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Dr Alfonso Vergara

Dr Alfonso Vegara is the Founder and Honorary President of Fundación Metropoli. His son, also Dr Alfonso Vergara, joined us too for a conversation about The DNA of Cities.

Caitlin Morrissey

In your opinion, what DNA do cities have?


Alfonso Vergara

I am very interested in discovering the uniqueness of the city, a lot of things you can find in a city that you cannot find in other cities, so sort of the singularity, the idiosyncrasy. And this is something that is connected with different components of the culture, the territory, the context, the history, the climate. So a DNA for me is something critical if you have the vocation to intervene in the transformation of cities. In my opinion, discovering or interpreting this concept, DNA, is fundamental. And for me, the DNA is associated with a cluster of excellence that you discover. The different components of excellence could be ecological corridors, a waterfront, a historical centre, a university, a culture, so, different components.


Sometimes these components of excellence are interconnected. And this is the uniqueness of the city, the specific combination of components of excellence. When we try to identify strategic projects for the transformation of cities, we always see in the intersection the dissection of different components of excellence. And we try to design the future based on strengths, based on the intersection of the singularities of the city. When we were still in the university and we studied urban design, usually our professors at that time said, "You want to be a very good planner, a very good urban designer, you need to analyse the city, to identify the problems. And when you have the problems, you can be very creative in looking for solutions." So I am not interested in the deficits. Deficits are relevant, and you need to take into consideration, probably politicians need to, depending on their orientation and the way of thinking and their commitment with the citizens, need to solve these issues. But in our opinion, the stronger way to help a city to go to a new level is trying to identify strategic projects based on strengths, based at the intersection of the different components of excellence.


I see DNA – it was so inspiring when I listened to this concept from your side that I identify as this philosophy at the intersection of the different components of excess, and particularly this combination of components of excellence, is the genetic code that you are considering.


Greg Clark

Alfonso, why don't you speak about one or two cities that you know well, to illustrate what you're talking about, how these different components come together to create this uniqueness? Which cities is this visible to you in?


Alfonso Vergara

Yes. Some 20 years ago, we decided to fire all the documents about planning we did in the past. So we decided not to do again legal planning documents. No, no general plans, only a participatory way of identifying a collective vision of the future with the creativity. And so we have been working through that in many, many different locations.


For instance, now in Medellín we are doing a project called Medellín Super City, Metropolis 2050: Super City of Medellín. And that goes beyond the traditional metropolitan area. So imagine you have the city of Medellín, you have 10 municipalities, and this is the valley of Aburra, the Aburra Valley. But today, because of the improvement in communication infrastructure, digital communication, and so the city expands. So the municipalities around the valley are growing faster than the municipalities in the valley. So we try to reinvent the infrastructure and the way of dialogue with nature beyond traditional borders of visibility and the metropolitan area. And we arrive to a valley called the Valley of San Nicolas, which is around the airport. So we identify a component of excellence of Medellín, which is the airport. 


Why a component of excellence? It is very much needed because Medellín has no ports, Medellín has no rail, Medellín has no good roads because the topography is very difficult to be connected with other regions in Colombia. So in terms of connectivity that you know very well that connectivity is one of the key factors of competitiveness. So if you want to be connected with the world, you need to have probably the best airport in Colombia. So we identify one point that is critical will be the component of excellence, the airport. So around the airport, we then study the singularities. We discover some ecological corridors, the river, the Rio Negro, between Rionegro and Marinilla, two municipalities, one side of this new triangle, which we call the triangle of innovation. Another ecological corridor with some infrastructure, through municipalities Guarne and Marinilla, is another triangle, and then a topography that gives us a new geometry.


So we call a project for the future the triangle of innovation around the airport. So we propose strengthening the infrastructure, strengthening the density and avoiding the sprawl in this territory. It's not easy to explain that with words, particularly if you don't speak your own language, but with drawings it's much easier, and sometime if you are interested in this concept we can go through analysing the different components, and we can see the components of excellence and how we can identify strategic projects of the future at the intersection.


So this place where the airport is located has better weather because it is 2500 metres high. So the temperature is much better than in Medellín – it's 1500. And also weather conditions, landscape and ecological corridors, small villages around. So we discovered all the singularities around this airport. And we created the ecocity of the Valley of San Nicolas. So this is an example of how you can really imagine a future based on strengths and based on these components of excellence.


Greg Clark

Alfonso, thank you. I've heard you speak before about the acupuncture of cities and I've heard you speak a little bit more about these diamonds and crystals and triangles. Can you say a little bit from the beginning how these ideas emerged in your mind and how do you think they relate to the idea of DNA in a city?


Alfonso Vergara

Wonderful. Most of these ideas are metaphors. When we speak about a diamond, for us, diamond is like a piece of art, it's a human-made jewel. But originally the diamond is a stone, it's a stone that you need to put a lot of energy and a lot of creativity to create a real diamond. Diamond has three components. You see the jewel has three component point lines and surfaces. So the points are the cities, the lines are the connectors of the city and the surfaces are the environmental systems.


So polishing the diamond is about improving cities, improving the connection and giving value to the environmental system, natural system, and so on. But it's a metaphor. It's a metaphor in which polycentrism and the rise of middle-sized cities in the future can develop relevant work and a relevant function in the new urban world. This idea of polycentrism and territorial diamonds.


Greg Clark

And what about this idea of urban acupuncture that I also heard you talk about?


Alfonso Vergara

It's another metaphor. Urban acupuncture is about touching. You touch some points in your body, nothing happens. But if you touch other points, a lot of things happen. This is the human body. So in the city, the same – you can do intervention in the cities and nothing happens. But you identify the specific points in which you intervene, you can activate many different functions that transform the city. This is about acupuncture. So you need a good doctor to understand the complexity of the city. It's not about an intuition or doing a small intervention you can imagine that will have a positive impact in the transformation of the bigger zone in the city. But acupuncture is about touching points associated with the identity of the city and sometimes at the intersection of the components of excellence, sometimes connected with the DNA.


So I like very much your connection between DNA and acupuncture, because it's not obvious. We recently developed a project in Bilbao for the whole city, Corazones de Barrio. Corazones de Barrio is the heart of the neighbourhoods. So we identify certain neighbourhoods. And because it's very difficult to transform total neighbourhoods, you need to identify points where if you put energy and you put a budget and you put creativity. You can really have an impact in the beginning of the transformation of the neighbourhoods.


And we used to have a mayor, I remember, in Bilbao, Iñaki Azkuna. Iñaki Azkuna that won the World Mayor Prize. Iñaki Azkuna said, "I want to have ciudad completa, city complete, no centre and periphery. I want to have a polycentric structure of the city where everybody, every citizen can have access to the rest. So we are following this idea. We suggested this concept of Corazones de Barrio, which is acupuncture in the neighbourhoods, and we identify in each of the neighbourhoods, through participatory process, we identify small squares, small interventions that, in our opinion, well, our intuition, could have an impact in the formation of the of the whole neighbourhoods. Very important that it's not something mechanical. It depends on the attitude of the people. If the people consider their own neighbourhoods, this point, as something with a real impact in the transformation of their habitat, the impact will be bigger, stronger than if it's something given from the technocratic approach.


Greg Clark

Alfonso, again, this is very inspiring, and you've said something very important about the flows of energy and how you use the acupuncture to unlock the flow of energy, but I'm fascinated also by what you say about identity and psychology and this sense of belonging or sense of relevance, credibility. 


How does anybody know what you should put in the acupuncture point? How do you know that?


Alfonso Vergara

When we do planning, real planning, we have two approaches, we have two diagnoses, the technical diagnosis and the perceptual diagnosis. Then we work in parallel. We try to inspire the anticipatory diagnosis, sharing how we see the reality. I mean, we analyse the reality. We analyse the environmental system. We analyse a problem of congestion. We analyse the dedicated zone, we analyse the imbalance in the in facilities, or in per capita income. So we share all the information with people. But we are very much interested in knowing the perception of the city by the people. So the combination between the technical diagnosis and the participatory diagnosis gives us an internal diagnosis of the city. But with a participatory forum, they give us their perception about the future, their aspirations, their dreams.


So the final step in our planning process, always, we call hypotheses. We are not sure that this particular project will really be the more appropriate. So we present a group or cluster of hypotheses, analysing technically the reality and having our own values, of course. Analysing the perception of the population and their own identity, their vision. We try to transform the city in the direction shown by the city forum, by proposing a cluster of strategic projects that we consider hypotheses. These hypotheses, we come back to the city forum again and they evaluate from zero to ten the level of support, not only the level of support, but also if this hypothesis or this project should be short term or long term, should be financed by the private sector or by the public sector, has more capacity for the competitiveness or the social integration. So imagine the amount of references you can find by analysing your hypotheses with the people. Very important that the mayor don't invite only their friends to be part of the forum, but people representing different constituencies and different sensitivities of the city. And with this forum, we can evaluate these hypotheses and we select, we adapt, and we integrate in an inner-city project. But this project has been consolidated in our opinion, has a real impact in the transformation. It's not only a vision from us, it's also something that can help in sharing a common vision of the future of the city.


Greg Clark

Wonderful, Alfonso. Thank you. 


Caitlin Morrissey

Thank you, Alfonso, this is so interesting. So I want to the question about how cities accumulate traits or points of excellence, as you call it, and what are the forces that really make one city have a certain point of excellence, and another city have a completely different set? What determines that?


Alfonso Vergara

Yeah, the good thing is that no one city is similar to the other. That's the reason why benchmarking – I mean, most people try to copy from one city to the other. So you have a good project in Singapore, and you want to apply in Jakarta sometime. That never works. So it is very important to have this perception when analysing cities, the perception that every city is totally different. Every city has its own personality, its own identity, its own idiosyncrasy, and the most useful mechanism of understanding the city for us is we always see the singularities. When we are analysing the city, we try to identify the singularities. That gives us a clear reference initially to understand the city, and later on to suggest intervention for the future transformation of cities.


So the DNA that probably you can initially identify as a set or cluster of components of excellence, that can have an evolution, can have a transformation depending on the open attitudes of the population, and particularly about leadership. Leadership is key in this transformation. And some people try to identify only their strengths and thinking that this is marvellous and no need to improve. But leaders can give energy for the transformation process of the city.


And this is a very interesting balance. Inspiring the past. Inventing the future of this is something that can really give a new dimension to DNA and even could be a very useful mechanism. Your concept of DNA is a full philosophy for cities. When I read your question at the beginning, I cannot imagine how with three words, three letters in the end, DNA, you can really create a full philosophy of transforming cities, which is the synthesis of the synthesis, the genetic code. No, wonderful. This is amazing.


Greg Clark

So Alfonso, part of this is that we think some of these DNA traits are endowed. The climate, the geography, the topography, some of them are inherited. The history, the particular trading activity, the military activity. Some of them are acquired. The people, the migrants who moved there, the inventions that are created, the institutions that are built. In your way of thinking about cities, do you see how cities begin with a basic DNA of geography, climate, topography, strategic location, and then they acquire these other traits? Does that make sense to you?


Alfonso Vergara

Yes, has a lot of sense. And even if you do, all the cities have an evolution. Sometimes you can see these traits in the physical structure of the city and the medieval zone and the periphery. So you see this evolution. But in my opinion, this dialogue between the past and the future is key because they are the hinge point. It could be the DNA. Your DNA could be the hinge point between the past component of your DNA and how you can enrich in the future. And this is the challenge for leaders interpreting the essence of the city and at the same time focusing in a future direction.


Greg Clark

I think Caitlin has a couple of questions.


Alfonso Vergara

Greg, probably you don't believe me, but in five lines, you said to me, in relation with the words, every time I read a new line I said, "My goodness, I can't imagine how you can say more with less!"


Greg Clark

Well, this is what we hope to do with your help. And that's why it's a book and a podcast series. And we hope we're beginning a new program of work together with our friends. We think it's very important.


Alfonso Vergara

Wonderful.


Caitlin Morrissey

So I want to pick up on the question about how cities can understand that DNA. I know you've spoken about all of the work that you've been doing in Medellín, but I want to speak more generally about cities understanding their own DNA and whose job it is and what methods they have to hand, and also which parts of that DNA are easier to understand, which parts are harder to understand?


Alfonso Vergara

I think when in some cities you find a very strong feeling of belonging, a very strong identity. For instance, you go to Bilbao, you go to Medellín, it's very clear. But in other cities, I don't know, because they are much more globalised, they have a more multicultural approach, the feeling of belonging is not so strong. You go to Bogota, for instance, in Colombia, it's not the same as Medellín. So the feeling of belonging to Medellín is amazing. In Bilbao it's clear. You go to Madrid, the feeling of belonging to Madrid is not so high as in Bilbao or even in Barcelona, Barcelona also has a very strong feeling of belonging.


So sometimes if we are able to share and to repeat over and over again the character of the place, the character of the city, people can understand better not only what they feel, but also a reality that people can exchange and share and they can really build a new identity. So in general something related with the environment, the physical environment, is very easy to understand. For instance, if you have a mountain, or Medellín is a city in a valley, or even if you go to a city like Sydney, you see the presence of the water in the in the city.


So these kind of elements of identities are very easy to understand. Even a manmade transformation of the city. The creation of landmarks are also very powerful. And you see Paris and you see even Sydney or other cities that you can identify the image of the city to a specific landmark or to a specific neighbourhood or to a specific character, or even if you go to Istanbul and you go to these traditional markets and you can smell part of the character of the of the city. So some components are easy to capture.


But sometimes you go to other cities that have no character, not at all, probably because they have not the same history, have not the same footprints of the previous generation in the city. So there are some areas that are physical or cultural that people can really understand. And other components of the city it's not easy to understand when we try to identify these components of excellence that for us are the keys of the DNA, some of these components of excellence people clearly identify and others, they don't realise that they are unique, and they think that they are very good in something but you can find hundreds of cities around the world much better than this particular city. On the contrary, people consider totally usual something in the city and for other people it's really unique.


So this combination between inside looking and outside looking can help in better identification of the components of excellence. Because from our global perspective, when we are interested in discovering the identity of the place, that entity of the city, we understand not only the city, but other cities around the world. So it is important to have a balance between the two approaches, from outside and from inside. That can really reach a lot the perception of the city.


Greg Clark

So you can help a city to understand its DNA better with outside-in as well as inside-out analysis.


Alfonso Vergara

Perfect. And something that I would like to share with you: that we can really contribute to the future evolution of the DNA. And the more powerful mechanism to contribute to future transformation and improvement, we can say, of DNA is by being able to define a vision for the future of the city. A vision that can be shared. When the vision is shared, that can make part of this evolution of the DNA, and even people can strengthen the feeling of belonging when they are together around a common vision. For instance, you know, Madrid. In Madrid, when the pandemic arrived, we suffered very highly the effect of the virus in Madrid. And we decided – a group of companies led by Funcación Metropoli, we decided to prepare a city project for Madrid. Then we have been working over the last few months in this city project we call Madrid Life. "LIFE” is on Lugares de Lugares de Innovación Económica y Social. But life in English means also life. Madrid for life is not only for living, but for life. So this double meaning. So Madrid Life will be a city for life, will be a new identification after suffering the strong impact of death, trying to be one of the first cities in recovery.


And we are reinventing the M-30 of Madrid as a future boulevard, and the concept of the superblocks we call Federas de Vida Urbana in the centre of Madrid, in the area of M-30. M-30 has 32 kilometres, and inside we have almost one billion people, 900,000 people living in this area, which is the unique area in Madrid in terms of relationship between architecture and public space. It's an urban space. Outside the M-30, suburban space. Urbanisation, roads and passes with buildings, but public space is inside the city. So we are reinventing the mobility and the combination between public and private space inside the M-30.


So by creating – yesterday, I had a meeting with it with the minister of the of our government in Spain in charge of Spain Global, the image of the city. So we are considering that the city itself, Madrid, can be part of the image for the future of Spain. So the idea of reinventing the city, having a shape or a shared vision for the future is important. Madrid never had that; we had a general plan but never had an articulated vision for the future. Bilbao has a vision. Barcelona had a vision in the past. Not now, but in the past. And also Malaga. Malaga also had a vision, but Madrid never. So we do think we can improve the DNA of Madrid, which is a lot of history inside, a lot of very interesting components of excellence. I think this is a future perspective, not only the past, but the future. And we can identify components that we are able to build, will be part of the DNA of the future.


Greg Clark

Bravissimo.


Caitlin Morrissey

I want to ask you a question about cities that are planning for the future. But what risk do they run if they haven't analysed their DNA or if they haven't quite understood it?


Alfonso Vergara

Now, this is a very, very important point, that the real capacity for transformation of a city, if you are not inspired in the past, is very limited. And I mean, cities are an accumulation of effort with different generations, of different economic sectors, of different institutions. So the most intelligent way of improving and transforming the city is identifying the DNA and discovering opportunities in a creative dialogue with the DNA. Without this dialogue, I mean, you can try to replicate a theme park in your city because you saw it in another location, but there's no connection.


For instance, one example. You probably know Benidorm. Benidorm used to be in the 1950s a small village of 5,000 inhabitants. Now it's receiving 5,000,000 people, particularly from Britain, from Manchester and from others. They go there for love and alcohol and this, and they stay. But it's a beach and sea, summer, we shall say, tourism. So the authorities decided to create something new, because the Mayor of Benidorm used to be president of the region. And he invented a theme park about the traditions of the Mediterranean, called Terra Mítica. So they created a theme park for families. And families have no tradition with Benidorm. Benidorm has a DNA, even in a very short term, about leisure, about low income, mass visitors, beach, discotheques, alcohol, no family. No family tourism. It's not the DNA of Benidorm. They created this theme park. They invested a huge amount of money. It was a disaster. Now it's closed. So sometimes there is no relation between the character of the place and the intervention because there is not either intelligence or sensitivity or experience, or it has not been produced, this vision, with the support of the population, of the different stakeholders.


Caitlin Morrissey

So, yeah, I totally understand what you're saying. So I think one of the final questions I had for you was about the limitations of this idea of the DNA of cities, what it doesn't quite explain about cities?


Greg Clark

Is there any way it's not a useful tool? Anything you think is missing in this idea, Alfonso?


Alfonso Vergara

I mean, I see the DNA as a core idea for expanding cities, for understanding cities, for helping imagining the cities of the future. So I see. But DNA has a very strong cluster of references for working in cities. But obviously we can also identify other mechanisms and other tools to complement it. But that goes directly to the heart of the of the topics we are trying to deal with. Reading about cities of the past, cities of today and cities of the future, I think DNA is the huge point of connecting the different components of the city, in my opinion, it's one of the most brilliant perspectives in for understanding cities and doing research. And I don't know if, Caitlin, if this idea will inspire your thesis also.


Greg Clark

I hope it will.

 

Now, before we finish, Alfonso, if you have 10 more minutes, I want to ask you about some particular cities, because as well as the book with the beginning and the end about the theory of the DNA of cities and everything else, we're writing about 12 cities. One of them is Singapore, of which you are an honorary ambassador. Another is Barcelona, which you know very well. Another one is Philadelphia, where I think you have been a few times. Another one is New York, which I know you know. Then we also have London and Glasgow, Shanghai, Sydney, Istanbul and Dubai, Vienna and Tel Aviv. So this is our 12 cities that we're studying. And I would like you to say something about the DNA of Singapore as you see it. And I'd like you to say something about the DNA of Barcelona as you see it. But you may want to comment on any of the others. But maybe we could do them one at a time. Is it good for you, Alfonso?


Alfonso Vergara

Yes. To focus the response, can you, in one of the cities, give me your perception of the DNA. So to understand the level of generalisation, give me your perception of the DNA. For instance, for Sydney, for you, what inspired you as a DNA of Sydney?


Greg Clark

Sydney? Well, Sydney, of course, is a city that has been settled by human beings for 58,000 years. It's only in 250 years it was settled by Europeans. So there is a DNA of Sydney that is about the water. It's about the open space of the city. It's about the movement of the city. And it's about the lushness, the abundance of the city to provide amazing quality of life for large numbers of people. And Sydney in the Aboriginal times was a city with a great oral heritage of song and theatre and outdoor celebrations. And Sydney is a city where people came even before the British colonists. They came there to take an opportunity to mingle with other people. It is a place where different Aboriginal tribes came together.


So modern Sydney in the last 250 years has some elements of the DNA of ancient Sydney. Of course, it wasn't called Sydney, but the Gadigal people, other tribes that lived there, they had in particular the use of the water to give pleasure to people and they had culture and performance. So Sydney today and Sydney 50,000 years ago had some things in common, coupled with remote location from the rest of the concentration of humanity, leading to a kind of an intensity of curiosity about the rest of the world. So, somehow, this is the DNA of Sydney, I think. Do you see what I mean?


Alfonso Vergara

Well, I mean, this is like a PhD on Sydney. It's amazing. But you know very well Sydney, and I know that you did a lot of research on Sydney. So it's amazing the synthesis and how you can really understand the essence of the city. I will not be able to do similar things to the other cities.


Greg Clark

Maybe in Singapore and Barcelona, you would say something about those.


Alfonso Vergara

Yes, something. Probably some points. I mean, for me, something unique in the case of Singapore, Singapore was created as a country and as a city very recently, in 1965. It was the moment of the creation of Singapore, and going from the Third World to the First World in only one generation is something unique. But I see a lot of historical reference of Singapore as a point very well located in relation with different parts of the world trade. So they interpreted today this connectivity with other means, for instance, by creating the one of the most sophisticated ports in the world, by creating one of the most advanced airports in the world and having a very open culture to connect with the world and have a very expert – so this idea of a genetic location, maybe from the beginning the DNA of being in a place of great interaction and commerce and how they interpreted in the knowledge economy this character.


Something that for me is unique in this very young DNA in the recent decades is the love for the excellence in the city and in every component of the of the city, trying to create a clear reference not only for the quality of life for the people, but also because they understand that improving the quality of life, they are improving the magnetism and they are attracting talent and people and companies that will improve the economy of the place.


So I think as building a city in such a short period of time with such an intelligence and ambition, and at the same time they've been very open to learn from others and to understand their own limitation. But this idea of a city state as a concept and the idea of connectivity to be open. They are suffering a lot between the war between China and the United States because they are two of the main partners of Singapore and Singapore want to be neutral and to be considering the value of these global trade communications. And they don't want to be part of the game only with Chinese or only with the United States.


So it is a vocation of being global, to be friends of everybody and to have probably the best connectivity in terms of infrastructure, not only physical infrastructure, airports, also digital and particularly institutional connectivity. So I see this a lot, for instance, as a reference in building a DNA of superation. They've been improving, a permanent renewing all the time. But they destroy most of the early data because they don't give value a lot to the beginning of the place. And because the per capita income was very low, the local condition, even the mosquitoes and the environmental condition was very difficult for them. So they were more focused in the future than in the past. Most cities in Europe are on some occasion more focused in the past than in the future. Now, this is some references of my experience in Singapore.


Greg Clark

Yeah, thank you. Take a one-second breather because the next subject is Barcelona.


Alfonso Vergara

Barcelona, you know better than myself after you study the tourism in Barcelona and the over-tourism, how tourism has gone beyond too far. And I remember your research, and people in Barcelona when I visit Barcelona, most people talk about you and your research in Barcelona, your mission, and they appreciate a lot. We are now doing a project in Barcelona to go from traditional industry to the fourth industrial revolution. Particularly there is an area near the port called Fona Franca. It's 600 hectares from the state in a location which is strategic, close to the airport, close to the city centre, close to the port. And we would like to create a District 4.0 in this – transforming this territory, connected to help the transformation of the industrial zone in Catalonia, particularly in Metropolitan Barcelona.


But for me, Barcelona in general, they have a very strong feeling of belonging that is not usual in Spain and in other cities that I am familiar with. The strong feeling of belonging is one of the identity, the Mediterranean character, so the Mediterranean, not only the sea, is the character of the Mediterranean for Barcelona gives a full character, and then the love for urbanism and the public space, and even after the Olympics Barcelona made a huge effort in investing a lot of money in transforming Barcelona. You know that during the Olympics, the nationalist parties in Catalonia were the hinge point between the left and the right in the Spanish parliament, and they were necessary for the budget. So they pushed a lot to obtain a lot of budget for the Olympics. So Barcelona invested a lot of money. Only 10 percent of the investment in Barcelona was for the Olympic sites and 90 percent was for the improvement of the city. And so they invested a lot in the rehabilitation of the waterfront and creating public space. And by investing in public space, the private sector invested in architecture. So the urban renewal was about improving public space and then the private sector transforming the city.


I see urbanism is one of the identities of Barcelona. They feel very proud of the Ensanche, even though the author of the Ensanche is an engineer from Madrid. They never say that up there, that Cerdà is from Madrid. And they because they consider Madrid as, let's say, foreigners, people that want to conquer Barcelona, but they are much more sophisticated, they are better connected with the world, and these kinds of things.


So another point of identity of Barcelona is their noble vocation. Without being a capital city, they love to be connected with sophisticated city. So Barcelona did a lot of effort in networking, in promoting the image of Barcelona abroad. But they love the character of the place. They love the singular architecture. They consider heroes the architects that built the landmarks of Barcelona in general. And the human scale of Barcelona is part of the identity, human scale. Even the Ensanche, that we can consider a very geometric pattern, is a very flexible pattern. Even the increasing density of the Ensanche over the time has been something very similar. They are inventing now this concept of superblock, so they can probably reduce their personal private cars and improve their position in space by integrating the concept of the superblock. That is very easy to apply in the Ensanche because it's a very geometrical pattern.


So in general, urbanism, a Mediterranean character, and they want to become global, but they are very local at the same time because they have a very strong identity. So it's a strange combination between local and global. And in general, I think they created the seed for the quality of life that was very important in attracting the students, in attracting start-ups. Madrid, for instance, is receiving a lot, much more investment of foreign companies than Barcelona, particularly after the crisis of nationalism. I don't know if some of these points are useful for your thinking.


Greg Clark

Yes, it's all useful. Do you want to talk about Philadelphia or any other city?


Alfonso Vergara

Philadelphia. OK, because it's like my second home now. So Philadelphia, I mean, in terms of a city centre, Philadelphia is unique in American cities. So they have a geometrical pattern between the two rivers. I think that gives a special character. And then the planning of in Philadelphia was really unique. Their squares, it's easy to understand. I remember when I was in Philadelphia long ago, 20 years ago, and I was entering in the city from the airport. And there was a poster in the bus, I'd say, because Philadelphia was almost destroyed, it was very deteriorated – to say that "Philadelphia is not as bad as the people think". So it was very interesting. I was surprised. But I remember a plan for transforming Philadelphia because Philadelphia has a lot of capacity to attract talent, because it has 80 universities, but does not have capacity to retain talent still. So students, after finalising in the different universities, they go to New York or they go home to their different countries. So they traditionally had n capacity of retaining talent.


So they began – because people think Philadelphia was very boring, very close to New York, it's not easy to define your own identity – they created a very interesting plan which is based on two lines. One line is Broad Street, and the other is Market Street. Market Street is perpendicular to Broad Street. So Broad Street was the avenue of the arts, and Market is the avenue of technology. So the intersection between art and technology was the vision for the future of Philadelphia. And remember, at that time, the mayor of Philadelphia explaining that even Edmund Bacon was at that time also alive in living in the area, when we were thinking of this concept of the avenue of the arts and the avenue of technology, the avenue of technology connecting with the campus of Penn with a university city science centre, which is one of the most sophisticated technology parks in America.


So this transformation, promoting arts institutions in one avenue and technology institutions and research in the other, was the mechanism for transforming Philadelphia and creating the diversity, the quality of place and the magnetism to retain talent. And that was the point. And also bringing people from suburbia to Philadelphia. So in general, very, very strong feeling of belonging in Philadelphia. Not easy to find in other American cities because a lot of population are very mobile in America.


But in the case of Philadelphia, people try to come back home and because it was the place where the Constitution of America was prepared. So I see a city with a strong character, with a high quality of the suburbs. The suburbs in Philadelphia are spectacular, but the doughnut of Philadelphia, the centre is more or less rehabilitated, but the doughnut is awful. It's the area that needs to be redone. And then the rich suburb, this is the structure of Philadelphia and the transformation. Alfonsito was living in Philadelphia when he was 11 years old and has also good references.


Greg Clark

You know, I was going to say, Alfonso, if it's OK with you, if you agree, maybe we ask Alfonsito for a quick reflection on what he's heard so far in the conversation. And then we say goodbye because it's time to drink a glass of tinto. Alfonsito, what's your reflections on all of this, DNA of cities and what Alfonso has been talking about?


Alfonso Vergara Jr

Yes, I think it's fundamental to go beyond: to go beyond competitiveness, to go beyond productivity and to installing a new concept that is the DNA, to find what makes unique the city and the communities that are around not only the city centres, but also the metropolitan areas. It's true that, for example, in Philadelphia it's very specialised, a lot of communities trying to attract talent, like, for example, like Wharton University and Business School, University of Pennsylvania as well.


And I think as well. also, Dubai is a huge example. I am always fascinated every time that I visit Dubai. I am fascinated by the level of technology, by the evolution as well. How, for example, Abu Dhabi, how Dubai, how they are connected, how is one the financial centre? How is the other one, the political centre?


And as well the other one, Shanghai, Shanghai has the history as a reference in China as well. I think it is very spectacular the cities that you select as well. Istanbul is the connector. It's the connector between Asia and Europe, it's an amazing city. When you visit, it's amazing. So I think that all of them have a lot of a background. And the most important thing I would say and I want to highlight is the importance of history. History is very important in order to analyse all those, in order to make a future that is more prosperous, I think that history has a lot to say.


And territory is key. This is one of the things that I learned about in my dissertation, that in order to know the excellence of the territory, it is key to put a huge point and a huge reference into the territory, because territory has a lot to say when you analyse what can be the excellence or the DNA work, what can be extracted, the acupuncture points that you can take and you can –


Alfonso Vergara

Interesting. Many indexes of competitiveness never consider territory for context.


Alfonso Vergara Jr

No, no. For example, the more I remember because we have a very nice connection as well with Hiro Ichikawa and Heizo Takenaka of the Mori Foundation index, they only assume city centres. So for example, in Madrid, these three million people live in Madrid, but no, Madrid is in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula. So this is a lot of things going on in Madrid that you should interpret in order to have the good indicators, solid indicators, and to have a good evaluation of what can be the future of Madrid. So I think that is very important to analyse as well the benchmarking studies, because benchmark studies are something very key, because investors are using are using a lot to make their own decisions. And a lot of businesses are also taking care of what is happening in benchmarking and, of course, municipalities as well. So as a reference. So it's very valid.


Alfonso Vergara

So, Professor, DNA could be a new hinge point in our discipline in interpreting the cities. Amazing.


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