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What makes a successful city?

Culture, innovation and governance have always been, and still will be, the drivers of the successful city in 2040

What makes a successful city?

What makes a successful city? There’s a huge body of literature which analyses this most complex and intriguing invention of human civilisation, but in this collection of insights, CBRE researchers return again and again to three key factors: culture, innovation and governance.


231_What makes a successful city_pullquote_270x110Successful cities are crucibles of culture: art, music, performance, food, architecture, identity and customs. This culture is both the generator and the product of success. Culture enables success because it provides for the exchange of ideas. It also offers both a challenge to, and a reassurance about, the identity of the city. And culture is also a product of success because well-educated citizens seek out stimulation and relaxation. Philanthropy and patronage contribute to culture in recognition of its contribution to the ‘good life’ – but also to associate brands with that life. And culture attracts the inquisitive traveller, creating tourism benefits and the further interchange of ideas. With this in mind, businesses need to understand how the cultural offer of a city might evolve, how a city can remain edgy and culturally relevant, and the way in which investors spot where the buzz of a city lies.


Cities are usually at the centre of innovation and technological advancement – a position they assume in part to survive - for example, in inventing ways to withstand the sheer size and complexity of the city as an urban form, from instilling building regulations after the Fire of London to Stephenson’s Rocket, the Metropolitan Line in the nineteenth century and Oyster today. ‘Smart cities’ and ‘smart buildings’ are merely two ways of imagining the future relationship between technology and the city. And cities have the critical mass required to support the highest quality educational offering, which has two effects. Firstly, this creates specialists including economic specialisms, for example, and comparative advantage such as financial services in Edinburgh or advanced manufacturing in Birmingham. Secondly, it enables the cross-fertilisation of ideas. So it is vital that businesses understand where innovation is thriving, and how to recognise it if they saw it.


There are more people living in cities than ever, and they are becoming more complex. For example, boundary disputes and differing objectives are making them difficult to govern; and they contain a diversity of political opinion and internal territories, as found in the dense inner city environment versus the leafier suburbs. The city argues with itself about how it wishes to evolve, as can be seen in debates about ‘social cleansing’ of housing estates, and an unease about gentrification; and in Britain, the city also struggles with its hinterland over its physical size, and with green belt which is deemed a largely sacrosanct way of holding back the tide.

With this in mind, decisions must be made over how to allocate resources to parts of the city, such as improving transport infrastructure, cleaning contaminated land or undertaking regeneration programmes. The successful city is one which has the necessary power to make, coordinate and fund decisions regarding such issues. But who decides and distils the essence of the city’s aspirations for itself, and guides the city to that goal? Businesses need to be able to identify the quality of city governance and understand how to engage with it; and the quality of that governance is connected to its skill in being able to engage effectively with the private sector.

Throughout history, cities which exhibit these characteristics seem to attract people and money. As the forces of globalisation allow money to flow ever more freely, cities are increasingly debating how they can attract investment by advertising the quality and sustainability of their urban offer on an international scale.

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