As I sit in my small study in Oxford, watching rain lash the car park, I feel smug knowing that Oxford was recently rated Britain's best city to live in.
This comes from a report by PwC and think tank Demos called "Good Growth for Cities," which analyses Britain's biggest cities based on something called "urban economic wellbeing." This rates cities based on how they rank in terms of helping people achieve their priorities in life: well-paid jobs, good work-life balance, reliable public services, affordable homes, and so on.
I try not to take this sort of research too seriously. There are many ways you can conduct this sort of study, and done another way, somewhere else would come out on top. Nevertheless, it got me thinking.
First, it highlighted an idea that may be unpopular with urban designers: One city can't do everything. Oxford came out on top based on strong points such as access to well-paid jobs, but it was marked down due to high house prices and a poor work-life balance for the people doing those well-paid jobs. Cities will always face trade-offs, but in successful cities, the good will outweigh the bad.
Second, it shows that we cannot simply rank cities based on indicators such as financial performance. We need to judge them based on how they help the people in them achieve what they want out of life. Demos and PwC tried to apportion different weight to certain criteria based on what people think is most important and have produced a thought-provoking report because of it.
Third, technology is not the be-all and end-all. If technology can be used by a city to help people to better achieve their goals in life then I'm all for it. But we don't want cities mindlessly putting in pricey technology, with no benefit for residents, just because they think every other city is doing it.
This is an argument raised in the report. It warns that urban planners may be tempted to introduce digital hubs and attract "green" jobs to cities that do not need them and cannot support them. To stop this from happening, it says the public sector, businesses, and academics must work together to look at the particular strengths of a city, and work out feasible ways to help the city build on its strengths. It is then up to local and national governments to put in place policies that can help cities flourish.
Each city has its own strengths. In Oxford, this may mean taking advantage of the world-class university, or providing more support to the region's science-based entrepreneurs.
The report gives the example of Finnish capital Helsinki, which has chosen to specialise in finding ways to use creative urban design as a way to help solve social problems. As a result, it has been named World Design Capital for 2012, and its priority is using innovative design to help solve social problems. If cities can specialise like this then they don't need to be like London or New York.
My worry is that identikit whizzy infrastructure and high-tech buildings may make all cities look and feel the same. We don't want that. Urban designers must remember that cities will define success in different ways, and that they must find different ways to achieve it.
I don't want Oxford to be like London. That's what London is there for.
— Rich Heap, Correspondent, Property Week