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What Makes Cities Great?

Smart cities. Innovative cities. Cities fit for the future. There’s a lot of discussion, these days, about cities and how they need to evolve in order to be able to accommodate demand.

But not all cities are growing. Not all cities are successful.

Consider Detroit. In 1701 it was a mere village. It was over 100 years before it became a city. By 1860 it had over 45,000 inhabitants – with growth driven, largely, by the railroad. But Detroit’s main growth spurt came as a result of the road and the automobile. Assembly line manufacturing by motor manufacturers like Ford made it Motor City. After the Second World War, Detroit had a second economic boom.  Massive increases in motor manufacturing caused urban sprawl and a myriad of suburbs.

With the decline of the US automotive sector and questionable planning policies, Detroit fell from grace. Between 1960 and 2012 Detroit’s population declined by more than 50% (from around 1.5 million to a little over 700,000).

Other cities have suffered similar fates. Since 1950 some 59 American cities have shrunk in population size, 27 in Britain, 26 in Germany and 23 in Italy.  Meanwhile, a whole new raft of cities is emerging like Beihai in China or Ghaziabad in India.

Not all growth is good growth, of course.

Future Cities Catapult, in conjunction with NESTA and Accenture, has published a new guide called CITIE.

According to authors, “The guide provides a means of benchmarking the way in which cities encourage innovation, assessing them on criteria such as investment, regulation and willingness to adopt new technologies and processes. The approach was developed through consultation with city government leaders, policy experts, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs, ultimately identifying 36 policy levers that enable innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Such policy levers, presumably, are the reasons why cities grow and thrive rather than shrink and stagnate – or grow in all the wrong ways.

CITIE’s 215 analysis puts New York at #1 spot in the league table of World’s Top Performing Cities. London was pushed to number 2 slot – because of London’s “lack of CTO and Innovation Team”. Whether such titles/teams are that important to city success is subject to debate. But it’s good to see Future Cities Catapult and its partners encouraging that debate.