Characteristics that define 'intense' cities

Delegates at this week's World Cities Summit highlight age, art, shared responsibility and temporality are key traits in an "intense" city, but for Singapore, it's about deliberate design.

SINGAPORE--What makes a city intense? Age, culture, individual responsibility and temporality--just to name a few.

Offering her perspective during a track at the World Cities Summit here Tuesday, Marilyn Jordan Taylor, dean and Paley Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, suggested a city could be described as "intense" when they possess a mix of these factors:

•  Age and patina, or a juxtaposition of old and new where the old city is rejuvenated by a young population. Taylor picked early 20th century Chinatown in New York as an example, where people thronged its streets as the city forged an identity.

The streets were alive; shops were bustling; neon signs flashed everywhere. Comparing that to 21st century Shanghai, where again streets were busy and packed with life, she said a city achieves vibrancy and intensity through its ability to meld old and new.

•  Art and culture, in which expressions of culture can make an intense city. Barcelona, for instance, with its Gaudi-infused architecture and other works of street art.

•  "Sense-ability": To explain this, Taylor pointed to the Millennium fountain in Chicago, where a painting of an open mouth on a sidewall sprouts water, and people gathered to enjoy the spectacle. She argued a city should appeal to the senses, where people are able to "feel" the city.

•  Individual initiative, shared responsibility: Another instance of intensity is where individuals are caught up in their own world, plugged into a smart device, packing train platforms en route to work--similar to what it is like in Tokyo.

There is an intensity about that scene, observed Taylor. Complimenting this are groups coming together to contribute to a community project, where everyone chips in to build something.

•  Temporality, which describes the contrast of time--between day and night--and how the city comes alive as the lights come on. "Intensity changes across time," said Taylor. Examples include Paris in France or Times Square in New York at night.

•  "Buzz", which she loosely describes as "you'll know it when you can 'feel' it".

Achieving levels of intensity, not merely in terms of urban density or population density, is the determining factor for vibrant and lively cities. It is not just the number of people, but the mix of their activities--how they move about and the spaces they congregate in--that are admired and emulated in the great cities.

Taylor acknowledged these factors were unplanned, but were drawn from communities.

Singapore: intense through design
Ng Lang, CEO of Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore (URA), offered another perspective, this time of a planned, orderly development of a city, in which urban intensity could be achieved through deliberate design and planning strategies.

Using Singapore as an example, he said: "Coping with high density in Singapore is not a choice but a necessity."

Taking a disciplined and pragmatic approach to sustainable growth, Ng said the city-state--through the URA--had to balance economic, social and environmental outcomes, and not "grow at all costs". Hence, the choice was to adopt compact and transit-oriented city model, where residents lived in high-rise flats and made use of an efficient public transport system.

Today, Singapore has 140 kilometers of rail lines and the plan is to double this to 280 km by 2020. This will help attract ideas, people and capital to Singapore. Ng pointed to global events such as the F1 night race as part of the country's allure.

One of URA's goals is to reduce business-as-usual emissions levels to 11 percent by 2020, and to 16 percent if legally bound by international agreements, he noted.

Singapore is an "intense" city, he said, but one that has been planned and carefully developed.

Clement Teo is a freelance IT writer based in Singapore.