What makes a city great? The view from San Francisco, New York and London

March 14, 2018 • 8 minute read

#MIPIM2018 is in full swing! Ahead of tomorrow’s London v. New York panel discussion, in association with EG Global, we are thinking about what it takes to make a city great.

We asked our transatlantic team for their thoughts on what they love and love-to-hate about living and working in their global cities.

Q: What do you feel other people think about when they think of your city? Is this fair?

Michael (San Francisco): San Francisco’s reputation for young techies crossing the street while nose-down into a phone and apps for every possible service you can imagine is completely accurate. What goes unnoticed is the constant cultural clash between the digital cohort and vestiges from the city’s previous ages, namely deep blue-collar roots and the psychedelic bohemian vagabondism of the 60’s.  

Shannon (New York): When people think of New York City, they typically picture the hustle and bustle of Times Square. I think often there is a stigma of New Yorkers being very career driven and at times a little rude, but after living here for two years I think that there is a certain amount of pride that comes with the first time you feel like a true New Yorker. Whether that means getting annoyed when people stand on the left side of an escalator or rolling your eyes when tourists stop in the middle of a busy sidewalk to take a picture at some random building that you walk by every day, there is a certain charm to the busy and exciting life you choose to lead in New York.

Matthew (London): Whenever people think of London, they tend to picture its diversity and connectivity, as well as being home to boutique shops and markets, museums and galleries, and luscious green parkland in between. It’s true that the city’s connectivity is great, even if the over-crowding isn’t! However, while I may bemoan the book-ending of my day with tube-travel ‘trauma’, I am a proud Englishman and, as such, I not only love a good moan but secretly crave having a pet peeve to rant about.

Q: What’s the best thing about living there?

Michael (San Francisco): I enjoy hiking on weekends and San Francisco makes it easy to get outdoors. There is Mt. Tam to the north, Mt. Diablo to the east, the San Bruno Range to the south, and national recreation areas just across the bridge and within the Presidio. Alongside the best dumplings stateside, there is not much else I could ask for.   

Nicole (New York): I personally love all of the museums. I live right by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is on Museum Mile – a stretch of 5th Ave with museums right on top of each other. My roommates and I decided to have our own #FineArtFebruary and explore a new museum every weekend. Just this weekend we went to this event, “Art After Dark,” at the Guggenheim Museum. There was a DJ, food, music, drinks, and some pretty thought-provoking modern art to get lost in. 

Matthew (London): “London is a roost for every bird,” remarked Benjamin Disraeli. It’s true; London is a truly global city. Regardless of the ‘B’ word and its potential to transform Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world, the UK’s capital city is a maze of multiculturalism. There are many reasons to be attracted to such a culturally diverse city; it impacts everything from architecture and physical landscape through to cuisine and social interaction. As Canadian PM Justin Trudeau noted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the active promotion of diversity is not simply ‘nice’ or ‘right’, it is also the smart thing to do. Collisions of culture breed creativity and break down the echo chamber walls. The result is a city that breeds innovation and intellectual curiosity.

Q: If there was one street in your city you’re likely to be found walking down, which would it be and why?

Abby (San Francisco): I spend a good amount of time running, and there’s no better spot than the Bay Trail. I like to get on the path in Oakland and run north toward Berkeley along the water. If it isn’t shrouded in fog, the views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge are stunning. You’ll see people with their dogs on the beach and diverse (and totally brazen) water fowl up above.

Shannon (New York): Broadway. Being in such a cultural center affords you the luxury of going to see the latest plays, musicals and performances all within a 15-minute walk from the office. You can catch me heading out of the office at the end of the day and walking to pick up discount tickets to see a show after work (or maybe even winning the Hamilton lottery). I always loved seeing shows growing up and now I’m just a short walk away!

Matthew (London): For me, the one street would have to be Fleet Street. I started my career there, and am still only a short saunter away. The journalistic history that pervades the City is nowhere more evident than there. Fleet Street is where quality journalism in this country traces its roots, even if the broadsheet newspapers once housed there have now largely departed.

Q: What is it like to commute to the office? What’s the biggest transport complaint!?

Abby (San Francisco): The most bizarre experience I’ve had was the train being temporarily held due to “minor earthquakes.” I don’t think that’s a concern many places!

Nicole (New York): I live on the Upper East Side and our office is in Midtown Manhattan, about 40 blocks south, so my commute is pretty easy. I take the 4/5 subway and can get to the office in about 20 minutes by the subway. I’d say the biggest complaint is the five flights of stairs I have to walk down (and back up) in my apartment building!

Jack (London): My commute to the office is usually busy. Very busy. If I can get a seat on the train then it’s a good day, and if I can move more than 5cm in any direction it’s a better day. All that becomes irrelevant when I get off the train and walk over Waterloo Bridge to the office, and to my left are the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, and to my right is the Gherkin and the financial hub of the world. Not a bad way to start the day and it really gets you in the right mood to work.

Q: What’s the one thing you think people should know about your city?

Molly (San Francisco): People should know that San Francisco is extremely hilly. You can’t trust Google Maps – what might only take you 10 minutes to walk on a flat sidewalk could take you 20 minutes in a hilly part of the city. In fact, the incline is so steep in some areas that the city has built stairs into the side of the hill. It’s a sight to see, and not as fun to experience.

Nicole (New York): The best finds are in the most unexpected places (not Times Square).

Jack (London): The one thing I think people should know about London is that there is no one thing they can know. It is so huge and sprawling, with so many different areas feeling completely standalone, that there is literally something for everyone. I’ve only just begun to explore it and don’t imagine I’ll discover everything.

Having said that if there’s one thing people should know about London it’s that if there is a ‘National’ in the name of a museum or gallery then it’s free (and even the ones that don’t are usually free too).

Q: How does your city compare with others you’ve visited?

Molly (San Francisco): San Francisco has a lot more green space compared to New England cities such as New York and Boston. It’s also very expensive here (and you thought New York was expensive!). Aside from the people, what makes the city unique is the hills and the architecture. After the 1906 earthquake, which left more than 80% of the city destroyed, they had to rebuild many of the structures. The prevailing style of architecture at the time was Victorian, which is why so many of the city’s houses are reminiscent of the style.

Nicole (New York): That’s an interesting question. I’d say that New York is one of the most open and accepting cities compared to others. You can blend in – or stand out – as much as you like. New York is definitely more fast-paced than other major US cities I’ve visited like Washington, DC. It’s a melting pot…I once walked out of the office and ran into a group of delegates from the UN. You never know who you’ll meet!

Jack (London): Other than London the only city I’ve visited that makes me excited just to wake up there was Florence. I also think it’s the only city that Samuel Johnson’s epithet “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” would also work for. They’re the only two cities I’ve been to that feel like their own country, and whatever the outside world says about this, I don’t think the inhabitants care.

Q: How would you describe your city’s character, in three words?

Molly (San Francisco): Eclectic, entrepreneurial, open-minded.

Shannon (New York): Proud, busy, exciting.

Matthew (London): Diverse, buzzing, steeped-in-history.

Our latest report, ‘Placemaking: Buzzword or Brand builder?’ explores the communications and branding issues faced by Placemakers, from across the Real Estate community as they seek to deliver places that resonate with people.

Download Placemaking report