Cities’ gravitational pull grows for firms, people

Above, full video of Redesigning the Global City. For all the #GlobalCities2016 sessions, click here.

Recent news, confirmed yesterday, that McDonald’s Corp. will leave its leafy HQ campus in suburban Oak Brook IL to return to downtown Chicago tells us something about the eternal appeal of big cities.

McDonald’s announcement comes nearly five decades after the fast-food pioneer had relocated to a beautiful campus of low buildings and artificial lakes designed by architect Dirk Lohan. At the time, the site had been chosen specifically by the company to be closer to its suburban employees. Today, those professionals now apparently prefer urban living. So McDonald’s once again says it is moving for their benefit, planning to take up quarters in the former home of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios, in the much more dense Near West Side. Last week, Lohan told the Chicago Tribune, “I’m a little bit hurt… As an architect I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how to make people happy and how to make people better performers. We thought trees and deer are better than dirty streets in the city.”

That was then. This is now.


Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel welcomed the decision with open arms. “McDonald’s has identified the keys to success in today’s global market: talent, technology, and access to transportation networks,” he said this week. “And they recognize these as Chicago’s strengths.”

Those words echoed similar statements from Emanuel earlier this month when he spoke at the second annual Chicago Forum on Global Cities, co-sponsored again by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Financial Times. Clearly Chicago’s design, based on a dense urban grid, has helped in the city’s remarkable transformation from industrial to global metropolis. This power of design, specifically traditional pre-war urban design, was the launching point of a lively discussion on “Redesigning the Global City”, moderated by architecture critic Edwin Heathcote of the Financial Times.

Heathcote opened the session with a story of how, in the late 1980s, Omaha NE-based food giant ConAgra had cleared a historic part of downtown Omaha to build a suburban-style corporate campus. Ironically, that same company announced last fall that it, too, will now relocate its headquarters to downtown Chicago. That prompted Heathcote to ask, why are people so fond of older, pre-war areas of cities, and what’s lacking in how we build cities today?

What was remarkable about the panelists who responded was the diversity of their expertise. Indeed, panelist Peter Kudryavtsev, of the Citymakers organization in Moscow, noted that there was a sociologist, a health care expert, and a specialist in public spaces, but not a single practicing architect. So, nobody spent time throwing elaborate images of urban designs onto a screen.

Instead, panelists focused on human interaction and connectivity as the key to good city design. Kudryavtsev noted that the professional urbanist, the “city maker,” is something new. He added that there’s an objective side to city making, supported by big data and the technologies discussed at the forum. But there’s also a subjective side, one that imagines what is unique in each global city.

Ricky Burdett, director of the London School of Economics Cities Programme, disputed the idea that all new cities are designed poorly. But he isolated a common problem of bad design, which is an absence of density, which can kill a community, he said. Also deadly to good design, he said, is the absence of complexity, which occurs when city planners try to create everything in one go, without taking the incremental nature of city making into account. Planners have done this in the past, “three or four generations ago,” he said, perhaps referring to America’s own era of urban renewal. But the fact that we’re once again breathing new life into old city centers is now a sign of good city making, he said.

Between the buildings

Danish planner Helle Søholt, CEO of Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects, injected her own commitment to creating vibrant public spaces into the conversation. She has worked on retrofitting unsuccessful parts of many cities in the U.S. and Europe, while her firm played a leading role in the redesign of NYC’s Times Square. “Many of the activities we’ve been talking about… climate adaptation, transport, health issues and so forth, all of these take place between the buildings, in the public spaces,” she said.

Søholt emphasized that good city design must be a collaborative affair. “It’s very challenging,” she said, “because as we’ve made our organizations more professional, we’ve also ‘siloed’ them.” She added that with so many concerns on the table, including sustainable buildings, local health issues, climate and energy, it’s a big challenge to take all of these into account and arrive at holistic solutions. It requires an integrated process with a lot more collaboration across public and private sectors, she said.

As an example, Søholt noted how in any U.S. city, the public right-of-way is managed by three or more agencies, from federal to local. In Copenhagen, however, there has been a continuing merging of agencies, dating from 1988 when the parks and roads departments became one. This allows more flexibility to the design of public space and to the creation of a public realm that supports connectivity among citizens. It also helps to solve many problems including some health issues. For instance, she noted that studies in Denmark have shown that children who walk or ride bikes to school concentrate much better in the classroom.

Big data, stark issues

Panelists generally agreed that successful city design will be very concerned with health and wellness. LaMar Hasbrouck, M.D., executive director of the the National Association of County and City Health Officials, Washington DC, made the issue stark. “In Chicago,” he said, “if you tell me what zip code you live in, I can tell you when you’re going to die. Place matters that much.”

He said there are some census tracks in Chicago, just a few train stops apart, where life expectancy can differ by as much as 16 years. But the key to good design is, again, a holistic approach with bikeways, a good walking environment, access to green spaces, and access to jobs with livable wages. All of these need to be around a person to ensure health, Hasbrouck asserted.

Burdett said it all comes back to good urban design. “Every city will have inequality built in,” he said, “the question is how to manage that inequality, how to distribute it, so it’s not zoned.”

For her part, Søholt returned to the importance of public spaces, drawing upon important lessons she has learned from creating temporary public space “interventions” in U.S. cities. She has found them to be a way to engage in meaningful dialogue with people, allowing them to imagine how life in a place can be different. Kudryavtsev followed by describing peoples’ interaction with a temporary public space he worked on in Moscow, where there was no programming and no music allowed. He found it remarkable that, as a simple place to sit and stay, a lot of people enjoyed the space for its community interaction.

“A predominant part of what is being built in global cities today does not actually involve architects”

— Helle Søholt, CEO, Gehl Architects

Heathcote closed out the discussion by asking, what key element is needed in a city to make it a successful global city? Søholt framed the context of the question by again referring to the generalist nature of the non-architect city maker today. “A predominant part of what is being built in global cities today does not involve architects,” she said. “About 35% of a city is the public realm, streets, parks, etc.”

Burdett returned to his concern for density and complexity. “It’s not visual,” he said, “it’s more to do with the fundamental connection of space to the structure of society.” He elaborated by adding another factor of good design which is openness. “We’re seeing increasing closure of cities, with zones, enclaves, differences cast in stone,” he said, noting how the middle classes are being priced out of the center of London, New York, Paris and many other global cities. “To maintain openness, in the context of incremental change,” is required as a city grows and spreads, he said.


Based in Chicago, the author is a nationally published writer, researcher and urban planner specializing in metropolitan challenges and regional development. In 2009, along with DePaul University Prof. Joseph Schwieterman, he co-authored Beyond Burnham: An Illustrated History of Planning for the Chicago Region.