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Environment / Climate change

Video: Alain de Botton explains how to make our cities more attractive

Writer and philosopher Alain de Botton has been setting the world to rights with his “School of Life” project, which endeavors to teach us all a bit about, well, everything. It includes a series of short videos and books laying out everything from “The Dangers of the Internet” to “How to Become a Better Person”.

And, unsurprisingly, given that more than half of us now live in one, there’s a segment covering cities and how to make them more attractive. 

Botton splits his argument into six must-have factors for an attractive city. 

1. Organised complexity

Humans love order. We respond positively to symmetry and repetition, like the Manhattan grid system, or a Parisian square:

Image: The School of Life.

But cities can be too ordered: buildings must have some variety so we don’t feel like we’re living in a prison. By way of example, the video cites Java Island in Amsterdam, where houses are similar heights and widths, but vary in their decoration:

Image: MartinD, via Wikimedia Commons.

“We’re perfectly in the middle between sameness and boringness here, and that’s what humans adore,” de Botton says. “That’s what more and more cities should have”. 

2. Visible Life 

This means visible people, and visible human activity like selling and making, as opposed to a  sterile street where all activity is packed away into buildings.  

3. Compactness

Spread-out cities consume more energy, and are harder to enjoy: just compare the car-based cities of the American heartland with the more walkable ones of the north east and Europe.

Compact cities are also more likely to create random interactions between people (you don’t get that if you drive everywhere alone). De Botton is also very keen on public squares, but they have to be the right size: “The ideal square must offer containment, but not claustrophobia”, he argues: you must be able to see the face of someone on the other side of the square from you.


4. Orientation and mystery

Apparently cities should offer the chance to get lost, but not too lost. This means a balance between big streets, and small, windy streets and alleyways. 

5. Scale

The ideal height for a city block, says de Botton, is five stories high. Really tall buildings, must be “worthy of their prominence” and be “really special, something all of humanity can love”. The rest of the tall towers, meanwhile, should be “cut down”. Right. 

6. Local

Buildings shouldn’t look the same everywhere: cities should have their unique style of building, built from “local, distinctive materials”. 

All this sounds lovely – but, we suspect, just a touch on the unhelpful side. Short of cities being designed by a single planner-designer-architect-builder-overlord, it’s hard to see how this artfully varied order full of five storey buildings and perfectly aligned street grids can ever be achieved. While stricter planning rules might help, they could also make new builds harder or more expensive to push through.

And while we’d all like more attractive cities, a huge focus on this seems a bit silly when issues like transport, poverty and infrastructure are also jostling for our attention.
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