City identity, spirit, and ethos… And people’s subtle ways of expressing their ideal view

A couple of years ago I came across an episode of the Social Science Bites – one of my favourite podcasts – which was an interview with Avner de-Shalit, an author of The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age along with Daniel A. Bell. In that episode de-Shalit discussed what they mean by a city’s spirit or ethos, and the role of cities in people’s lives. He also discussed why some cities fail in having a spirit, even though some try to create it. I can anticipate that there a few brilliant and controversial ideas there.

Since then I couldn’t stop thinking of it. Not only do I try to understand the uniqueness of places every time I visit a new city, but I have also been trying to understand Christchurch after the earthquakes. Post-earthquake Christchurch is a very spread out city with an unfortunately still weak CBD, not much heritage left and struggling to re-encounter its spirit. In this context, many malls have been popping up all over the place (argh!). Last week I went to one of these (argh!) malls called The Colombo, a little one that has been largely upgraded after the earthquakes and became a boutique hub. Personally I always felt that it was a shame all those great shops in a no-character big-box development surrounded by parking lots. It would be so great to see that as part of the city itself, each one with its own character and quirkiness. Funnily enough I came across the image above, which portraits the ‘identity’ of each of the shops in the mall. I was surprised in a good way to realise the tenants of those shops see more than just that kiosk or square space they are in, but sad to see how far the reality is from the what they envisage as ideal. This marketing could back-fire and make clients realise that to have that city they shouldn’t actually be in The Colombo, but this did not seem that important.

How great would it be to be in a city which has little New York-like sandwich places, a decoration shop in a classic little building, another one in a two-storey building with someone living above it, little boutiques and nail parlours with their stripped awnings, cafés full of character and a movie theater that actually looks like a movie theater. Of course, this would be a patchwork of many different places and characters (NY and Paris identities are featured in De-Shalit and Bell’s book, by the way), and that is not ideal as a city that has everything ends up with no clear identity. But the great side of it is to see people’s imagination, and the value they put in various styles, shapes, colours, sizes, and heights. Although some buildings have nothing to do with Christchurch or with any feasible scale (see Spotlight representation, for instance) this image shows the types of buildings and façades we value and would like to have around in our daily lives.

Looking at this and at the emerging Christchurch, in many ways it feels like we are doing that classic thing of “responding to clients”. “We do what the clients want”. We face the imminence of a future full of isolated (and isolating!) malls, bits and pieces of corporate-style buildings, and dysfunctional streets.

What can we do to effectively achieve the outcome our people want? What are these apparently meaningless images screaming at us?

* * *

The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age, by Daniel A. Bell and Avner de-Shalit



Bell, D. A., & De-Shalit, A. (2011). The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age. Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press.

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