This is the second part of a three-part series on ‘Cities’. The first part details why cities form and what makes the existing cities so successful in surviving the test of time. The third part covers even more factors behind successful cities and explains how technology transforms cities and how it’ll transform them in the future.

In part 1 of this series, we learned that a city’s geographical proclivity is often the biggest determinant in whether it’s successful or not. Geography can make or break a city.

But geography can’t be the only factor contributing to a city’s success or lack of it. Why do cities with similar geographies differ in prosperity? What are additional reasons making certain cities major and others minor? How do we use all these nuances to make informed choices to live, work and travel for a thriving life?

The might of mixed-use cities

There are many aspects of city life that fly under the radar.

People summarise a city they’ve been to with a myriad of adjectives to capture its atmosphere.

London is diverse and bustling. Paris is romantic and fashionable. Bangkok is vibrant and loud.

But few understand the reasons why we feel a city has the attributes it has.

Beyond geography, one of the most influential factors contributing to a city’s ‘feel’ is whether it’s “mixed-use” or not.

As the term implies, “mixed-use” refers to areas that have multiple purposes. A mixed-use zone has residential, commercial, industrial and cultural sites in the same vicinity. This is in contrast to a “single-use” area which specialises in only one of those purposes.

Take a moment to think about the cities you’ve been to. Which ones left the strongest impression on you? Which ones seemed to feel more ‘alive’?

Chances are they were mixed-use cities.

It’s easier to create a vibrant and dynamic atmosphere when workspaces are next to leisure and retail hubs which in turn are close to museums and historic sites.

It’s much harder to create that in an area purely for housing or industry.

The areas of cities that tend to be the most mixed-use are the historic centres. During the original formation of cities, the locals built everything together for convenience. There was little purpose or scale to segregate different types of buildings away from each other.

The result was the creation of pragmatic cities containing fluid community spaces. People lived, worked, ate and congregated in the same places—the formation of thriving communities was inevitable.

Cities Mixeduse

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that the idea of separating the purpose of areas into zones entered the mainstream. Large-scale manufacturing was best carried out in special purpose factory districts for production. Mass residential blocks formed to supplement this ‘efficient’ approach.

The invention of mass-produced automobiles exacerbated this trend. Urban planners less needed to worry about residents’ access to amenities if they could drive out to them.

The result is a scattering of single-purpose areas devoid of convenience and dynamism conjoined to cities or even cities lacking multi-use areas entirely.

People who live in these areas often mull how their place is mundane, inconvenient and lacking energy. This might be fine if you want a bucolic life in the countryside. But the countryside isn’t a city—if you want city life, you might as well get a proper one.

Mixed-use inclusion isn’t a magic bullet, it won’t solve everything flawed about a city. But it’s one of the most impactful ways to transform it for the better.

Sometimes it’s the legislation that holds back the development of mixed-use areas. For example, US legislation prohibits the development of specific purpose buildings within the same zone. Commercial buildings can’t be in the same vicinity as residential buildings which can’t be in the same region as industrial buildings and so on.

In contrast, Japanese national legislation allows for the commingling of different purpose buildings in any region of the country. For instance, a commercial zone can also contain residences or schools. The result is some of the most multi-purpose areas possible: everything from earthquake-proof housing, restaurants stacked on top of one another, discrete hotels for love-making, giant shopping malls inside train stations, and mega conglomerate headquarters can be found within metres of each other depending on the city.

Cities Japanese

The convenience of a mixed-use city means greater accessibility for its people. Locals and visitors can get what they need within reasonable distance via public transport or even by walking. Along with being more practical for everyone, this reduces a city’s reliance on cars. On top of being better for the environment, such cities need to worry less about planning spaces around cars and dealing with the ebb and flow of traffic.

Yet the most important benefit is intangible. It’s what makes a city an organically evolving, interconnected network—the interactions.

Organic cities and network effects

“What is the city but the people?” noted William Shakespeare.

Geography, buildings and technology are all crucial elements of cities. But they’re there to facilitate the real city—the people themselves.

Think about it this way, if you were in charge of a huge settlement of people, what would be the number one principle you could follow to generate success for it?

It’s to facilitate the quality of interactions between the citizens.

A city can only thrive if its constituents thrive. And the constituents can only thrive if other constituents help them thrive.

In practice this means a number of things.

A good city facilitates socialisation and community among its inhabitants. It does this by ensuring that people in local areas get to mingle with each other in person often.

A good city has productive inhabitants. People can only be productive if there are customers and clients to provide value to in exchange for money. A successful city galvanises business and employment by helping workers find customers and customers find workers with something to offer.

A good city has inspired inhabitants. An inspired population makes progress through new ideas, knowledge and innovations in all domains including the arts and sciences. A successful city encourages the exchange of ideas and information among its population by providing them with the spaces to do so.

The underlying denominator is connection. People interacting and networking with each other to create wholes greater than the sum of their parts.

What type of configuration yields the best types of connections in cities?

You guessed it: a mixed-use one.

Cities Organic

A mixed-use city’s infrastructure is conducive to the intermingling of its inhabitants.

When shops, plazas and community clubs aren’t too far from where you live, you’re bound to interact with and befriend others on a regular basis.

When you’re able to offer your services to locals, businesses and industrial clients since they’re in the same vicinity, you’re bound to make more money.

When you’re able to frequently attend conferences and workshops which are held in multi-purpose areas of town, you’re bound to learn and create more.

All the above is more difficult to achieve in single purpose zones. People have less opportunities to mix in new contexts. Single purpose zones also tend to group similar types of people together; less diversity can stifle the creation of new ideas and innovations.

Cities Housing
A single-purpose residential zone

A good city’s design allows its population the chance to interact with each other with ease. Investors encounter businesspeople who encounter artists who encounter students etc.

What happens when you get enough people interacting with each other in one area?

You get a self-sustaining system of network effects.

A network effect is a participant in a network receiving more value the more participants there are in the network. For example, a social media platform is only valuable if there are plenty of users, too few and the utility any single user gets from the platform is low.

Network effects are powerful when they reach a tipping point. That’s when they reach a point where the number of participants in the network generates enough interest to outsiders without any extra effort needed. The result is a bandwagon effect where new people want to join the network which in turn strengthens the network effects and the positive feedback loop continues.

Successful cities have powerful network effects. The thriving output, scenes and life attract people from all over. These new inhabitants contribute to the city with their own ideas, work and money which help produce new output, scenes and life. This attracts further new inhabitants and tourists who contribute to the city and so on.

Cities Network Effects

Of course a larger population doesn’t necessarily equal better. Too many people interacting in the wrong ways or not interacting at all can lead to detrimental effects for a city.

But allowing a city’s population to be the self-improving lifeblood that drives it forward is necessary for success. Quality connections between citizens is paramount to achieving this.

As Jane Jacobs, author of probably the most influential book on urban planning and cities ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities‘ wrote: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Historic centres thrive because they were created by everybody back in the day. Modern mixed-use cities flourish for the same reason.

However, along with single-use heavy cities, another type of city that doesn’t tend to thrive is a ‘planned city’.

The shortcomings of planned cities

Most cities have formed organically. Early settlers chose a site and made buildings and infrastructure which later expanded and grew into what we now consider cities.

But there have been some exceptions to this process. A few cities have been entirely designed and built from scratch within a relatively short period of time. These are known as ‘planned cities’.

In contrast to the bottom-up nature of organic cities, planned cities are top-down. Planned cities have been designed and created by so-called ‘visionaries’, sometimes a single ‘prophet-architect’ attempting to place their version of ‘utopia’ in the world.

Some examples of planned cities are the capital cities Brasília, Canberra and Naypyidaw as well as other cities such as Chandigarh, India and Milton Keynes, UK.

Despite investment and several decades since their beginning (in some cases over a century, Canberra was conceived in 1913), none of these cities has reached the status of an influential or global city.

This isn’t to say that a city lacks success if it isn’t a global or alpha city. But every capital city in the world would want to be a global city and the planned capital cities fail to achieve that. Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro are the global cities in Brazil instead of Brasília and Sydney and Melbourne are Australia’s respective representatives in that regard over Canberra.

The reasons are related to poor network effects. Contrary to what the architects believed when designing them, planned cities aren’t set up to facilitate organic interactions among their citizenry.

Planned cities rarely incorporate effective mixed-use principles. Even in the rare case of a designer being aware of the importance of mixed-use, it’s almost impossible to include well-functioning mixed-use areas without consideration of the actual inhabitants’ needs and activities. How can a few ‘visionaries’ know how local people want to function and congregate if they’re not involved in the design process?

Planned cities have a warped idea of function. Their creators believed that by focusing on form (usually a geometrically-aligned aesthetic), the ‘neatness’ of the infrastructure would give rise to ‘optimal’ behaviours among the inhabitants. City dwellers would be able to carry out their desired functions with less complexity.

Yet reality shows that paradoxically the functions do suffer. Residents who want to shop find it harder to do so since retail is sequestered off from where they live. People who want to congregate with friends for leisure find few good places to meet and hang out. All in all, a lack of convenience.

In the worst cases, the planners have even tried to design out interactions between people viewing them as a waste of time.

In his book ‘Seeing Like A State’, James C. Scott writes of Brasília:

“Most of those who have moved to Brasília from other cities are amazed to discover “that it is a city without crowds.” People complain that Brasília lacks the bustle of street life, that it has none of the busy street corners and long stretches of storefront facades that animate a sidewalk for pedestrians. For them, it is almost as if the founders of Brasília, rather than having planned a city, have actually planned to prevent a city.”

Brasília looks great from a birds-eye view, the city is shaped like an aeroplane when seen from above. But that lacks significance to its inhabitants on the ground whose city, segmented into single-use areas, lacks the dynamism and passion of other Brazilian cities.

Cities Brasilia
On the left: a bird’s-eye view of Brasília. On the right: the Three Powers Plaza in central Brasília, one of the main ‘squares’.

Canberra, the capital of Australia is another city aesthetically-pleasing from the sky. Designed in 1913 by American architects, it features geometric motifs and alignment with local geographic landmarks.

But the city has a reputation for being notoriously boring. Residents note how little there is to do there and commentators have remarked that the city is so dull that even recent Prime Ministers have refused to live there and resided in Sydney instead when in office.

Canberra has degrees of economic success such as having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. But the city is only the eighth-largest in Australia which is undersized by global capital city standards. In its over one hundred years of existence, it has failed to grow to its potential as a capital city of a major developed country due to poor network effects.

Then there’s Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar.

Construction of Naypyidaw started in 2002 and was completed a decade later. It cost $4 billion dollars and is over four times the size of London.

But it’s considered the world’s weirdest city.

Despite its size, the city is a giant ghost town. It has colossal 20-lane highways running through it that no-one uses. A 600-acre zoo no-one goes to. And uninhabited palatial mansions.

Like most planned cities, it’s divided into special purpose zones: residential, military, shopping, recreation and more. This siloing coupled with the lack of population density relative to its size make positive network effects all but impossible.

Cities Naypyidaw
Images of the centre of Naypyidaw including one of its infamous highways

The lack of passion, vibrancy and dynamism isn’t only restricted to planned capitals. The city of Milton Keynes in the UK was built in the 1960s with the intention of alleviating housing shortages in London.

But decades on, it still lacks the soul of organic cities, with one commentator noting that “Milton Keynes has been derided as a soulless suburb or “non-place”, a centrally-planned slice of Los Angeles inconsiderately plonked in the centre of olde worlde middle England.”

Milton Keynes looks neat and orderly from the air. But the birds flying above don’t care what the city looks like. What should matter is how it works for the people below. As with all aesthetically-pleasing cities from the sky, form has outstripped practical function and dynamism.

Planned cities are endeavours built with the future in mind. But they sacrifice a people’s collective history, culture and way of life to get there. They view the past as an aberration to overcome not realising that the very complex mix of a people’s history is what makes a city thrive in the first place. Since they’re never truly built for the people, by the people, they end up falling short.

When seeking cities to move to, be cautious about moving to planned cities. They aren’t as future-proofed as the initial creators would have you believe.


Along with geography, there are added factors that contribute to flourishing cities.

In a broad sense, successful cities tend to be mixed-use. Such cities integrate buildings and infrastructure of diverse purposes in each area. This is in contrast to single-use cities which tend to segregate areas for one purpose at a time only.

Mixed-use cities benefit from increased convenience and community-formation among their inhabitants. Mixed-use areas are more likely to cultivate a sense of community and civic pride compared to areas with only one purpose where communities are harder to form.

Successful cities have strong network effects. By facilitating interactions between its citizenry through conducive infrastructure, a city can reach a tipping point where the city’s network attracts more people who in turn contribute to its success in a continuous positive feedback cycle.

Compared to the bottom-up nature of organic cities, planned cities are top-down imposed.  Planned cities are the result of the visions of a few elites rather than the natural creations of the majority population. They tend to lack multi-use areas and place form over practical function and dynamism. As a result, planned cities suffocate the network effects among their people and are often reported as lacking soul or vibrancy. It’s no coincidence that planned cities rarely achieve status as a global city or one having great appeal.

When seeking cities to live in, be aware of these factors. Single-use and planned cities are fine if there are specific reasons for moving to them and you’re content with what that’ll bring.

But holding lifestyle design in mind, network effects are vital—you don’t want to undercut the network effects in your life. By focusing on mixed-use, organic cities and not just ones that look good from the air, you’re putting yourself in the path of connections with people from all walks of life which magnifies the chance you’ll reach your own goals.

A city is its people. Make sure as a person living within, that it works for you.

In part 3, we uncover even more nuances of cities including:

– Why thematic areas are transformative for lifestyle design

– The covert side of major cities—is the ‘dark side’ of a city justifiably necessary?

– City functions

– How technology has altered and will alter the development of cities in the 21st century

Knowing these nuances will give you the edge in lifestyle design in our continually urbanising world. Subscribe to Abroad Lifestyles for more global integrative lifestyle concepts you won’t hear anywhere else.