Cities 101: The new players in city-making (Part III)

GoCar’s driving vision is to create sustainable cities by transforming urban mobility. Cities 101, a series by Yan Teh, contextualises this vision within wider urban perspectives. Part III introduces the new players on the city-making scene: businesses, brands, and you.

Change is inevitable. Empires rise and fall. Society evolves, technology advances, and even in the microcosm of our individual lives, family, friends, and lovers come and go. The only constant is change. What’s new is the blistering pace of change we experience today. And in this state of flux, a gaping space has opened up for new actors to influence our cities.

Private actors, unlike the public authorities described in Part II, are less likely to get mired in bureaucracy. Where government agencies have to juggle multifarious stakeholders’ interests, carefully straining proposals through regulations and committees, private actors have the luxury of single-minded focus, allowing them to act fast and scale solutions quickly. Resourcefulness and creativity make up for the lack of access to public coffers. So who are these new city-makers?


The business of city-making

Where there is money to be made, businesses sprout. This applies to city-making as much as to any other industry, and so we have a growing contingent of businesses that exist to solve urban problems.

Many cities are short on space and community. As rapid urbanisation (people moving to cities) intensifies demand for limited affordable housing and work spaces, rental rates soar. Meanwhile, buzzwords like “digital nomads” abound. This refers not to Macbooks in teepees, but to a revolving door of transient workers, floating from city to city without meaningful roots or community ties. Loneliness is rife in modern, community-starved cities. This epidemic has grim repercussions: loneliness is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; shortens your lifespan as much as obesity and smoking do; and increases your risk of dementia, heart disease, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression.

Above: Technology-enabled remote work – blessing or curse? (Image: Rawpixel)

The private sector is taking on space scarcity and loneliness with two novel ideas: co-working and co-living.

Co-working spaces charge members a fee to access shared office space and facilities like wi-fi, receptionists, coffee machines, printers, and meeting rooms. Bolstered by a growing gig economy, co-working grants freelancers and start-ups affordable access to an office. International co-working giant WeWork has 250,000 members in 74 cities; WeWork claims to multiply jobs, support local economies, and stimulate collaborative innovation.

Co-working spaces typically hire community managers to program social events, bringing together individuals who would otherwise be scattered in random coffee shops or working alone at home. Work connections carry more weight now that many people spend more waking hours working than with family or friends. In New York City and San Francisco, co-working outfit Spacious is tackling space scarcity, too. Spacious transforms under-utilised spaces like restaurants which only open at night into beautifully decorated, productive offices until the dinner crowd arrives.

Co-living works on the same principle: private bedrooms and bathrooms; shared everything else. Despite being reminiscent of student accommodation, co-living is catching on like wildfire. Or perhaps even because of that similarity. Maybe the communal aspect of campus living – that social vibrancy – is why many remember university as the time of their lives.

Co-living start-up Common has residences in four major US cities; almost 10,000 people applied for rooms in 2016. In the same year, The Collective Old Oak launched in London. Designed to maximise social interaction, its 550 tiny bedrooms made it the world’s largest co-living development. The mostly young professional residents share a library, lounge, cinema, rooftop terrace, spa, laundrette, and gym. They meet in kitchens and dining rooms, and at a sparkling array of social events. Both Common and The Collective emphasise joining a lively and welcoming community.

Hong Kong.jpg
Above: Hong Kong has been named the world’s least affordable housing market for the eighth year running. According to US planning consultancy Demographia, the median property price in Hong Kong is equivalent to 19.3 times the median annual household income. In London – another infamously expensive city – the same ratio stands at 8.5 times. (Image: Daxis)

Skyrocketing housing prices are driving the trend in Asia, with developments springing up in Singapore, China, and Hong Kong. In Malaysia, Penang Island City Council and Think City are converting heritage shophouses into affordable co-living spaces. Mayor Yew Tung Seang has urged private shophouse owners to adopt the business model for better return on investment; simultaneously, he hopes to revitalise George Town by luring people back with lower rental rates.

As the cost of living rises, co-living is a solution to consider with an open mind. (Especially for enterprising property owners and developers – those who stake their claim in the market early stand to profit from first-mover’s advantage.)

Continuing with the sharing theme, car-sharing tackles a different set of urban problems. Urban sprawl and inadequate public transportation make private vehicles a necessity for most Malaysians. But car ownership remains out of financial reach for much of the population. In addition, our car-centric cities jeopardise citizen and environmental health. The 28 million vehicles on our roads churn out greenhouse gases, worsen air pollution, and exacerbate the urban heat bubble every day. Countless hours are wasted sitting in gridlocked traffic.

Traffic gridlock.jpg
Above: The 2014 US Census found that the country’s 139 million workers commuted an average of 26 minutes each way to work. Multiplied out over five days a week, 50 weeks a year, this equates to 1.8 trillion minutes – or 3.4 million years – spent on commuting alone. With the same amount of time, we could have built nearly 300 Wikipedias, or built the Pyramid of Giza 26 times. (Image: Brett Jordan)

Car-sharing providers like GoCar Malaysia place cars around a city; users unlock the cars with smartphones and pay for car use by the minute, hour, day, etc. This reduces the need for private vehicle ownership by filling in the “last mile” gap, connecting city-dwellers to public transport hubs beyond walking distance. Since not everyone needs to drive at the same time, a single car can serve many people throughout the day, rather than sitting idle and wasting precious space. Lower demand for new cars also reduces the need for carbon-heavy car manufacturing, whilst having fewer cars on the road eases traffic congestion.

Car-sharing is car use without the financial and time burdens of car ownership: maintenance, insurance, road tax, fuel, cleaning, depreciation, and the price of the car itself. Paying for a car only when you need one is a more efficient use of money. When car-sharing providers handle the time-and-cash-suckers in bulk, society wins too: the saved time and money can instead be spent contributing to family and community life, the economy, and the vibrancy of a city. A day wasted getting your broken-down car towed and repaired is a day you could have spent taking your family to the park.

Above: Alan Cheah, CEO of car-sharing provider GoCar. The home-grown Malaysian start-up has 300 cars across Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi, with plans to expand into Johor and Penang. (Image: GoCar Malaysia)


Brands: the new urbanists?

So far, we’ve looked at businesses that exist to solve urban problems. But businesses can also produce urban solutions without that being their raison d’être. Brand urbanism is on the rise: companies choosing to spend their bountiful marketing dollars on improving cities in some way.

Some brands make small gestures. Smart (the microcar manufacturer and sister company of Mercedes-Benz) ran a successful road safety campaign in Lisbon, discouraging jaywalking by delighting waiting pedestrians with a dancing traffic light figure. Other brands are more dramatic. Last year, Nike constructed a 200-metre running track covering an entire Manila city block. Dubbed “Unlimited Stadium,” the interactive track enabled runners to race against LED avatars of themselves.

Brand influence can also go city-wide. London’s bike-sharing program launched with £25 million of sponsorship from Barclays Bank. For six years, the 6,000 bikes were famously decked out in Barclays blue. On the other side of the Channel, the Belgian city of Charleroi was voted ugliest city in the world. Dutch paint company AkzoNobel (which owns Dulux) stepped in, donating 15,000 litres of paint to brighten the city. Having residents carry out the paint work themselves forged closer community ties, strengthening their sense of ownership over the city.

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Above: A row of Barclays bikes near King’s Cross station in Central London. (Image: David Skinner)

In contrast to these one-off donations, Southwest Airlines’ “Heart of the Community” program disburses annual grants. Together with non-profit Project for Public Spaces, the program helps local community partners bring new life to public spaces. 2016 winner Woodruff Park is becoming a hub of activity in Atlanta, Georgia, hosting costumed dog festivals and carolling choirs. A custom-designed mobile cart offers park visitors information, games, and power outlets, whilst employing disadvantaged youth and people re-entering the workforce.

Critics of brand urbanism raise ethical questions like whether it is right to sell the public realm to private corporations. But for cash-strapped councils, wealthy brands’ contributions of money and ideas are a welcome boost. If judiciously executed, brand urbanism can be a win-win-win for councils, brands, and citizens.


We, the people

So there are companies which exist to make cities better. There are companies which exist for other reasons, but still spend money making cities better. And then there’s you. You, the citizen, hold in your hand unprecedented power to influence your city. As Christian Madera writes:

The last great technological advancement that reshaped cities was the automobile (some might argue it was the elevator). In both cases, these technologies reshaped the physical aspects of living in cities – how far a person could travel or how high a building could climb. But the fundamentals of how cities worked remained the same.

What’s different about the information age that has been ushered in by personal computers, mobile phones and the Internet is its ability to reshape the social organization of cities and empower everyday citizens with the knowledge and tools to actively participate in the policy, planning and management of cities.

Above: A man takes a photograph with his smartphone in Paris – now a ubiquitous sight around the world. (Image: Melissa Barra)

Singapore’s grassroots cycling group Love Cycling SG is a prime example: it originated as an informal weekly cycling session between co-founder Francis Chu and his ex-colleagues. Gradually, their small gathering grew into a thriving community of over 18,000 cycling enthusiasts on Facebook, with many localised spin-off chapters. Love Cycling SG has drawn attention from both private and public actors. At Singapore’s 2018 Urban Design Summit, Mobike (the world’s largest bike-sharing company) and Land Transport Authority representatives praised the group, welcoming their input in developing Singapore’s transport ecosystem. Love Cycling SG demonstrates the power of one citizen to effect change in his city – impacting mobility, boosting health and wellbeing, strengthening community ties, and reducing carbon emissions as a result.

The Netherlands’ Benches Collective is another example of ordinary people changing their city. The creators of the platform saw untapped potential in the private benches outside Amsterdam homes. Bothered by how few neighbours actually knew each other, Cathelijn de Reede and Jesse Jörg took to sitting in front of their own house to talk to passing pedestrians – even serving them coffee and home-baked cake. That was in 2014. Since then, over 1,500 bench hosts across 20 countries have joined in, opening up their benches for neighbours and strangers to meet over wine tasting, tarot card readings, dance lessons, and sidewalk chalk art. “The world’s largest open-air café,” they call it.

De Reede and Jörg now want to transform every public bench in the world into a mini community hub. On their website, you can locate participating benches or list your own. Many hosts and visitors remain in contact with neighbours and new friends post-bench; 31 percent even report that their neighbourhoods feel safer with open benches.

Children street
Above: Children playing in the street in Bacolod City, Philippines. Once upon a time in Malaysia, our grandparents did the same. Why are our neighbourhoods today devoid of children running free? (Image: Brian Evans)

Of course, not all citizen-led city-making takes place online. In Wichita, Kansas, Yellowbrick Street Team used 120 toilet plungers to protect a stretch of bike lane that cars often encroached onto. After the ensuing media attention, city authorities made the makeshift protection permanent by installing proper flexposts.

*    *    *

Businesses, brands, and citizens play an increasingly important role in shaping our cities. This is good news: we need all hands on deck to tackle the daunting urban challenges of this century. Two of those challenges, the inextricably linked issues of mobility and public space, will be the focus of Part IV.

Coming up: Part IV of Cities 101 will show how transforming mobility unlocks the potential of public space. In case you missed it, Part I explained why cities matter, and Part II highlighted the professions that shape our cities.

Special thanks to Joop de Boer: his 2018 Singapore Urban Design Summit keynote, “City-Making in a Fluid World,” inspired and influenced this piece. Joop is a Dutch urban planner and co-founder of interdisciplinary magazine Pop-Up City.

Copyright © 2018 Yan Teh. All rights reserved.

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