Perfect City: An Urban Fixer's Global Search for Magic in the Modern Metropolis

Perfect City: An Urban Fixer's Global Search for Magic in the Modern Metropolis

by Joe Berridge


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What are cities for? How do they really work? What does our urban future hold?

"There is nobody better to help us build a more perfect city than Joe Berridge...Read it if you want to help build a great city or just live in one that is more perfect for you."
– Richard Florida, University of Toronto, Author of Rise of the Creative Class

There may not be such a thing as a perfect city, but all great cities have moments of perfection -- perfect streets or buildings, perfect places to raise a family or to relax with a coffee -- and all of them strive for perfection when they undertake grand projects/ Cities, more than ever, are the engines of our economies and the ecosystems in which our lives play out, which makes questions about the perfectibility of urban life all the more urgent.

Joe Berridge, one of the world's leading urban planners, takes us on an insider's tour of the world's largest and most diverse cities,from New York to London, Shanghai to Singapore, Toronto to Sydney, to examine what is working and not working, what is promising and what needs to be fixed in the contemporary megalopolis. We meet the people, politicians, and thinkers at the cutting edge of global city-making, and share their struggles and successes. We visit a succession of great urban innovations, stop by many of Joe's favorite restaurants, and leave with a startling view of the magical urban future that awaits us all.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781999439514
Publisher: The Sutherland House Inc.
Publication date: 04/23/2019
Pages: 204
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Joe Berridge has played a key role in some of the largest and most complex urban regeneration campaigns in the world. He is an accomplished masterplanner of city centers, airports, waterfronts, and university campuses, with landmark projects in world capitals like New York City, London, and Toronto. Berridge has also contributed to the planning field in many other ways: lecturing at universities; serving on competition juries; and writing articles for The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and the Literary Review of Canada. He is a recipient of the Toronto Arts Award, as well as a Fellow of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Public Policy.

Read an Excerpt



Perfect city? That's absurd. There is no such thing, any more than there are perfect people. But cities, like people, do have perfect moments. They attain perfection here and there in different ways and it is these moments of perfection we hope to experience when we visit the great cities of the world. It is these moments we strive to create in the building of our own cities. And it is these moments that we have in mind when we search for the perfect place to work and raise a family, the perfect skyscraper or urban beach, the perfect city park or open-air market, the perfect place to sit with a coffee and enjoy the unique life of the city around us.

In recent times, the search for urban perfection has become more complex, more serious. The world is urbanizing at a dizzying rate, the biggest cities fastest of all. They now rival nation states as the places where the social, economic, environmental and political future of the planet will be resolved. The list of issues facing civic leaders is endless. What constitutes the best urban transit system, the best high school? How can we most productively settle new immigrants in the city, or deal most practically with the implications of climate change? What is the best strategy to stimulate urban innovation, to green the city, to bring back broken neighborhoods, to mitigate income inequality, to get people out of their cars, to run a city government that actually gets things done? Figure all this out and you would have the perfect city, but no one municipality is close to delivering it all.

It used to be easier. Much of what we like or admire in the great cities was produced by kings or potentates or all-powerful city bosses: The Prince Regent, Baron Haussmann, Robert Moses, Lee Kuan Yew. In the second half of the last century that top-down vision of urban perfection came to a crashing halt when the writer and activist Jane Jacobs stood in front of bulldozers in New York and brought the expressway construction promoted by her nemesis Robert Moses, the master city builder of mid-century New York, to a standstill. She repeated that same victory just a few years later in Toronto. A new vision of the perfect city was born, one that emphasized bottom-up, community-led, organically driven economic development. Jacob's vision remains to this day the predominant way of thinking about how to make good cities. Yet it too has its shortcomings. Effective, perhaps, at the local level, but it lacks the confidence and competence to tackle the big challenges of the modern megalopolis. There is no organic way to build a massive, integrated, efficient and affordable transportation system, or to plan a new airport, or to develop a new financial district. Suspicion of big ideas about cities, and erosion of the concentration of power necessary to make them happen, has led to lost decades of urban investment in many European and North American cities. All of this leaves us at a critical time in the practice of city building without a single dominant model for undertaking the task. That is not all bad. Rather, we are seeing fresh energy and experimentation in cities around the world, and an unprecedented global exchange of ideas, strategies and projects. The perfect city is being born the world over. It is this fascinating urban ferment and the resultant, exhilarating new searches for urban perfection that inspired this book.

* * *

Any conversation about perfectibility needs to begin with an understanding of the essential nature of the entity under consideration — the city. I work in and on cities all over the world and stand in awe of their vast complexity, their remarkable differences and yet their intriguing similarities. As a city planner, I think of myself as a kind of urban mechanic. Each city is a machine I am trying to fix, and each needs to be approached with a measure of humility because each has a life of its own. While cities are first of all machines, physical objects, they share a metabolism with their human inhabitants and the natural world. They are machines driven by the dynamics of history, geography, technology, environmental change and the global economy. Like every other living thing, they have patterns of growth and decline, regeneration and death, partly subject to human tinkering but in an equally important sense almost independent of our interventions, with dynamics all their own. Often times, modern cities seem almost to be making themselves, with those in charge, the perfection seekers, struggling for a mere semblance of control over what is happening. They cannot be planned so much as they can be nudged, patched, or pushed, especially today as the ever-accelerating pace of urban change shifts into overdrive. An urban mechanic can only be effective by acknowledging the power of these forces. You cannot confront them; you have to work with them as best you can.

Like any other machine, a great city is purpose built. The first task of the urban machine is to create and distribute wealth. It is on the economic prosperity of a city that all its other attributes depend. Living in Toronto, one of the most economically successful cities in the modern world, it is easy to forget how fundamental the creation of wealth is to the metropolis, along with the key processes of distributing that wealth through new jobs, investment in transit and service infrastructure, and the provision of community benefits like parks, schools and libraries. Wealth engenders a sense of hope and possibility in people. For the increasingly immigrant city, as most global metropolises now are, the prospect of a good job is the key bargain between the city and its new citizen. Without that, nothing but trouble lies ahead. A city's ability to generate wealth improves and declines partly in response to wider economic forces but also due to the quality of its management. Perfect City will take you to cities that have struggled, and are still struggling, with their ability to create new wealth for their residents. It will share those cities' strategies for urban prosperity and their perplexity with that particular quandary of the modern urban economy, its tendency, the more economically successful it becomes, to exacerbate a greater divide between rich and poor.

Cities are also machines for moving things around. People. Food. Water. Sewage. Electricity. Garbage. Goods. Bikes. Cars. Ideas. The amount of movement seems to increase exponentially as a city gets larger. These moving parts — the roads, transit systems, tunnels and bridges, sewers and water pipes, heating and cooling systems, fiber-optic cable — are all aging and decaying at the same time as new demands are being put on them. And the technology and business model that underpins them is itself in flux. The taxi system collapses in the face of Uber and Lyft, the urban energy demand shifts towards renewable sources. Some cities are introducing road tolls, others bike lanes, and still others both. All cities are trying to update their transit systems in the face of rapidly changing trends; some can and some can't. The urban machine evolves sometimes gradually and sometimes with a jolt, even as those tunnels and bridges, roads and tracks inexorably decay. The urban mechanic scarcely knows which way to turn.

Uniquely, the urban machine also provides a home, the place where we humans now predominantly live. The creation of home, in the full sense of that word, is another basic task of any city. The search for home is one of the most powerful drivers in our lives and the perfect city must provide that essential sense of security and welcome, that benign domesticity for which we all search. It needs to accommodate us night and day as we raise our children, look after our parents, care for our neighborhoods, walk around after sundown, and soundly sleep. It must connect us with jobs and life partners, and comfort us in our life struggles, whether we seek to make a fortune or simply to pay the rent. It needs to provide us with all the amenities of modern life, the urban equivalent of household appliances: parks, schools, libraries, office and retail spaces, hospitals and educational institutions. And it must do this for a stunning diversity of people. One of the most formidable challenges in city building today is how to make the city a home in which both long-term residents and a flood of newcomers from all over the planet can reside as productively, harmoniously and joyously as possible. The tides of urban in-migration have never been stronger, creating a historically unique human environment in the modern metropolis. The world's big cities now typically have about a third of their population made up by new migrants from other countries, some as much as a half. Urban diversity at such a scale has never happened before and these population flows are not going to diminish. The perfect city has to release the energy of this new human capital and at the same time turn its immigrants into citizens. The top dozen global cities also have to contend with severe stresses in their housing markets, with prices that threaten to choke that key supply of labor on which they depend. Many of the cities we will be visiting are struggling with how to build fast enough to keep up with demand and still provide for those on lower incomes.

Finally, a great city is a place of enduring delight. People move to cities not just for functional reasons and material opportunity but because cities are and always have been the greatest of human creations. Urban delight is not a conventional aesthetic. It goes far deeper than a painting or a performance. It involves the look, the sound, the smell of the city, the movement of its streets, the dynamic interactions of person and place, of solids and voids. It does not follow the normal rules. Some cities enchant you with their regenerated waterfronts, or with memorable or provocative architecture. But just as often delight is found in the strangest of places, in the corners of the city, in its left-over and hidden backs and fronts. Urban delight, as we shall see, can even be ugly. It comes in myriad forms — which is just as well, since over half the world's population now lives and works in big cities and calls such places home. We might as well all find something to enjoy.

* * *

Perfect City starts where I started as a city planner and still live and happily call home, a place not that well known to the rest of the world, one that has arrived somewhat accidentally to the role of megalopolis, the perfectly imperfect city of Toronto. We move on to New York — where else but to the current capital city of the world, the focus of today's economic and cultural power, to study how that most impressive of mayors, Michael Bloomberg, reframed its future. We will visit London, a city that regained its upward trajectory after decades of post-war decline, boldly rebuilding and extending its transit lines, staging a successful Olympics and managing a dramatic improvement in educational outcomes for its increasingly diverse population, but now facing a gravely uncertain future following the Brexit vote.

Any thinking about the global urban future has to get away from the west and observe, with awe and uncertainty, cities such as Singapore, which has vaulted to the top of the global urban hierarchy in its own distinctive way — an approach that has forced me to reconsider mine — and to exploding Shanghai, soon to be larger than New York, London and Singapore put together, a city whose scale, energy and effectiveness should make it capital of the world by the end of the century.

The crucial function for any big city has always been to accommodate newcomers from other countries or from the countryside, turning them into contented, productive citizens. Toronto and Sydney, two of the most culturally diverse, economically vibrant and remarkably harmonious cities in the world are distant cousins in the creation of a practical urban social democracy. Both are in the process of inventing a new, post-ethnic culture of urban citizenship, a distinctive new version of home.

And then there are cities struggling with unique challenges: Belfast, trying to find civic harmony after the worst thing that can happen to a city, an urban civil war; and Manchester, energetically re-inventing its economic machine, culture and football teams after industrial collapse and a devastating act of terrorism that obliterated much of its urban core. We will see how each of these smaller cities is working to remain relevant in a world in which fewer and fewer global cities seem more and more dominant.

I have been fortunate to spend my working life as an urban insider. As an international urban consultant, I have competed in the high-energy, high-risk global market for ideas on cities and their futures. I have sat with city mayors and managers, architects and activists, developers and entrepreneurs, citizens and community groups, as they searched for urban perfection. One of the most remarkable conclusions as a city builder is that despite — or perhaps because of — the complexity of great cities, nothing of substance happens unless one individual makes it happen. I will introduce you to some of these remarkable people, and the policies and programs, strategies and solutions that different big cities are employing to remain competitive, equitable and sustainable.

Above all else, I want to share my love for cities with readers as we walk through their backs and fronts, their centers and suburbs, as we sample their stores and restaurants, upscale and down market, their public facilities, their cultural offerings, their recreations and, of course, their street theater. You must see the center of any city, but you must also get out of the center and travel to the end of the subway line, to the outskirts where many of my most fascinating projects have been, to the home of the urban precariat, to the low end of income inequality, where in many ways the future of the perfect city will be resolved for good or ill. We will contrast and compare the wealthiest and the poorest neighborhoods of New York, London and Toronto, and we will spend perhaps an inordinate amount of time in public libraries, one of the least appreciated yet most important elements of urban infrastructure.

No discussion of urban life can avoid the subject of city government. Municipalities are traditionally the junior level of government, beneath national and state or provincial legislatures. City hall has traditionally been disdained as parochial, petty, and corrupt. Local councils are often figures of fun. Yet some smart municipal governments and their host countries are realizing that if cities truly are the engines of the new economy, the critical entry point for immigration and the place where national cultures and values are increasingly set, then how cities are managed is of central importance to the welfare of the whole. City government has to be simultaneously big and small — big enough to manage large transportation systems, housing affordability, public safety and major economic development projects, and yet small enough to engage directly with its citizens to whose homes it delivers so many local services. Many of the cities I have worked in are struggling to find the right balance between necessary structural initiatives and smaller, more intimate interventions, and some are failing because they cannot.

As a city planner, I have worked in and on many of the world's great cities, and some of the not so great, as they strive for perfection. Perfect City is also about my life in those cities and about what I have seen and learned along the way. I am an urban practitioner, not a theorist, suspicious of those with elaborate theories on urban planning. Cities are as complicated as life itself. Planners operate in the space between city government, private investment and individual citizens, a tricky game of middle ground and compromise. Unlike theoreticians, or look-at-me architects, planners are joined in a profession of modesty. How can you really direct the future of cities that are the product of such powerful forces, that are the repositories of so many domestic dreams, and whose delights are often more a consequence of accident than intention? My profession falls way short of a science but, done effectively, it can be an art. I will share my joys, confusions, struggles, successes and failures in pursuit of that art.

Fortunately for me, many smart people have themselves wrestled with these questions about the perfectibility of urban life. We will meet important writers, city builders and researchers as we conduct our global tour. Front of the line has to be the pair that still struggles for the soul of the city: the writer and activist Jane Jacobs and her nemesis, Robert Moses, the master builder of post-war New York. Jacobs, a long-time friend and neighbor in Toronto, taught us that the organic power of a city is its key source of wealth and happiness. Moses taught us what it takes to harness money and power to instigate large-scale urban change, to actually get things done that make a difference. The conflict between them and their ideas has endured half a century, and at some points it has tended towards caricature, but it remains instructive and it is the starting point for our discussion of where cities are headed in the future. We will meet my colleague at the University of Toronto, Richard Florida, perhaps today's most astute observer of the drivers of the modern city, and Dr. Cheong Koon Hean, the Singaporean civil servant who put her finger on the key ingredient for her city's remarkable success: "All we have is brains."


Excerpted from "Perfect City"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Joe Berridge.
Excerpted by permission of Sutherland House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Perfect City,
2. Patron Saint of the City,
3. New York – Top of the Spike,
4. Singapore – The Other Way to Build a City,
5. London – Turning a City Around,
6. Manchester – Once Upon a Bomb,
7. Belfast – Nobody Knows My Troubles,
8. Toronto – The Accidental Metropolis,
9. Sydney – The Chocolate Teapot,
10. Shanghai – Capital of the Future,
11. And the Perfect City is ...,
About the Author,

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