What makes a city great?

The world is preoccupied with rating the city. From the towering skyscrapers of New York to Tokyo’s colourful neon and Melbourne's amiable public spaces, it seems there’s a way to grade every aspect of the modern metropolis.

Economists, sociologists and even politicians pick apart our cities, presumably ranking them so we might best select a place to live. What is unquestionable however, and it was the focus of BlueNotes’ MetropolisNow series, is human life is becoming inexorably more urbanised.

" It’s easy to get caught up in superficialities [of a city]."
Jean-Paul Pelosi, Property & technology journalist

Sydney, despite its shortcomings of urban sprawl and increasingly insufficient infrastructure, typically features on these lists. Indeed, such global status seems to matter to a rising global star like Sydney, even if the varied experiences within a city can be far less glamorous.

Of course, rankings differ based on the parameters. Some define great cities by their economic output or the number of job opportunities they create, while others are more concerned with culture or quality of life.

Consider Singapore which routinely scores well for its economy. It generates $US51,149 in economic output per person which makes it one of the richest and most developed nations in the world, according to the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) at the University of Toronto.

With the rapid rise of its creative middle class, it follows Singapore must be a great a place to do business.

Meanwhile, consultancy Mercer ranks Vienna, Zurich and Auckland as the three most ‘livable’ cities in the world, based on factors such as their political and social environments, economics, housing, transportation and the natural environment.

These cities apparently offer an array of enticements for prospective newcomers, which is the basis of the study’s undertaking.

Further still, the United Nations defines a ‘prosperous’ city as one that’s productive, provides adequate infrastructure, has a good quality of life, offers equity and social inclusion, and is practicing environmental sustainability.

The tally of these factors is called the city prosperity index and scores each city out of 100, with Hong Kong notching 57, for example, against Jakarta’s 51 and Sydney’s 66. (Notably, Auckland scored just 35).

But does all of this equate to greatness in a city?


It’s easy to get caught up in superficialities. After all, the size and grandeur of today’s cities can be mesmerising.

Busy marketplaces, streams of traffic and energetic crowds bustling among large structures catch our eye – the density a sort of achievement itself. In the most successful versions of the city, people gather and connect, bound by a shared identity and a sense of belonging.

The spaces they occupy seem to encourage unity, evolving a city beyond a mere collection of physical objects and sun-filled views.

Indeed, the very best cities are built on a vision, says Professor at the Faculty of Built Environment at the University of New South Wales, Bill Randolph.

“While Sydney has long been lauded as a great place to live and routinely ranks among the world's most livable cities, there's something missing in its make-up that prevents it from being seen as undeniably great – at least on the scale of cities like Shanghai, New York or Paris,” he says.

"Think of Manhattan – a pretty gritty place for some time. There’s a lot of grit as well as gloss. In Sydney, the grit and the gloss are spatially very distant from each other.”

Sydney’s origins as a penal colony meant there was once a lot of grit in the city but much of it was removed or demolished over the course of the last century, relegated to museums and a few heritage-listed buildings.

For better or worse, an obsession with new glossy forms took hold, confining most of the city’s wealth to its inner and middle rings.

As it is in most big cities, Sydney’s prime locations skyrocketed in value, especially during the last 30 years, which saw white collar residents move in and blue collar ones move out. 

This segmentation and the parochial position of the people who run the city has a stultifying effect on its progress, says Randolph.

“Most people [in Sydney] don't sit here complaining because it’s a vibrant community,” Randolph says.

“But most big cities have that. I get the feeling Sydney’s being held back by the dead hand of the top end of town that runs the place for its own good. And there’s no countervailing political group or policy in a sense that says, ‘yes I speak for Sydney and am focused on the city as a whole’.” 


Management consultancy McKinsey & Co says planning is imperative to a city’s success and suggests any plan should adopt a regional perspective both inclusive and flexible.

For example, as the city expands it will need the cooperation of surrounding municipalities. This is undoubtedly easier in the digital age, where communication is seamless and data can help to meet widespread challenges of neighbourhoods in every far off corner.

Former ANZ chief executive Mike Smith wrote about this for BlueNotes in 2014, noting while we tend to think of cities as concrete, glass and steel, the digitisation of both governance and infrastructure is increasingly moving us toward smarter cities.

“Building a smart city – one where digital technologies and big data can be used to get the most out of existing physical infrastructure – therefore becomes extremely significant in making cities even more livable and productive and addressing the challenges of urbanisation including congestion, pollution and public amenity,” Smith said.

This is already happening in Songdo, for instance, a purpose built smart city adjacent to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport.

Spanning 600 hectares, the city boasts 40 per cent green space, green buildings said to use 20 per cent less water and 14 per cent less electricity than a typical city of the same size, sensors to measure energy and temperature and monitor transport lines, universal broadband and a system that converts kitchen waste into clean energy.

Songdo has its critics however, because its focus on efficiency and intelligence seems to impact the engagement of its people with their surroundings.

Such criticism might be subjective but speaks to a broader idea the great cities of the world will always be more than just physical constructions, regardless of how far technology advances them. Indeed, the most livable cities – those that are equitable and creative – are made through politics, says urbanist and author, Leo Hollis.

“There is a definite sense amongst many thinkers that if you can get the right shape or form of a city, then that will somehow lead to a better outcome, that it is some kind of puzzle that you put the bits together to get a bigger picture,” he says.

“This is certainly the way that technology companies and corporations sell the smart city future – the internet of things, the value of big data to city governance.

“This strikes me to be a drive to de-politicise the city, exactly at the moment when we need to talk about politics more. Politics means the ways of the city – a return to thinking about the human aspects of our congested lives.”  


Good policy is said to be at the heart of strategies that have repopulated the inner and middle urban areas of Melbourne. By focusing on containing sprawl and making the city more compact, the Victorian government has helped to create a more vibrant and pedestrian friendly city centre.

“This has added a fine-grain walkable network to the entire downtown,” according to Helle Søholt of the renowned urban design firm, Gehl Architects, in an interview with McKinsey last year.

“The laneways were there the whole time. It was a matter of rediscovering, redesigning, and repurposing.”

Melbourne’s laneways succeed because of the way people dwell and connect within them. This is something the American sociologist Richard Sennett stresses – the importance of sociable public spaces – in which people can access unfamiliar knowledge and expand their horizons.

 In other words, they blend together in a trusted environment, enriching the city experience beyond a place to merely inhabit.

“Our cities are diverse, messy, human – always on the edge of chaos,” Hollis says. “Anyone who suggests that they are ordered, rational and controllable is dangerously wrong.”

“We must stop this direction of travel that one algorithm can sort out all the mess, that there is a city code that works out every problem. It places the city more and more into the hands of people who understand it the least.”

Jean-Paul Pelosi is a property and technology journalist

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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