Video: Alain de Botton explains how to make our cities more attractive

Image: The School of Life.

Writer and philosopher Alain de Botton has been setting the world to rights with his "School of Life" project, which endeavors to teach us all a bit about, well, everything. It includes a series of short videos and books laying out everything from "The Dangers of the Internet" to "How to Become a Better Person".

And, unsurprisingly, given that more than half of us now live in one, there's a segment covering cities and how to make them more attractive. 

Botton splits his argument into six must-have factors for an attractive city. 

1. Organised complexity

Humans love order. We respond positively to symmetry and repetition, like the Manhattan grid system, or a Parisian square:

Image: The School of Life.

But cities can be too ordered: buildings must have some variety so we don't feel like we're living in a prison. By way of example, the video cites Java Island in Amsterdam, where houses are similar heights and widths, but vary in their decoration:

Image: MartinD, via Wikimedia Commons.

"We're perfectly in the middle between sameness and boringness here, and that's what humans adore," de Botton says. "That's what more and more cities should have". 

2. Visible Life 

This means visible people, and visible human activity like selling and making, as opposed to a  sterile street where all activity is packed away into buildings.  

3. Compactness

Spread-out cities consume more energy, and are harder to enjoy: just compare the car-based cities of the American heartland with the more walkable ones of the north east and Europe.

Compact cities are also more likely to create random interactions between people (you don't get that if you drive everywhere alone). De Botton is also very keen on public squares, but they have to be the right size: "The ideal square must offer containment, but not claustrophobia", he argues: you must be able to see the face of someone on the other side of the square from you.

4. Orientation and mystery

Apparently cities should offer the chance to get lost, but not too lost. This means a balance between big streets, and small, windy streets and alleyways. 

5. Scale

The ideal height for a city block, says de Botton, is five stories high. Really tall buildings, must be "worthy of their prominence" and be "really special, something all of humanity can love". The rest of the tall towers, meanwhile, should be "cut down". Right. 

6. Local

Buildings shouldn't look the same everywhere: cities should have their unique style of building, built from "local, distinctive materials". 

All this sounds lovely – but, we suspect, just a touch on the unhelpful side. Short of cities being designed by a single planner-designer-architect-builder-overlord, it's hard to see how this artfully varied order full of five storey buildings and perfectly aligned street grids can ever be achieved. While stricter planning rules might help, they could also make new builds harder or more expensive to push through.

And while we'd all like more attractive cities, a huge focus on this seems a bit silly when issues like transport, poverty and infrastructure are also jostling for our attention.


Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.