Insights and crossovers

The real power of notions such as 'sustainable communities', 'place-making' and 'urbanism' comes from emphatically integrating disciplines and the extra insight and knowledge gained through synergy. Much of this will derive from new perceptions, such as cultural insights into economics, spatial planning insights into transport or psychological insights into geography. Alternatively, combinations might be created that could link telecoms and transport or land use with social networking strategies. This might then justifiably be called communications planning. Policy handshakes between diverse areas of expertise are central to the 'art of city-making'. Valuing diverse disciplines, as noted, might lead to interesting appointments in running cities - an environmentalist becoming head of transport, an economist heading up social affairs, a historian physical planning or a social development specialist cultural affairs.

Over the years I have asked countless people who they respect or admire as city-makers in terms of their attitudes, qualities and characteristics. There is an astonishing alignment in terms of professional qualities now being highlighted for city-making. These can be summarized as follows:

• An ability to cross boundaries and think laterally.

• The ability to pick out the essence of a professional position and to see how it relates to other aspects.

• Practical and open to new ideas.

• An openness of thinking and willingness to hear other things.

• Open to suggestion and challenge.

• To be able to bring out the best in others, to facilitate, to draw together arguments and attitudes.

• People who know their place, have walked its streets, can feel what it is like.

• A sense of vision combined with realism, a patience garnered from having experience, a mix of drive and focus on the nitty-gritty, a tenacity to see things through.19

These skills are not profession specific. Some architects have them; so do some planners or engineers and others outside the urban professions. What is noticeable is the focus on 'openness' and 'others'. This chimes well with emerging notions of leadership such as those expounded in Good to Great by Jim Collins.

Noticeably, the role models had broad experience starting right from the beginning. Their education was not narrow. Often they had taken baccalaureate-style exams with many subjects stretching from the natural to social sciences and languages. Those with specialist undergraduate training then expanded their repertoire, combining subjects like English with social administration and then planning, or politics with economics and then engineering. Those role models that had specialized early often got into areas like development not through the professional route but through different experiences, bringing these to the task of city-making. It is the lateral, connecting skills that people seem to admire.

In looking to individuals who made breakthroughs in thinking about cities, it is noteworthy how many are not urban professionals. Brunelleschi, who devised the model for the cupola in Florence, was a goldsmith and sculptor. Christopher Wren was a scientist and then became a professor of astronomy before going into building. Ebenezer Howard was a stenographer. Lewis Mumford was a journalist, as was Jane Jacobs, and both were fantastic observers and describers of the real place and how you understand it. What this shows is that deep insight comes from a visceral sense of, emotional engagement with and love of the city. So many people already understand and apply place, sustainable communities and urbanistic thinking instinctively, being able to draw threads from different domains of their experience. There are also many counter cases, such as David Burnham, who was an architect before he became a planner.

What are the conditions within which it is more possible to become a thought and action leader? There is a need to allow for a degree of romanticism and passion allied to prosaic common sense and a strong value set. Ideally leadership is rooted to place and community; it needs to be organically grown. Yet a raft of new niche developers, and some of the mainstream too, even as outsiders, have managed to bend their goals to local aspiration, so enlarging the sense of local leadership.

Today we have allowed too much responsibility, creative thinking and planning to be subcontracted to consultants. The world over, municipalities have hollowed out. This creates a form of subcontracted leadership that can feel imposed. Consultants should be more like critical friends and less answer providers.

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