The Sunday Times: What Makes Cities Great


Cities went out of fashion for a while. They seemed like grim places where only students and workers lived out of necessity. But now the world’s urban populations are growing so fast that, for the first time in history, the majority of people live in urban areas. As we return to cities — not for industry, nor from compulsion, but out of choice — we have embraced their gritty chaos with a renewed enthusiasm.

We are in love with their grubby streets, shiny lights, taxi horns, traffic jams, stench of petrol and overcrowded public transport; their cramped, overpriced homes and the thrill of venturing out onto streets ever-potent with the fear of being mugged. Our lust for urban life is unquenchable. For me, cities are home.

Perhaps what I love most is that they feel like places where Big Things happen. And I don’t just mean crime. Cities are incubators of industry and innovation, places where movements start, premieres are performed, laws are challenged and acts are passed. You can attend parliament and the High Court, admire cathedrals, join protesting crowds and marvel at million-pound firework displays.

The architecture of cities is aspirational. In Birmingham, you can sit on Victoria Square, surrounded by grand buildings punching the sky: looking up at the library’s vertiginous metal and glass walls, the layered column facade of the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and the gloriously restored Symphony Hall, which, floodlit, looks like a revamped Acropolis. On Liverpool’s waterfront, you can be seduced by the Three Graces — the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building — wondering at the ambition of the people who built them.

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