How Great Cities Happen

John Stanley, Janet Stanley and Roslynne Hansen consider the many factors that must come together to create productive, inclusive and sustainable cities.


Cities are at the core of today’s knowledge economy. Already home to over half the world’s population, their importance will continue to grow as the knowledge economy increasingly asserts itself.

The success of knowledge cities is frequently accompanied, however, by urban problems such as congestion, housing that is increasingly unaffordable to many citizens, environmental challenges, social exclusion and growing inequality. A distinguishing mark of cities that are well planned is that they recognise interdependencies between such contemporary urban problems and the need to take a broad and integrated view in search of solutions.

London is a great example, seeing affordable housing as a serious threat to its competitive economic position and a contributing element to social exclusion. London urban planning links land use, transport and housing, among other elements, in an integrated planning approach. Crossrail is a good example of London thinking, combining (for example) integrated economic, social, housing and funding components. The way evidence, analysis and engagement informs London planning is strongly supportive of good outcomes.

Yet planning for cities still tends to be predominantly function-based rather than people-centred. In Australia, for example, urban traffic congestion is inevitably met by a search for a major ‘congestion-busting’ road project, ignoring the compelling evidence from researchers like Duranton and Taylor (2012) that clearly shows the self-defeating traffic-generating effects of such additional capacity.

In contrast, Vancouver is more inclined to respond to problems such as traffic congestion by asking ‘What kind of city do we want?’ The Greater Vancouver Regional Transportation Strategy’s (Translink 2013) target of increasing the mode share of active and public transport from 28% in 2011 to 50% in 2045, accompanied by a second target to reduce average car trips lengths by one-third over this period, sets a direction for strategic responses. Behind such thinking, inter alia, is one land use goal that focuses on ‘creating complete communities’.

Our concerns about the way silo-based land use transport planning was tending to perpetuate, rather than resolve, urban problems stimulated us to look for examples of good practice, which might help inform professional planners and others interested in building better cities. Our new book How Great Cities Happen: Integrating People, Land use and Transport, is the result.

One focus of the book is extending what is traditionally seen as in-scope for urban strategic land use transport planning, by recognising wider functional interdependencies. Housing, environmental and social planning are key areas, as is the connection between urban structure and urban productivity. Case study examples of good practice are set out.

Children tend to be voiceless and invisible in urban strategic planning

However, and importantly, we also seek to identify what might constitute a good city from a people-centred perspective, focussing particularly on children. A focus on older people (who get to vote!) is sometimes included in urban planning but children tend to be voiceless and invisible in urban strategic planning. This is despite the fact that experts in child development have known for a long time ‘…that early child development affects health, wellbeing and competence across the balance of the life course’ (Hertzman 2004, p. 4). Hopefully, no longer! Perhaps it is no coincidence that the author of this quote comes from Vancouver, a city that understands the importance of planning for people.

Cities that plan for children will have a number of key elements. Firstly, the needs of a younger child are met by parents and often the wider family and neighbours. These carers need the availability and proximity of essential services (health centres, child care, etc), as well as informal support places and structures. This is provided through a neighbourhood that offers places to meet – a safe street, parks, community centres, child friendly cafes – with toilets, change facilities, lighting, safe places for children to play with other children and adults. As the child ages, places need to be provided for safe and diverse independent travel and places for play, social interaction and interface with nature. All this implies purposeful planning for these locations, traffic calming and removal, separation of bike and walk paths from roads, and the establishment of places that children and people will enjoy occupying.

Access to secure, comfortable and affordable housing influences a person’s health and wellbeing, their quality of life and ability to participate in society, from both a social and economic perspective. The widening gap between household income and the cost of housing to buy or rent in many cities is revealing patterns of spatial disadvantage and inequality, as well as adverse impacts on liveability, productivity and fairness. In simple terms, house prices depend on demand and supply but for many cities much more needs to be done to stimulate public and private sector investment in housing well beyond just constructing more dwellings. Cities need long term housing strategies, linked to land use transport strategies, which (inter alia) set targets and timelines for delivering affordable and social housing in locations close to jobs and services, supported by adequate infrastructure, particularly well connected and highly accessible transport.

Governments need to implement a range of distributive planning policies, taxation and financial incentives, and planning regulatory reforms which unlock private sector investment in residential development in locations where more housing is needed, at a price that is more affordable. A taxation regime that encourages private investment in affordable housing, particularly from major superannuation and pension fund institutions, is a good start to unlocking private capital into a growing sector within the housing market, which is low risk, offers reasonable returns and delivers public benefit.

Other government initiatives being applied in cities to address housing affordability problems include subsidies, grants and home ownership schemes targeting low income households, public private partnership arrangements using innovative financial models, limited liability partnerships, government providing public land for community land trusts to develop low income housing and housing development co-operatives and encouraging more innovation in the housing industry. These initiatives must be integrated with land use and transport development directions for maximum beneficial impact.

Urban productivity, affordable housing and a city that works for children are just some of the challenges great cities need to confront. Those cities that succeed usually demonstrate a whole of government approach, driven by strong political leadership, with cross-sector collaboration and extensive community engagement. How Great Cities Happen provides many examples of good practice, which might help achieve better outcomes for urban citizens.

Duranton, G. and M. Taylor (2011), ‘The fundamental law of road congestion: evidence from US cities’, American Economic Review 101 (October), 2616-2652.
Hertzman, C. (2004), Making Early Childhood Development a Priority: Lessons from Vancouver, Vancouver: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Office.
Translink (2013), Regional Transportation Strategy: Strategic Framework, Vancouver: Author.

John Stanley is Adjunct Professor in the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, at the University of Sydney, Australia

Janet Stanley is a Principal Research Fellow at Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, Melbourne School of Design, Australia

Roslynne Hansen is Professorial Fellow at the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, The University of Melbourne, Australia


How Great Cities Happen: Integrating People, Land Use and Transport is available now.

Read Chapter 1: Why this book? free on Elgaronline.

, , , , , ,


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: