Kate Meyrick: urbanist, global citizen and director at Urbis Australia

June 2, 2023
Looking at themselves, rather than reinventing themselves shows that a city has a sense of self-belief

Over 25 yrs of inspired urban wisdom streamed without a moment’s hesitation direct from the twilight of her hometown Brisbane to the morning light of our London studio. Kate concurs “instead of competing we need to talk about circuits of cities, and how to collaborate to learn more actively in a social and economic sense.” She is fascinated by what the metrics used to measure city performance reveal, questioning why cities “like Vienna, pop up again, and again, and then suddenly you start to see a city appearing when it hadn’t before; why is this so?” There’s more to a city than the popularity polls profess defines success. As Kate points out “there isn’t a formula to follow as cities must also rely on alchemy over time,” and while there are some ingredients like infrastructure, amenities and marketing that help amplify success, “without moments of genius, long-range leadership and knowing what matters to the people,” the success some crave will be illusive.

One man’s idea of art is another’s idea of anarchy. Is sensing the city about suspending your beliefs? “Understanding a city needs an open mind and the widest possible view,” says Kate. Days spent walking through places are a revelation as she looks for meaning in symbols like graffiti which can be seen as either vandalism, or urban art. These embellishments could be interpreted in many ways such as “telling a story that may speak of loss, or hope, or be seen as a piece of wanton destruction.” Kate’s style of research starts on foot: “You can tell a lot from whether people make eye contact with you, and say hello, whether they stop and ask you if you’re lost.” It’s the subtle signals she looks for that can only be picked up when walking around the city — clues like “is there a constant sense of anxiety? Are people looking at each other or looking away?” These are some of the tell tale signs that give a pervasive sense that a city is losing trust and confidence.

There’s a difference between reinvention which can seem contrived, and the confidence that exudes from cities which have an irrepressible spirit. Is there merit in a city expressing its real identity, warts and all? “Looking at themselves, rather than reinventing themselves shows that a city has a sense of self-belief,” says Kate whose modus operandi is to sense a city’s confidence. Austin’s defiant ‘Keep Austin Weird’ is an example. A phrase that was coined by a local more than 20 years ago, is now synonymous with Austin’s idiosyncratic reputation and has become an important selling point that remains completely true.

“Understanding a city needs an open mind and the widest possible view. Street art tells a story that may speak of loss, or hope, or be seen as a piece of wanton destruction.”

Cities like Rome, have an irrepressible joy mixed with endearing disobedience. Even in a pandemic lockdown Italians came out onto their balconies and threw things between each other for fun, because they had a spirit that could not be repressed. These actions show a city’s spirit can’t be shut down even if its streets can. Kate feels that Brisbane, where she now resides, “is a city that wants to be like no other, yet it feels awkward about narrating the story of its indegenous and colonial past.” There is an incongruence in how people describe Brisbane, some call it a big country town, and others talk about a completely different Brisbane. “This is a sign that a city is struggling to find its own identity so people would rather talk about the beautiful weather and how friendly people are, than a past that’s really interesting. We have a marketing entity that is extremely good at inspiring offshore investor confidence. We have a state government that is prepared to make calls about investments in large ticket items. And increasingly we are starting to crowdsource what it means to live in Brisbane. That’s exciting.”

Bilbao remains the poster child for the ability of government and citizens to coalesce and make really bold moves in making progress. Through urban design and river cleanups that encouraged people to come outside, the city then had that one moment of mental brilliance when the government suggested to The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, that it would fund a Guggenheim museum to be built in Bilbao’s run-down port area. That’s how to create momentum in a city that has totally changed its trajectory over 20 years. Cities with this type of daring self-belief give them a distinctively alluring energy that’s not foiled, making them more interesting than another well-functioning but homogenous replica of another. For Kate the simple measure of a city is “do people actually enjoy living here? Are they thriving, and can they access the opportunities they want whether it’s jobs, socially or through their own endeavours?”

Place Branding, done well, uncovers the true meaning of a place; it’s past, present and potential. Would you say effective place branding is when meaning and marketing become unlikely bedfellows?

Kate’s view on place branding, by her own admission, is a little schizophrenic. Does it matter if a city is known by other people? The answer is yes, “if a city is not known it doesn’t attract tourists, it doesn’t inspire inward investment, and it’s not economically powerful, and that has a whole series of consequences.” What happens when a place brand is used as a marketing device to tell a story that’s untrue, or promises something it can’t deliver? Kate describes how “this has the reverse effect and instead leads to an identity crisis”.

This speaks to the difference between the brand of a place and place making where the aim is to create a stronger emotional attachment between physical context and local culture. In Kate’s opinion this is where Australia cities struggle and sometimes the marketing hype is often better than the reality.

UI designers look at how humans interact with design in an almost a metaphysical sense, yet when designing places this ‘people first’ approach is often an afterthought: why so?

“Thinking about a place in a way an experience designer would is interesting. Cities are needing to work harder at drawing us in. With travel becoming more expensive, and trust in safety affecting decisions to visit now top-of-mind postpandemic, we need to think deeper about experience.”

What is fascinating, is there will no longer be a divide between what people see in digital versus physical experience. In this context, place making and creating a desire for a place actually starts on your sofa. And as Kate points out “the promise of the experience has to be compelling enough for you to be teased out of your home because you want assurance, and you want to feel more immersed.”

Take the design of Kings Cross in London, which she feels “genuinely put experience at the heart of a lot of their decision making and is a pleasure to watch this place mature with such a visionary intent.” As a self-confessed transport nerd it’s fascinating to compare this to other London stations, and see the missed opportunities.

Take London Bridge Station, a feat of engineering and elegant station design yet a disaggregated solution for those that pass through. Physically they are met with land on one side of the railway, and the majestic Shard rising above; a disorientating experience when compared to the cohesion of Kings Cross Station because it was approached so differently.

The COVID crisis is still unfolding, yet it has triggered an unexpected awakening within communities worldwide. Will this neighbourly mood continue in the aftermath of the pandemic? “These are interesting times, everywhere around the world has been impacted by the Corona virus health crisis at once, and there’s an empathy building up between cities.” Kate points out that “this is the first pandemic where information is available in real-time, showing cities can rapidly share what’s working for the better, and unite around a common good.”

At a city level this collaborative response shows the power of learning when a network of cities come together as opposed to going solo and competing with each other. Australia for instance, is a small country of 25.5 million, where Sydney and Melbourne rival to be the best, while Brisbane has its sights set on becoming Australia’s New World City in a more meaningful way. Yet for a small country Kate speculates “what if instead of striving to be the best, we strive to be the best coalition of cities by actively making formal connections with others around the world to learn from them.” At a local level crisis brings an acute understanding of the importance of communities. Australia is an example where recent biblical-scale catastrophes of fires, floods and flu are reminding people of the fragility of life. What effect has this had on the national psyche? “Beyond the shock of the power of the natural world which could not be subdued” she sees “a reawakening sense of protectiveness of nature, community and environment.”

“What if instead difference.” of striving to be the best, we strive to be the best coalition of cities by actively making formal connections with others around the world to learn from them.”

Kate does not ascribe to a lot of the dystopian commentary, seeing these crises as bringing into sharp relief the potential for innovation around natural resource management, the provision of new digital platforms and the need to encourage home grown talent to step up.

Making cities great requires visionary leaders who can turn grand visions into something people really love and convince pragmatists who look at practicalities and profit. So how do you get someone to believe in this kind of alchemy?

“Every project, of every size, in every neighbourhood in every city in the world  should do good. If a developer wants to make a profit they also have to make a difference.”

There are developers who possess immense imagination and an incredible ability to do more. Kate’s personal belief is that “every project, of every size, in every neighbourhood in every city in the world should do good. If a developer wants to make a profit they also have to make a difference”. This new breed of developer understands the alchemy of aspirational value and the intricate elements that come together over time creating memories that evoke feelings of belonging to a place. This is “not because of what the place looks like,” she points out, “but because when you go there you feel this huge sense of personal attachment that feels organic, yet it’s created.” She thinks that “increasingly what’s happening is you get individuals who have this vision trapped in their hearts,” then comes along the balance sheet pragmatics and practicalities. “Unfortunately we have these visionary leaders who can imagine, and understand how to interpret and distil something that people will really love. And at the same time, we have people who have to build something that can sell quickly.”

Is the biggest challenge to get people to believe in alchemy? “Absolutely and often those alchemists are also pretty weird”. So it seems there’s the magical foresight of ‘The Fool On The Hill,’ who sees vantage points that are illusive to others, but “we also need a range of people who stand up and walk alongside them.”

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