Why Cities Can Learn From Another Even When They Differ

No two cities are alike. Though they might share the same geography or even the same population numbers, cities will always be uniquely different from one another. But is it possible to get them to use a common organizing framework that helps them better understand and learn from each other?

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City Inequality (Photo Credit : watson brown)

Not only is it possible, it’s already happening, thanks to the City Protocol Society. This global nonprofit community of cities, corporations, and academic organizations is using an innovative approach called City Anatomy, where any city or community in the world can be mapped to a common City Anatomy.

One critical difference between this organization and many other standards groups is that the Society actually has direct participation from cities, including city planners. I saw that up close at its recent annual meeting in Amsterdam, which attracted city planners and other city representatives from major European cities.

City Anatomy: The Background

City Anatomy is a new model for cities presented as an iconic visual drawing, which is now also being rendered into a formal conceptualization of the makeup of the city. It suggests an analogy to the human anatomy and its dynamic physiology, and it incorporates past and current city-related work from the Advanced Architecture Institute of Catalonia (IAAC), the United Nations, and also from work, analysis, and projects carried out in cities worldwide.


One of the more interesting aspects of this approach is that it was created by cities for cities. It was developed with city architects from Barcelona; city managers from Genoa, Italy, and Dubai; and private sector companies like Microsoft and other organizations. Spain—and Barcelona specifically—has been a thought leader on the concept of urbanization for many years, and the City Anatomy model was heavily influenced by those efforts.

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A Foundation Cities Can Map To

City Anatomy establishes a common language or foundation to talk about three key city systems: structure, society, and information. Underneath those pillars, there are eight subsystems: environment, infrastructures, built domain, platform, functions, people, economy, and government.

The idea is that cities have a common structure to describe their individual challenges to each other, discovering their commonalities in the process. Essentially, City Anatomy works as a map against which any city, regardless of size, can describe itself. No matter whether it’s a village in Africa or New York City, any community can look at the City Anatomy map to see how it fits into the picture.

Giving Birth to a New City

This common foundation is already giving rise to some very interesting developments in city planning. For example, city planners in Ecuador are currently using the model as the basis for creating an entirely new city. That’s amazing to think about—a new city, built from the ground up using City Anatomy principles.

There will surely be more examples like this in the future, as cities continue to talk openly with each other and learn from one another. It’s this kind of common ground that will foster a collaboration that leads to innovative new city solutions and initiatives.

Microsoft engages with cities around the world through Microsoft CityNext—an initiative to empower more sustainable, prosperous, and economically competitive cities—with a simplified approach that puts people first! For more information, please visit www.microsoft.com/citynext.


This feature is adopted from Microsoft CityNext by Dave Welsh


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