Age of the urban village

Steve Teruggi of Winkreative on how small districts are shaping big cities.

Why would a sane person live in a city? On paper, the challenges are numerous. Traffic jams, fear of crime, property prices; each one set to escalate as our major cities continue to expand. And still, we love them. Despite all the concerns, metropolitan life is full of opportunity, randomness and fun. For an optimistic perspective on the city, simply visit your local urban village. Every city has them, Tokyo to Toronto, compact districts, some no bigger than a block, with a distinct character and local culture. In an urban village, people and experiences aren’t ‘authentic’, they are real. Observing the everyday habits and idiosyncrasies of locals allows us to explore and fantasize about a city’s quality of life better than reading any official guide. At best, urban villages offer a more human scale and personality than the overwhelming nature of the whole city. Why one neighbourhood captures our hearts while another is ignored comes down to tangible narratives. A place needs a binding vision that everyone can immediately understand. In some cases, a vision evolves organically but it can be shaped by design. In London, the Baker Street Quarter, one of a growing number of Business Improvement Districts in cities around the globe, represents local traders, tenants and owners through a not-for-profit body that acts upon shared interests and provides stewardship of the area’s vision. Communications use its attractive location and heritage to present a mix of large-floorplate offices with intimate side streets where independent retailers, restaurants, cafes and hotels create an atmosphere completely different from the mainstream brands of Oxford Street. A community can also nurture the spirit of a place, increasingly using social networks to share and connect. New York alone has over 1‘800 neighbourhood microsites powered by where residents can do everything from lobby the mayor to reporting a lost dog. Sometimes, a visionary individual or developer leads the creation of an urban village. Daikanyama, one of Tokyo’s most attractive districts features the pain­stakingly precise and compact development of Hillside Terrace by Fumihiko Maki embedded within the intimate surrounding streets containing imaginative retailers and small businesses.

Our urban interests must also extend beyond the urban core. Last year, our work centred upon public transport projects in Toronto that required particular attention to the relationship between city districts and suburbs. Personally, I swapped Central London for a family home in a village called Amersham positioned on the most outer edge of the tube system. The local sense of community was immediate. We know shopkeepers by name, recognise people in the local newspaper and share views on the village’s evolution with other parents at the school gates. As cities grow and high-speed rail systems expand, areas that may currently form the rural hinterland of either established or emerging territories – may face urbanisation and the challenges associated with today’s cities. I am curious about the inevitable role of design if villages like mine are set to evolve into the metropolitan microneighbourhood of the future.