I love a good urban environment. I’ve been trying to think about what makes my favourite cities appealing to me and I’m still stuck. Tokyo makes the grade but Sydney does not. Hong Kong is a definite yes but Kuala Lumpur is a definite no. Bangkok and New York are so-so.
Density is one of the big drawcards. I’m a fairly low-stimulus kind of person, so going to a big city that is thronging with people and noise is a pleasant kind of overload for me. I have to go somewhere quiet after a while though.
Verticality is mesmerising to me. One of the things that I love about Hong Kong is that it’s built into the side of a series of mountains, so that one has to think about the space in three dimensions. Giant bridges join buildings at the fifth or sixth storeys. The third dimension is intoxicating. Compare that to flat, grid-like Melbourne.
A friend suggested that maybe it’s all the straight lines, that somehow they appeal to my brain, but I don’t think that’s it. If anything a really dense city has so many straight lines that they blur and mesh into a messy whole that resembles a natural environment.
Jane Jacobs, the renowned American-Canadian writer on urban studies has stated that vibrant cities need four things: Multi-function districts, small blocks with dense intersections, a diversity of age and form, and sufficient density of people and buildings. By these criteria the post-war Soviet reconstructions of Eastern Europe are among the worst examples of urban planning ever seen. Canberra isn’t too crash hot either.
I think that Tokyo might be my favourite, and it fits all of the Jacobs criteria. It’s dense, vertical, and busy. But added to that everything has a strangely human feel about it. The streets twist and turn in unpredictable ways and dwellings are mixed in with small shops and small shrines or parks. Few things are deliberately monumental. It feels like a place that people could actually live.