The paradox of attractive cities

This article will focus on the art of making attractive cities and the pros and cons of the same.

Who said beauty is always good? I bet we will not all agree with what beauty is in the first place, so it may be worthwhile to make reference to a recent study on the same.

The School of Life, a London-based alternative education group, has taken in interest in the study of attractive cities and in their recent manifesto; they have highlighted six indicators a city needs to be attractive.

First is order, which is the reason why everyone wants to visit Paris and New York over and over again. The study has however cautioned against excess of it, which they claim brings about excess regularity, which can be “soul-destroying, relentless and harsh”.

The balance therefore would be something like an organised complexity, not too chaotic and not too boring.

Second is visible life. Streets in cities need to be full of people and activity in order to be vibrant and beautiful. Absence of life is repulsive and simply boring.

The third principle is ensuring that our cities are compact, not sprawling.

The forth is orientation and mystery: The research describes this as the ability to both get lost and to not get lost (you’ve lost me)! This, they argue is achieved by a creating a balance between small streets and big ones.

The fifth is scale. Increasingly, urban skylines are becoming more dominated by skyscrapers that are dedicated to banking and commerce. The research has recommended that five storey buildings would instead be an ideal height, resulting in dense and medium-rise cities, like Berlin and Amsterdam.

The study recommends that any tall buildings in a city should be iconic and dedicated to something “all of humanity can love.” meaning a masterpiece that all citizens can participate in and interact with.

The sixth principle is to make it local. Cities should embrace the unique characters of the place, based on their socio-cultural construction and avoid the increasing sameness caused by unhealthy competitions and copy-pastes of ideas without contextualizing them.

The list can go on and on, and the indicators can be diluted to aspects we are familiar with and interact with in our everyday experiences in the city.

Kigali City has been ranked by several international indices as safe and attractive, not just in Africa, but also globally.

Safety and attractiveness are not mutually exclusive.

In a wide range of urban studies, there is consensus that when a city is attractive it will also be liveable.

What tells me that Kigali is safe and attractive is the ‘walkability’ in the city. Here are daily efforts being put in place to promote this including introduction of pedestrian and biking lanes.

A big percentage of Kigali citizens walk. An increasing number of citizens are riding especially on weekends and car free days. Talking about attractiveness, there is no better way to enjoy the beauty of a city than from two legs or two wheels, definitely not four.

Interestingly, when you walk, you also participate in enhancing the attractiveness itself and a richer perception of it.

‘Mobility’ is another plus for Kigali. The public bus system is near satisfactory and the Tap & Go technology, the routes and patterns, the varied sizes and colours of buses are additionally awesome.

Kigali streets (think of the downtown commercial street- aka quartier matteus) are aligned with trees, old and new buildings, different architectural styles mixed together, vibrant shops, coffee shops and food restaurants, open terraces, motorbikes parked outside restaurants over lunch hour or on a rainy time.

What I am still missing in Kigali City is public open places for recreation and especially for children to play, as well as see the children actually playing in those spaces.

Kigali has also largely remained a day city, with fewer although increasing traces of nightlife.

In both scenarios, there is evidently an improvement in the last five years alone and there is a convincing direction for the next five years as well.

Some cities are too beautiful for their own good.

A counter argument to the push towards attractive cities has raise concerns on who actually benefits this beauty? There is possibility that when cities become attractive, the benefit goes more to tourists other than the urban citizens living in those cities.

In Venice, for example the buzzing tourism has become an obstacle to the normal urban life of the residents, so much that recently the city has had to introduce fines against noise pollution, yes dragging suitcases along the streets.

Beauty to the eye is not always beauty to the heart.

Another argument to this is that what is appealing to the eye may not always offer a good space to be in. beauty therefore should be based on the quality of life that looks deeper into the social attributes other than mere physical attributes.

In cities like Barcelona, a sample of a street population will contain more shoppers and tourists than the people from the local neighbourhoods. Most tourists will also openly admit that cities they love to visit are not necessarily places they will wish to reside in.

In the end, it may be important to aim to make a city attractive but it may be equally important to avoid overdoing the same at the expense of local citizens.

Naturally, people will want to occasionally visit big and attractive cities but largely prefer to live in smaller simpler cities where one can frequently bump into people they know, chat, laugh and watch street life unveil.

The writer is a lecturer at the school of Architecture, University of Rwanda. An architect and urban designer with keen interest on the dialectical relations between Architecture and Society.

josemwongeli@yahoo.com

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