés, Lima’s eclectic blend of cultures, or Hong Kong’s throb of commerce. They recognize their city’s limitations, but they also revel in its rewards. They’re part of the city, and they feel that the city is part of them. Many wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.
What drives such pride, passion, and joy—in a word, love—for a city? Too often, the qualities that inspire love may be viewed as intangible and unquantifiable. But there are identifiable attributes that make a city lovable, and city planners and governments can shape those attributes to help the city and its citizens form an emotional bond. That emotional bond, in turn, can deliver benefits to individuals and institutions alike, chief among them happiness. After all, more and more of us are living in cities every year,1 and the more we can relate to our cities, the more vibrant our lives will be.
The impulse to rehumanize cities amid rapid change is not new. Jane Jacobs’ battle with Robert Moses, where Jacobs mobilized grassroots opposition to Moses’ plans to build interstates through New York neighborhoods, is one of the more prominent examples where the desire to humanize cities—or keep them human—has clashed with efforts to modernize them.2 These days, technology and an obsession with convenience dominate conversations on city revitalization. It’s important to bring the relational aspects of dense urban environments back into prominence.
Most urban planners, as well as the general public, evaluate cities on two main dimensions. One is livability, a city’s ability to satisfy its citizens’ pragmatic physical, social, and professional needs. Livability is measured on factors such as safety, mobility options, employment and educational opportunities, public space, and political stability. More recently, much of the discourse on cities has revolved around making cities smart. The focus here is on deploying broadband and other technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the internet of things, to do everything from manage traffic to improve security surveillance to allow citizens to report accumulated trash or snow using their smartphones.
Both livability and smartness are foundational to lovability. Basic infrastructure and services should be in place, and going about one’s daily life should be reasonably easy and pleasant. And we should unquestionably use advanced technology to help improve quality of life and alleviate issues such as congestion and crime.
However, lovability also relies on a third attribute that’s often overlooked. That attribute is human connection: a city’s ability to foster community and evoke a sense of belonging. Though it may be less concrete than livability or smartness, human connection is no less important because that’s where the social and emotional components of lovability, those feelings of pride, passion, and joy, spring from.
Teasing out being human from being livable and smart is somewhat artificial, since the three domains overlap and, ideally, positively reinforce each other. That said, research led by the DesignSingapore Council has identified six key attributes that contribute to being a human city: inclusion, connection, attachment, stimulation, freedom, and agency.3 While individuals may experience these attributes differently depending on factors such as their socioeconomic status, gender identity, ethnicity, (dis)ability, immigration status, and sexual orientation, all of the attributes are related and interact with one another to create different levels and types of humanness.
A city’s residents need to feel included for the city to feel human. This is true on both a social level, meaning acceptance by other residents, and a legal level, meaning the universal extension of social rights and the provision of basic services.
Many cities may find that promoting inclusion is a challenge. For instance, Western European cities have historically performed well on inclusion metrics due to their comprehensive social security nets and abundant employment opportunities. But recent widespread social unrest between those who consider themselves natives and newly arrived migrants is an indicator that overarching narratives around social inclusion might need to be revisited. Furthermore, hate crimes have been on the rise in countries as far-flung as New Zealand, the United States, China, and Israel. The United States, for example, has seen a resurgence of hostility toward ethnic minorities, sparking movements such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate in protest. These grassroots campaigns constitute efforts of reconciliation—attempts to raise awareness and increase the inclusion of minority voices in civic society.
Inclusion also extends beyond new migrants and race to all edges of society, from the LGBTQ community to the elderly. All of these individuals must feel welcomed and safe for them to experience their city as lovable.
Connection embodies how well a city facilitates the creation of social bonds, which can lead to a feeling of closeness to and affection for others in the city.
Urban planners can do a great deal to facilitate community through infrastructural design. Designing open spaces with porous perimeters, for instance, encourages social interaction by inviting passers-by to join. But it’s also important not to be overly prescriptive. Restraint from overplanning allows for citizens to take ownership of their neighborhoods and develop connections in their own authentic manner.
Superkilen park in Copenhagen, Denmark, incorporates an eclectic mix of furnishings from all over the world, including a picnic table from Armenia, a swing set from Baghdad, and three tons of soil from the Palestinian territories. These elements were chosen by the community to cultivate points of discussion and learning among visitors. In this way, the park was designed to bridge the gaps between diverse neighborhoods. On the other hand, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro achieve the same thing without having been deliberately planned. The improvised design of favela streets, with their long and winding staircases that meander between and around homes, facilitates interaction between the favelas’ inhabitants. These examples demonstrate that city design, whether planned or fortuitous, can increase connection between citizens anywhere.
Attachment differs from connection in that it refers to the affinity that people feel for the city rather than for each other. It’s a city’s ability to cultivate a sense of familiarity and rootedness with the city. Typically, residents who have lived in a city for longer feel a greater sense of such attachment.
Attachment is strongly related to the unique aspects of a city’s identity, meaning that it arises out of what a city does differently, rather than the aspects that it has in common with its neighbors. In Southeast Asia, for instance, food is often a badge of identity. It’s not uncommon to hear Malaysians and Singaporeans arguing about whether Penang or Singapore has the best char kway teow.
Policymakers worldwide have struggled with navigating the varied attachment levels of newcomers to a city. There are, however, some bright spots. For the past 40 years, Australia has pursued a policy of multiculturalism that’s encouraging new migrants to embrace both Australian and other cultural identities on an equal basis. Importantly, newly arrived migrants are supported by comprehensive national policies that provide significant financial investment into their integration into the broader community, assisting with translation, providing English classes, and funding community initiatives, thus cultivating a sense of connection. Sydney is an example of a city that embodies this ethos: It evidences high levels of attachment despite many of its residents being foreign-born.
Paradoxically, part of the reason is the emergence of ethnic enclaves in which different ethnic groups concentrate their cultural activities. Sydney’s Fairfield district is home predominantly to Iraqi and Syrian Christians, whereas part of southwest Sydney is now known as “Little Athens” for its Greek community. Allowing such enclaves to form allows newly arrived migrant communities to remain connected to their roots, increasing their attachment to the city by providing a welcoming context in which they can express their uniquely diasporic identities.
Stimulation is the excitement a city cultivates among its population. A stimulating city keeps its residents excited about what each new day brings, providing widely accessible opportunities for exploration, leisure, socializing, and learning. To ensure that cities are stimulating, local governments need to take creativity seriously. Without the support of the creative industries, night life and entertainment, which are vital cultural assets, could be lost forever.
London is an example of an already stimulating city that has explicitly committed to maintaining its position as one of the most exciting cities in the world. In addition to maintaining a strong commitment to diversity, the metropolis highly values creativity: It’s home to more than 250 museums and art galleries, many of which are free to the public. Further, in 2016, London appointed its first Night Czar,4 whose sole responsibility is to ensure that the city is just as vibrant during the night as it is during the day. The role has pioneered initiatives such as the Night Tube, which initiated 24-hour public transportation on Fridays and Saturdays, measures to support queer venues such as nightclubs, and reviews of licensing approval processes to attract diversity within London’s nightlife venues.
For a city to be lovable, residents should feel free to be and express themselves. This can be one of the more difficult characteristics to achieve, as the factors that affect the feeling of freedom differ from person to person.
Throughout the years, large cities have attracted those who do not conform to social norms. During World War II, gay sailors were routinely expelled from the navy at the ports of San Francisco, leading many to settle in the area. Further migration of gay individuals to the city resulted in San Francisco establishing itself as the United States’ queer capital through the mid-20th century. Its progressive attitudes have since evolved into a culture of acceptance that goes beyond gender identity and sexual orientation.
One reason people may feel a sense of freedom in a city is the anonymity that their large populations provide. Nowadays, though, the concept of freedom has progressed beyond anonymity towards acceptance. For this reason, freedom overlaps largely with inclusion. Authorities should consider focusing on cultivating acceptance across the community through education to allow residents, including minorities, to feel free to be themselves.
Agency is a measure of empowerment, the extent to which people believe that they’re able to influence change within their cities. This perception is often greatly influenced by how inclusive a city is in its decision-making around policies. Achieving this inclusion, however, may be difficult in cities whose leaders and citizens have more pressing concerns. The tendency to deprioritize agency is a particular challenge in poorer cities, where escaping poverty is the primary concern.
Though civic agency often manifests in a democratic, participatory model, some city populations can achieve a sense of agency even without directly democratic mechanisms. This is more often the case in monolithic societies where people feel represented by those in power simply because their interests may align. Data from the World Values Survey,5 a global study of people’s beliefs, values, and motivations, exemplifies this tendency in Beijing and Shanghai. When respondents were asked to rank four priorities from a list that also included strong defense, economic growth, and maintaining a beautiful environment, only 18% of Beijing respondents and about 14% of Shanghai respondents mentioned communal decision-making as one of their top two priorities. This is considerably lower than the average of all 22 cities surveyed, across which 47% of respondents identified public decision-making as a top priority.
Policymakers should be careful to account for varying conceptions of agency. The type of decision-making that’s typically thought of as being conducive to agency in the West is not universally valued. While some people find agency in representation in political decision-making, others may find it in the freedom of economic choice.
Happiness as an outcome for cities is imperative, as it’s a significant predictor of peoples’ resilience in adversity. From the plot in figure 1, it’s evident that there’s a positive relationship between a city’s “humanness,” as measured using proxies from the 2017–2020 World Values Survey, and its residents’ happiness, as measured by the World Happiness Report 2020, which ranks nations and cities on their citizens’ happiness based on respondents’ ratings of their lives.6
The World Happiness Report finds that people in a high-trust environment that promotes happiness experience “extra well-being resilience” that makes them better able to weather hardships such as illness, divorce, a family member’s death, and unemployment. It may not be too far a stretch to infer that this resilience, in turn, could help people more effectively work toward consistent economic growth.
Zooming out now to lovability as a whole, it’s possible to find proxies for each of its three central qualities—livable, smart, and human—to measure and visualize a city’s lovability. The figure “Shapes of love” shows these shapes of love, according to several chosen proxies, for the three cities of Shanghai, Sydney, and Berlin.
The important point here is that cities can be lovable in many ways, with some of the most desirable shapes depending on its residents’ needs at a particular time. Parsing out lovability’s three aspects can allow leaders to help address a city’s needs in a more nuanced manner than a single index figure. Investments can be planned to shift the shape of the triangle as needed with the city’s changing demographics and needs.
The metrics used to illustrate the three principles of lovable cities are weak proxies, but they are drawn from the most credible publicly accessible data sets that can be found for a broad spectrum of cities. The livability dimension was assessed using the “Structures” section of the Institute for Management Development’s (IMD) Smart City Index 2020.7 The 19 metrics within this index cover the five areas of health and safety, mobility, activities, opportunities, and governance. The smart dimension was assessed from metrics from the “Technologies” section of the same IMD Smart City Index. These measures evaluate factors such as the availability of ridesharing apps, the extent of online reporting of city maintenance issues, and the quality of IT lessons in schools. Finally, while there are no data sets that capture the human dimension in as nuanced a way as would have been preferred, the current research uses data from the 2017–2020 World Values Survey the proxy. The humanness metric draws upon questions that dealt with respondents’ perceptions of free choice (freedom), life satisfaction (stimulation), closeness with their neighborhood (attachment), trust within the neighborhood (connection), neighbor preferences (inclusion), and political actions that they have thought of or might engage in (agency).
When considering lovability, city leaders will run up against the question: Lovable for whom? A city that’s lovable for one might not necessarily be lovable for another. The honest truth is that city planners and managers are unlikely to be able to design cities that are equally lovable for all. This is why it’s important for leaders to consider not just the shapes but the shades of love—the desires, needs, and sentiments of specific population segments—and make conscious choices around which segments they want to prioritize.
To do this, leaders can craft a set of personas that represent the key groups that the city serves. One approach could be to start with traditional city demographics and develop personas that cover most of the city’s residents (see figure 3, “Shades of love”). Another approach could be to create personas representing the types of people city leaders most want to attract and engage—for example, young professionals, artists, or new immigrants—to define a city that’s lovable to them as well.
With the personas defined, city leaders can use methods such as ethnographic research, interviews, and surveys to help determine the dominant desires of each. Each persona would therefore also have a triangle that designates its preferences. The goal is to unearth both the commonalities and the tensions among desires of city residents.
For the purposes of illustration, a city’s shape of love was depicted as a single triangle earlier in this article. In reality, however, cities have many neighborhoods, all of which can have different shapes of love, and whose particular populations may have different needs. New York, for example, has Brooklyn, Harlem, SoHo, Lower Manhattan, Jamaica, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, and the Lower East Side, each with a distinct character and citizen priorities. City planners can therefore match the scale of analysis with their goals and the purpose of the study.
It’s worth reiterating that how a city chooses to reshape its triangle will likely depend greatly on factors such as its existing infrastructure, its leaders’ priorities, its current capabilities, and even its prevailing cultural ethos. In Singapore, pursuing lovability might take the form of establishing local museums to recount the young city’s social history rather than its colonial history; in busy Athens, it may be expressed in the pedestrianization of the city center. But starting by mapping the shapes and shades of love is a powerful way for city planners and managers to understand where they may need to focus in designing and operating their cities to be more lovable—and more human.
Many of the experiences that go into a city’s lovability can be planned and intentional. Many are also inherently emergent as the scaffolding of the city’s design is filled in by its occupants. It’s up to city planners and governments to plan what can be planned, and influence what can’t be planned, to move their cities toward being lovable. If we skimp on acknowledging and addressing the human underpinnings of what makes a city worth living in, we risk solving for the wrong factors. We shouldn’t stop at making our cities livable. We should strive to make them lovable.
The Lovable Singapore Study is the city-state’s inaugural concerted effort to uncover what it means to live lovably in Singapore and how the city could design for it. Led by the DesignSingapore Council (Dsg), Singapore’s national agency for design, and with participation from both public agencies and private organizations,8 the study aims to increase lovability by balancing economic and cultural pursuits across an increasingly diverse and sophisticated population.
To establish the current landscape of Singapore’s strengths and gaps, Dsg engaged almost 2,500 citizens to explore two questions: “What makes Singapore lovable?” and, “What would make Singapore more lovable?”
From this research, Dsg mapped four personas—unloved but attached, loving but disengaged, loved and engaged, and loved but disengaged—to the six emotional connections of the “human” dimension of lovability, using the same visualization approach as used to map a city’s livable, smart, and human attributes more broadly. The mappings were then stacked to identify where more targeted approaches may be needed for the city to be lovable to these personas. For instance, issues around a lack of attraction—the study’s synonym for stimulation—were found to be associated with a lack of vibrancy in public spaces due to over-curation and regulation.
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