The following question was recently posted on Quora:
“What does it mean for a city to have character?”
A myriad of experts offered their opinions below. How does your municipality show its character?
Character is poorly defined in terms of cities, but here are a set of characteristics and examples which should provide some clarity:
- Wide variance in the populace – A city full of people who mostly look, act and dress the same as one another is only interesting if you are a foreign visitor to it. A city full of diverse ethnicities, diverse dress codes and odd or even extreme variances in public behavior has character that endures past the tourism phase.
Toronto Canada, for example, is famously one of the most ethnically diverse cities on the planet. This means that at any given time of day or night you can visit neighborhoods which seem to be monoculturally Bengali, Chinese or Nigerian, eat at restaurants featuring pretty much every cuisine in the world including some that should have stayed home and stumble across protests about events occurring on the other side of the planet. Most of the US flyover states have problems achieving character due to their relative lack of diversity. Other examples of cities with character based on this trait include Vancouver, San Francisco, Montreal and New York.
- Bucks the urbanization trends – In North America, cities fell into a pattern of being built for cars over the past 100 years, with suburban sprawl being one of the defining urbanization schemes. If a city follows a dominant trend, it has less character than cities on the same continent that go their own way. Vancouver went its own way 40 years ago and continued to follow its own path, choosing to heavily constrain its urban boundaries, not build expressways into the city core and build upward.
Today, you have to go to San Francisco, New York or into Mexico to find a more densely populated city in North America. Vancouver has character because it (intelligently) chose dense urbanism over sprawl and persisted. Santa Fe has character of this type as well, having chosen adobe-only in the 1920’s as an allowable building material. Phoenix, San Jose, Calgary and similar US and Canadian cities have real problems achieving character because they are a homogeneous sprawl of suburbs surrounding a central business district that’s empty at night.
- Chooses eccentricity over blandness – There are cities that celebrate and revel in being different somehow, then there are cities that revel in being the same. Portland Oregon embraces its eccentrics. So does San Francisco.
In those cities, you truly don’t know what you might see when you walk down the streets, from adults on children’s bikes bombing down the hills to 70-year old drag queens in full ensemble. In other cities, you now what you’ll see: overweight people in a variety of sensible dress. Much of Switzerland has challenges in this regard, as do — once again — most of the flyover cities of the USA. Other examples of cities that embrace eccentricity include London and Austin Texas.
- Is a historical artifact more than a city – A city can have character that is more preserved in amber than truly a living expression of modernity and current urbanism. Paris is one of those cities.
It is full of character, but you could practically have the same experience 20 or 40 years ago. It’s more of a theme park. This depends on it having an interesting character to begin with as Paris did, as preserving a merely odd culture in amber as Salt Lake City has doesn’t lend it particular character.
- Internal extremes – This is far from being to everyone’s taste but cities which contain extremes of living situations have more character than those which do not. Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro both contain relatively inner-city favelas, slums really. They also contain some of the wealthiest people on the planet, often side-by-side.
These cities typically have entrepreneurs at all levels of the socio-economic scale, and walking down the streets you’ll bump into billionaires and people who live with their families in one room on the side of a ravine that floods several times a year. They usually have great street food, as well as great soccer teams. Mumbai, Istanbul, Shanghai and most other major world cities have their billionaires co-existing with their close-to-most impoverished. That’s a lot more interesting than Scottsdale Arizona can ever be.
- Annual rituals that counter expectations – Cities which have some annual festival which most people in the city embrace can be very interesting, at least in the run up to the event and during it. Calgary’s Stampede, an entirely artificial celebration of a cowboy culture Calgary never had with its affectation of white cowboy hats, is that kind of character.
Cities which have end-of-summer festivals which are just rehashes of other cities’ end-of-summer festivals such as Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition don’t really add any character. Rio’s Carneval is another exuberant outpouring of character, as is the massive Toronto Pride Parade.
- Have hidden surprises – There are cities which have hidden gems, such as Melbourne’s lanes and arcades. These are left over from Victorian times and have evolved into this fantastic hodgepodge of the antique and the modern, providing pedestrian-only passageways, coffee shops and retail in the interstices of the central business district.
It’s completely unlike downtowns in most of the developed cities of the world with its radical embrace of passageways that most cities leave to garbage bins and drug addicts. There are numerous ‘equivalent’ pedestrian-only retail and food alternatives in many other downtown cores such as Toronto’s underground PATH system and Calgary’s aboveground Plus 15 system, but they are soulless compared to Melbourne’s arcades, just extensions of malls in places with bad weather.
- Great natural settings – Some cities are blessed with extraordinary beauty around them. Vancouver and Sydney Australia are two such cities. The surround becomes part of the character of the place, shaping architecture, residential patterns and resident’s behaviours.
The sea and steep landscapes of Vancouver and Sydney draw people to them just as people are drawn to the cliffs of La Jolla in southern California. Trying to live with views of the natural beauty becomes a defining characteristic, whether it’s offices with mountain views or condos with views of Mt Baker. Melbourne struggles with this one by comparison, because the surround is pretty flat and boring. If it were possible to transplant Melbourne’s downtown core to replace Sydney’s, the combination would be an almost unbeatable city.
First, a story: Once upon a time, having just sold a company, I started working with an outplacement service / life coach, someone who would ask me probing questions to help me decide what position in the real world matched my entrepreneurially crossfunctional skillset. Everything was going well, until I applied for a job in Kingman, Arizona, at which point the coach said “I’ve been to Kingman, and I will not work with a client who is willing to live in Kingman, Arizona! Nor will I have Kingman on my public list of satisfied customers.” She saw Kingman as having no character, as being a melted pile of gas stations indistinguishable from I-40. I saw it as a Route 66 town–a town that no matter how far in the desert had its own identity (basically one of a long series of towns whose phenomenon of identity the movie Cars was rightfully made to highlight.)
When you drive through any metropolitan statistical area, the vast majority of cities and towns are completely amorphous. They grow into each other and over time become one massive city. They have no identity–aka no character. Los Angeles has famously swallowed up everything around it, leaving one big blob of indistinguishable municipalities, indistinguishable even to their own residents. No one who’s not from New York even knows what’s a city versus what’s a suburb within that MSA. People identify with their burroughs, but generally you’re either from “Brooklyn,” “Manhattan,” “Staten Island,” “Queens,” “the Bronx,” or “upstate.” It’s not just that no one’s heard of Greenpoint, or that Greenpoint is smaller–it’s that that’s not how people naturally bound themselves.
Cities of all sizes, from the largest to the smallest, fall into the trap of being indistinguishable. What makes them profoundly character-less is when their own citizens can’t tell them apart. If you ask someone from the Bay Area where they’re from, they’ll probably say something like “Hillsborough–it’s a little place outside Palo Alto, south of San Francisco in the Bay Area.” Their identity will be so associated with their town–they’ll see themselves as so far distant from Menlo Park or any of their other neighbors–that no matter how far from home they’ll feel dishonest rounding to the nearest metropolis. Versus if someone is from Midvale, Utah, and you ask where they’re from, they’ll say “Salt Lake.”
That’s what character means to me. If the residents of a town have a peculiar identity–enough so that they would see it as no more congruous to move to a neighboring town than to move across the country. I’m from Marin County, California. I may even say “North of San Francisco” or “Right between San Francisco, Napa, Oakland, and Berkeley.” But I probably won’t say “Novato.”
My wife and I got married in Snowflake, Arizona–a tiny town of 4,000 in the middle of the desert that doesn’t even touch the freeway or have any major exports, but when we mention it many many many people we meet have a story about it. It’s memorable because the people identify with it, and generations later see themselves as displaced Snowflakians. It’s amazing, and the exact opposite of 90% of municipalities in the world.
Read about placemaking in our recent coverage: