I’ve been travelling a lot in Europe recently, and I’ve come to the conclusion that making a great, vibrant, creative city is really, really simple.
What follows is my 5-step plan to better cities. If you get these things right, ALL else will follow.
1) Sort out transport
Trams all over the inner city district. Subway lines and trains everywhere else. Don’t think spokes into a hub. Think spiderweb. People want to go to parts of the city that are not The Mall.
Simplify the pricing. There should be no more than three ticket prices:
a) Anywhere, using any form of public transport anytime in the next hour;
b) Anywhere, using any kind of public transport anytime in the next 24 hours; and
c) Anywhere, using any kind of public transport anytime in the next 7 days.
Also, make sure you add bicycle lanes EVERYWHERE. And I’m not talking about bus lanes that you’re allowed to cycle in, bits of the road that cars usually park in, or cycle paths that suddenly stop for no readily apparent reason. Install separate cycle lanes that cyclists can actually use without dying.
And while you’re at it, subsidise bikes, reward people for using them – and make them available to rent on every street corner in the city on a coin (not card) pick up & drop off anywhere system.
Banning cars from the city centre would also help.
And replace the Tannoy in the train station. Making it excruciatingly loud doesn’t compensate for the fact it sounds awful.
2) Sort out Wi-Fi
Fast, free and everywhere. It’s not difficult and it’s not expensive.
Cafes, hotels, train stations, airports, pubs, venues and libraries MUST have free, open access wifi. This is good for business, good for people and good for the city.
3) Sort out public art
Commission works. Make them interesting. Put them in cool places.
But most importantly – generally speaking, just leave the graffiti where it is. Stop trying to clean it off – it just makes things uglier.
There’ll be a period for a couple of years where the graffiti will look untidy – but this is a self-healing system. Good art springs up to replace bad art. Skills improve. Ambitions are raised. The art becomes a tourist attraction.
Erect and allocate graffiti-friendly walls. Commission murals. Invite graffiti crews and other artists to decorate trains and buses, bus shelters and drab exterior walls. Spending money on removing graffiti would be better spent on pretty much anything else. Repairing windows, maybe. Or new commissions.
In other words – supply art FOR the public – but also encourage art BY the public. Sounds like madness? It’s not.
4) Get decent signposts
Where are things? How far away are they? Tell me what sort of thing they are.
“Michaelson Centre” or “Pondhouse” means nothing to a visitor – or to most residents, probably.
Where’s all the cool stuff happening? Posters for events, gigs and happenings should be EVERYWHERE.
Sort out your street signs. You should be able to see what street you’re on, and what street intersects with it from pretty much anywhere. Road signs at knee level on buildings are utterly useless. Make proper, visible signs, and then put them up on poles where we can see them.
Free maps and easy to follow transport route guides would be really helpful too.
Show us where the entrances to the canals are. How far is it to the train station from here? In which direction?
Surely this isn’t rocket science.
5) Abolish bad food
Seriously. Ban microwaved bread. Train baristas properly. No – I mean REALLY properly. Outlaw instant coffee.
Make the act of using fresh ingredients and baking daily a minimum mandatory requirement in order to gain a licence to serve food. Sandwiches should not come pre-packaged.
And while we’re at it, let’s instigate a 2-mile exclusion zone for global food and drink chains. If there’s a Starbucks in the city centre – the next one’s two miles away, minimum. Likewise Costa, Greggs, Nero, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Subway… anything.
Subsidise independent cafes.
In fact, you know what? Subsidise good food. It makes your citizens smarter and healthier. You’ll save a truckload on health costs, and you’ll find the city centre a much more pleasant experience.
Eating out should be the social and cultural lifeblood of the city – not a chore that you have to endure a few times a day.
And that’s it. Dubber’s 5-step plan for making any city worth living in. Everything else will follow from there. A vibrant, cultural life with plenty of music, performance, arts and creative works. A healthy business culture with thriving SMEs. Places that people will want to live. Tourism. New business investment. The lot.
Most European cities do some of this well. Some are pretty close to getting all of it right. Birmingham, sadly, is an Epic Fail on all counts. It’ll be a brave public official that instigates these five steps – but their name will ring down through the generations as the saviour of the city and a local hero for all time. Yes, it’ll be expensive, but it’d pay for itself within the decade, and the rewards will grow exponentially.
Transport. WiFi. Art. Signage. Food.