Is your city lovable? Why the Great Migration is forcing city planners to rethink urban design

Bill Eggers leads the Center for Government Insights, a sort of think tank at Deloitte. Every year, his group produces 50 to 60 studies a year on all manner of things around government management and innovation, writing a fair amount on human-centered design (which fosters community and promotes connection) and smart cities (leveraging technology, services and infrastructure to make life easier). Lately, perhaps in part because of the pandemic’s effects, he’s noticing some remarkable developments happening in cities such as using technology to boost inclusion, creating more shared spaces to promote diversity and culture, and building spaces and experiences that make city living more intuitive. We spent some time chatting about it, to understand the landscape of how cities can design their way through what’s turning out to be both an at times murky and incredibly exciting period in urban design and city planning.

Fortune: What are you noticing most in your work right now?

Bill Eggers: We are seeing in the U.S. more mobility. People are moving because of COVID, people are working at home so they can live anywhere. We have never seen people have the ability to do that. Looking at some of America’s densest and most expensive metros and data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage increase in moves were in the double digits. Dense counties of major US metros saw a net decrease in flow into the cities while suburbs and smaller cities witnessed net gains.

Is that good or bad for cities? And how do you see the focus shifting in terms of how cities plan for the next handful of years?  

BE: For cities to attract and retain residents, they need to focus on these elements of lovability. For workers to have more freedom to work wherever they want. We have had a decade or more of smart cities movement. We have seen what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. Cities have been so focused on technology. People called it smart cities, with a real focus on the technology piece and not on the human piece.

Other than the COVID-19 pandemic, what other elements are influencing the need for a more human-centered shift?

BE: Think about the Afghan refugee resettlement. We haven’t seen anything like this since the Cuban boat lift decades ago. I’m writing about this now. How do we make their experiences so they feel loved and engaged in cities? I think that’s an interesting framework, where we have refugees being settled all over the country.

That is interesting. What about the average city dweller? How can cities design for the future and consider their needs?

BE: In order to retain and attract residents, cities need to focus more attention on livability and happiness; human connection. That is what people are really looking for. They want clean streets and good services and a variety of things. People have re-evaluated their lives and jobs and that’s what they’re looking for. The massive changes in the job market right now reflect that. So many jobs are going unfilled. It’s part of a bigger re-evaluation.

What about the Great Migration? How has the disruption of the labor market influenced this?  

BE: I used to live in Austin. I hear every day of a new company moving to Austin. It has a lot of different elements to it. I think one of the things businesses can do in the cities they are in is to encourage a process like Singapore did. The effort was led by DesignSingapore Council, the national agency for design and it engaged 2,500 citizens to explore these questions. What makes Singapore lovable? What would make it more lovable? 

When considering lovability, city leaders will run up against the question: Lovable for whom? A city that’s lovable for one might not necessarily be lovable for another. Moreover, city planners and managers are unlikely to be able to design cities that are equally lovable for all. This is why it’s important for leaders to consider the desires, needs, and sentiments of specific population segments—and make conscious choices around which segments they want to prioritize. To do this, leaders can craft a set of personas that represent the key groups that the city serves.

This is exactly the approach Singapore followed in its quest for lovability. It created four personas and mapped them to the six key attributes that make a city “human”. The mappings were then stacked to identify where more targeted approaches may be needed for the city to be lovable to these personas.

Additionally, this approach helped identify places/things that were not loveable along with the underlying reasons so that suitable actions can be taken to improve the lovability quotient.

So, what are the elements that make a city human?

BE: We identify six key attributes that make a city human. There is a strong correlation between inclusion, attachment, connection, stimulation, freedom, and agency. There is an affinity that people feel for the city, rather than for each other in order to cultivate similarity with the city. A lot of my family is from Boston for many generations. Bostonians tend to have a real attachment to cities. Then there is stimulation: socializing, learning, that is a huge attraction as to why people move to Austin and live there. Freedom is another one. They should feel free to express themselves. We talk about some of the neighborhoods in Sydney: the Fairfield district with Iraqi and Syrian Christian immigrants and the Greek enclave Little Athens allow new immigrants to feel connected to their roots which can increase attachment to a city. Empowerment comes through with agency. People want to influence change in their cities. How do you co-create policies for citizens? How do you do that in an inclusive process?

You mention Singapore and Sydney. Is there a city that’s done it well?

BE: Sydney, Singapore, and London are examples. London has explicitly committed to maintaining its position as one of the most exciting cities in the world. In addition to maintaining a strong commitment to diversity, the metropolis highly values creativity: It is home to more than 250 museums and art galleries, many of which are free to the public. Further, in 2016, London appointed its first Night Czar, whose sole responsibility is to ensure that the city is just as vibrant during the night as it is during the day. The role has pioneered initiatives such as the Night Tube, which initiated 24-hour public transportation on Fridays and Saturdays, measures to support venues such as nightclubs, and reviews of licensing approval processes to attract diversity within London’s nightlife venues.

Any others?

BE: Superkilen park in Copenhagen, Denmark, is interesting, too. It incorporates an eclectic mix of furnishings from all over the world, including a picnic table from Armenia, a swing set from Baghdad, and three tons of soil from the Palestinian territories. These elements were chosen by the community to cultivate points of discussion and learning among visitors. In this way, the park was designed to bridge the gaps between diverse neighborhoods.

How can businesses engage in this idea?

BE: Business has a huge role here, creating spaces and creating agency. I think this would need to be a partnership involving citizens in these processes as we did in Singapore.

There is a big push toward diversity, equity, and inclusion with offices opening up in cities. It’s about bringing this sort of a lens to a wide scope of things cities do. One of the biggest obstacles is to get alignment on what it means to be lovable. The study is the first attempt we know of to begin to define this holistically.

A second obstacle: getting policymakers, planners, and service delivery leaders to look at the areas they oversee through a lovability lens. Third, is this does require a considerable amount of stakeholder work, working across government agencies horizontally and across sectors.

I think that for instance issues around lack of attraction–stimulation. Vibrancy in public spaces. Human centered design is really critical. In policy, but also in how you think about this. It’s still not something in most city offices that is widely understood. It’s bringing a lot of this notion to many different things cities do: zoning and planning, to even how they are trying to address different problems they might have such as public safety issues. It is about bringing a lens to it. Fifteen years ago, people started talking about measuring happiness instead of GDP and people were skeptical about it.  But now there’s happiness indexes. I think what we have come up with is a new way of measuring and looking at this. It’s about updating some ideas that astute city planners and business leaders have been thinking about for a long time.

Nicole Gull McElroy


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James E. Webb, National Aeronautics and space administration administrator. 
Getty Images: Bettmann / Contributor

"James Webb served as NASA Administrator from February 1961 to October 1968. Though he never got a ticker-tape parade, James Webb may have been the most indispensable contributor to arguably the greatest public sector achievement in American history, leading the NASA space program through the political, administrative, and technical challenge of putting a man on the moon." - Bill Eggers, Center for Government Insights, Deloitte

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