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Leisure • Art/Architecture

Eight Rules to Create Nicer Cities

In almost no area of modern life are the potential solutions simpler and our attachment to our errors greater than when it comes to designing cities. A moderately bright eight year old could work out what needs to be done and yet we seem deeply committed to continuing to make the same mistakes – with gigantic consequences for our sense of well-being; for how happy can any of us ever be in the deeply and entirely unnecessarily ugly urban environments that now scar our planet?

In the vain hope of trying to get the issues as clear as possible in our minds, here are eight rules required to create the sort of cities we all love and deserve.


We’ve been schooled for over a century in the idea that taste is relative and that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. These well-meaning concepts have been of immeasurable help to property developers who put up monstrosities and then stand back and tell us that no one can tell what’s nice anyway. Let’s do away with academic niceties. We all know that relativity isn’t remotely true when it comes to cities. Everyone loves Paris and no one likes Toronto – for very firmly grounded reasons. Let’s trust in rules, discover what they are – and stick to them.

There’s no ‘beauty might lie in the eye of the beholder’ about this. It’s just ugly and everyone knows it – even the architect’s parents.


All good cities are on a grid. What this means is that buildings are not deposited here and there like crooked teeth in a wonky mouth. They’re arranged in neat lines, at regular intervals, at similar heights. There are reasons why people pay good money for orthodontists – and they’re not dissimilar to why it’s nice to stand at one end of Fifth Avenue or the Boulevard Haussman and look down. Life is chaotic enough as it is; when it comes to how buildings are lined up, we crave and must have order.

We know this works, and the below doesn’t.
We have enough of this sort of confusion in our minds. Line them up in neat rows please…


Develop a moderately attractive type of box – and then just repeat it again and again for miles – so that everyone knows: I’m in Amsterdam, this is Paris, it’s Brooklyn here. Originality is for music or poetry. Architecture must be boring. It must repeat itself. It must look like everything else. A building’s streets should all look roughly the same, with the odd exceptions like railway stations and concert halls. An exciting architect should be as unwelcome a proposition as a freewheeling pilot or daredevil brain surgeon. Architects should be as stable as carpenters – and as reconciled to doing things the way they’ve essentially always been done. They should be paid by philanthropists never to unleash their so-called ‘creativity’ on the rest of us.

It’s not necessarily perfect, but it will do. Imagine how elegant modern London could be if this style was mandated on every new building, just as 19th century Paris imposed a set style on every new building (enforced by long prison sentences for any property developer who departed from the rules).


Again, we could quibble, but let’s not – because quibbling always benefits the enemy. Let’s agree on making it all the same height (apart from the odd heroic interlude). Six stories is usually the best, eight could work too, even (let’s say) 24 might function (think Manhattan). What’s key is: make it the same, make it regular, keep it neat and learn to love boring. Cities should have a rhythmic easily-identifiable beat, rather than aspire to an unfortunate version of jazz.

When everything is the same height, our minds are liberated to worry about what really matters.


We are at risk of getting dangerously over-complicated about things. An attractive city block is just a nice box with regular bands across it (the windows), a few variations in window sizes as you look up and – perhaps – an odd bit of decoration on it (everyone likes a ribbon or a pattern). It mustn’t be any more difficult than this; and yet how tragically we have failed by teaching architects to strive to make every building different from its neighbour. To repeat ourselves, we must repeat.

It isn’t genius – and it doesn’t need to be. Just a nice enough box, repeated again and again, on a regular grid.


We understand that some people in property (developers, architects etc.) may not have received adequate attention from caregivers in childhood. But this can’t be made to be everyone else’s fault. Everyone who builds must submit to a standard way, they must stop attempting to stand out – and for those who can’t, there must be penalties, most effectively of all, the active resentment of the many thousands who must suffer in the shadows of the towers of muffled insanity.

We can feel sorry for whatever happened in their past; we don’t need to all suffer the consequences.


We can have whatever reservations we like about democracy when it comes to picking leaders – but one thing is certain; when it comes to architecture, the mass consensus is always correct. That’s why tourists invariably flock to the genuinely nice places and no one – apart from architects and their spouses and long-suffering children – goes on holiday to Cumbernauld. Before any new urban development is approved, always give people a say – and present them with two options: the ‘creative’ property and architect sponsored one. And the ‘boring’ box principle advanced here. Beautiful cities will thereby automatically be assured. There is wisdom in the crowd, and we must be brave enough to use it.

A favourite with travelling architects: Cumbernauld, Scotland.


We have been brow-beaten into submission; we are crying but have forgotten we are. We don’t dare to admit the truth: we are desperate about how ugly everything around us is. But because we feel so helpless as to how things might ever improve, we bow to the misery – thereby condemning ourselves to ever more of it. Enough of the masochism. The last 120 years have been a catastrophe for cities. Let’s ensure that – starting right now – we develop the courage of our sadness.

This can’t be allowed to continue to feel normal.
There is no conceivable reason why things need to carry on as they are. Let’s overcome the madness of the few in the name of the sanity of the many.

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