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What We Really Love About Cities And Why Developers May Have Got It Wrong


Wet Manchester pavements under street lights, soggy pedestrians dodging each other? Or sunny afternoons in the park? The romance of the city strikes everyone slightly differently, depending on where you are.

But until now few in the property business have bothered finding out why people love a city, in what ways, and how those feelings might influence what you develop, where and when. 

Landsec has put that right after commissioning research from Public First.

The answer turns out to be what people most love about cities is each other and the values and history they share. This emotional, rooted urban patriotism is the driving force in city life, the research suggested.

The report — you can read it here — hints that big city facilities, although valued, are most often seen in the context of family, friends, history and loyalties that make up city life.

The lesson appears to be that dumping facilities in a place without listening for that complex emotional context will not get developers very far. Faking it will probably fare even worse.

The research uses the expression "urban patriotism" to sum up the emotional, visceral attachment to big cities, a feeling that is often central to residents’ sense of identity.

The research looked at every aspect of city life in detailed conversations with people in some of the UK's leading cities. The project comprised 12 focus groups in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. 

The first big discovery was that loving a city had a lot more to do with loving people than had been thought. City dwellers turn out not to be rootless and shifting, but to be thoroughly grounded in relationships with friends and family, and it is these relationships — not super shops or top-class theatres and restaurants — that keep them there. Residents certainly value the city lifestyle, but value it because it enables them to enjoy time with family and friends, the report suggested. Everything comes back to connectedness.

“Family and friends living nearby forges incredibly strong bonds between people and their home city," the report said. "This is true regardless of people’s family heritage [and] challenges the perception of cities as transient places of individuals, who stop only for a short time before moving on, never really gaining a deep attachment of any kind. 

“The truth is that, just like towns and villages, cities are places many people feel rooted to through family ties.”

But in cities this local loyalty turns into a pride that can be shared. The report says born-and-bred residents were proud to share their culture with newcomers.


The importance of historic buildings also turns out to be a lot keener than expected.

“The city’s physical aesthetics play a role… the fabric of historic buildings being a reminder of the city’s industrial heritage [and] a shared appreciation of the city’s architecture … is open to everyone,” the report said.

The same goes for sporting associations, which can also be readily adopted by newcomers.

A strong sense of inclusive urban patriotism helps foster a strong city brand that in turn attracts new residents, students and visitors. In short, the report reveals what we always knew: that people like to belong, and you can’t manufacture that feeling for them.

Attempts to create a false or artificial local culture got panned by the focus groups. “… participants spoke of their frustration that an increase in the cost of living and doing business was pricing out independent businesses — which add so much to the city’s identity — with more corporate ‘chain’ outlets replacing them, which they feel detract from the city’s culture,” the report noted. 

This didn’t mean urban patriots wanted a return to the past. Rather, they wanted a better balance in which new enterprises supported and reinforced a city’s values, rather than threatening or squashing it.

"What this research underlines is the vital importance of understanding ‘urban patriotism’ to anyone involved in creating and curating the built environment, and that by working with it and harnessing it, ‘urban patriotism’ can be a force for good,” Landsec Chief Executive Mark Allan said.

“Careful and conscious development comes from understanding the triggers for happiness and economic stability — development done well, will create that sense of place that has at its heart local identity and individuality.”