Design Fundamentals for an Attractive City

As part of my day-job is speaking at conferences, I get to visit a lot of wonderful cities around the world. The people and culture are fundamental prerequisites of a good city, but design and planning also play an important role in creating an attractive city. In this blog I list the dozen design features that I have found are indicators of cities that I most prefer – they are also actually my place-making criteria. This blog is also an excuse to share some of my holiday photos.

  1. Accessible to water – either a river, the sea or a canal system (with obligatory boat tour).
  2. Landmark historic feature – an old town, a castle, a cathedral etc.
  3. Public squares and piazzas with outdoor eating and drinking (and the occasional statue or fountain) or at minimum streets with wide pavements facilitating al fresco dining.
  4. A well-connected tram system or maybe a funicular or cable car. 
  5. Pedestrianised areas – not just for shopping but for exploring, preferably with narrow streets, winding steps, nooks and crannies.
  6. The right size – small enough to walk (or cycle) around in one day but large enough to have plenty of places of interest.
  7. A park or ample green spaces for chilling and contemplation, plus tree-lined avenues. 
  8. A nearby hill or mountain for exercise, more exploration and vista.  
  9. Craft beer and dedicated craft beer bars (I appreciate this is quite a personal criteria, but it is important to me).
  10. Good local cuisine, speciality national dishes and heart-warming comfort food.
  11. A market for food or bric-à-brac, plus independent stalls and shops in the main shopping streets.
  12. Interesting museums on local history, culture and artists.

Have I missed any key design or planning criteria? You may have noticed (and I was surprised too) that architecture isn’t on my list. I’m not at all sure why I did not include it, especially as it’s the dominant field that I work in, and as I do believe good architecture definitely affects the attractiveness of a city. It just didn’t appear to be one of my main criteria for selecting a city to visit maybe I’m more focussed here on the urban landscape and place more than buildings per se.


So, based on my above criteria, my memory and the limited cities that I have actually visited, my top ten cities are shown in the table below.

Barcelona (please don’t call it Barca) hits all the buttons for me. It has fantastic landmarks like the Sagrada Familia (and plenty of other Gaudí architectural masterpieces), access to the beach, several great art galleries (with artists I actually like), Las Ramblas with street stalls and plenty of piazzas with outdoor dining and tapas to easily explore. The craft breweries and bars have also taken off in Barcelona, particular around the university. There is not only a good tram system but you can easily get around by “donkey bike”.


London is placed mid-table but, whilst that is correct according to my criteria, I would not place it there, I think that is because perception of a place is based on much more than the physical elements. I have already mentioned the people and culture, but here I am referring to the basic environmental psychology (Lewinian) principle that our perception is determined by our expectations and experience as well as the physical elements. I visit London regularly to work, I am not just there on holiday or in good weather, and of course familiarity breeds contempt. (Regarding the UK I am more a fan of, and visitor to, the countryside and smaller towns than cities but would opt for Brighton, Bath, Chester or Llangollen over London). 


There are lots of other great cities, including ones I have visited such as Bergen, Helsinki, Munich, Paris, Oslo and Stockholm that just didn’t make the cut. So the above are my top ten for now. Have I missed any cities? Perhaps ones you rate highly (using my criteria) that I should visit.


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