Cities must put people at the center of their vision

Cities must put people at the center of their vision

In the past, many city leaders have focused on the businesses or industries they wish to attract. However, cities quickly need to shift that focus towards the type of people they want to attract.

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People waliking on the busy street

By Caroline Haynes, KPMG in the UK

There is nothing permanent about a city. Like a living organism, cities are in a constant state of flux. A city in decline needs a clear purpose and vision of its future identity, with people at its heart, to turn it around.

In the past, many city leaders have focused on the businesses or industries they wish to attract. However, my experience with KPMG’s Magnet Cities project has shown me that cities quickly need to shift that focus towards the type of people they want to attract. It is they who create prosperity, start businesses and build communities.

There is a stark contrast between the fastest growing urban areas, which are all in developing countries  and the fastest shrinking – many of which are in Europe . In the UK, London is a super-conductor of talent – drawing people in from all over the world. However, in 2014 more people aged 25-35 left London than moved to it for the first time in over 20 years . In many cases, they are not leaving for other parts of the UK, but to foreign cities seeking the same demographic and offer similar opportunities – like Hong Kong, Dubai or Berlin.

Cities that have a clear identity, which offer a good quality of life and which have the amenities demanded by their target demographic can move ahead of the competition. Pittsburgh in the US, Bilbao in Spain and Malmo in Sweden have all successfully dragged themselves from bust to boom.

Circumstances will be specific to each city, but once city leaders have identified who they are trying to attract – entrepreneurs, young families or creatives – they can build accordingly. There is a city in Korea that is specifically looking to attract ex-pat families, so the city authorities are designing and targeting the entire city to appeal to that cohort.

Getting representatives of the target group to input into the planning process is the next step. If you want to attract 25-year-olds, you need 25-year-olds to tell you what they want. Second-guessing what might appeal to them in five or 10 years’ time when the vision is realised is unlikely to work.

The most successful projects come about when city representatives hand over the planning to end users. Designing their own space allows people to identify with their city and their environment.

The city vision needs to be comprehensive, covering everything from public facilities to accommodation to sewage systems. If you are looking to attract families who care about the environment then you need to support that vision with everything from solar-powered apartments to a grey water harvesting systems.

Time is the biggest barrier to the successful realization of any such vision. It takes terrific political tenacity to stick with a plan, particularly if it involves creating a city for people who do not yet live there. It takes 8-15 years to change the population and dynamic of a city. That does not sit easily with political cycles.

In some cases the push for change has to come from beyond the political system. In Pittsburgh, it was university leaders who sought to build on the city’s heritage as a steel town to become a center for innovation. In other cities, it may be business leaders or other representatives of the local community.

Whoever creates the vision, they need to move fast to turn around declining in income or population. I strongly believe many cities must work now to identify who they need to drive their economies. Once they have a clear picture of who is in the future of their city, they can set about creating the environment to bring them there.

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