Since its founding six years ago, Guardian Cities has grown from a small experiment into a huge community. Together – as editors, writers, photographers and film-makers, along with architecture experts, urban planners, gentrification activists, cycling evangelists, canalboat dwellers, homeless people, theatre-makers, refugees and the rest of a motley crew of contributors and readers from nearly 600 cities – we have tried to shape how the world understands urbanisation: namely, as one of the truly transformative global phenomena of the 21st century.
We started Guardian Cities because we saw that everywhere on Earth, people were flooding into cities. More concrete was poured in the last couple of years in China than the US used in the entire 20th century. China now has 100 cities with more than 1 million people, while some developing megalopolises in Africa and elsewhere may hit 80 million residents; the 100 million city is no longer a fantastical proposition. Most of this growth has been largely unplanned, with people literally building their own houses and roads – though what some consider slums are really just the roots of new neighbourhoods.
The challenges can seem overwhelming. The new desirability of cities has seen millions of poorer residents kicked out of their homes, sometimes literally bulldozed for expensive apartment towers. Air pollution from cars, particularly diesel engines (sold to us as safer, and only now revealed as the opposite), chokes many streets, hurting children in particular. The climate crisis threatens us with overheating and floods. Poverty remains a scourge. The concretisation of our environment can, if we’re not vigilant, cut us off from the natural world, turning vibrant human societies into bloodless mechanised economies.
But if cities are places of great inequality and tumultuous change, they are also hives of innovation – to paraphrase Homer Simpson, both the cause of, and solution to, so many of our problems. Ignore the haters: cities writ large are safer, healthier and more productive than any other form of human habitation. Despite the rise of the internet, it remains in cities where people are best able to gather, exchange ideas and test out solutions. We are rewilding, cycling, densifying and in some cases even floating. In five years Copenhagen may become the world’s first carbon-neutral city. Tolerance and difference are at their highest in cities. They certainly aren’t for everyone, but more people can live together in cities, with less total impact, than in any other form of habitation.
Our journalism has tried to tell these stories in many ways. Our pioneering “live week” concept took us to the world’s great megacities: Mumbai, São Paulo, Mexico City, Moscow, Tokyo, Jakarta. We have looked at how we live now; asked great living artists to show us their cities; looked at cities as they might have been; and illustrated the surprising ways they actually are. We’ve profiled the living and the dead, traced the story of cities back 6,000 years, celebrated the most important buildings and exposed privately owned public space. We’ve tried to reinvigorate photojournalism, made films, published long reads, designed interactives, sailed canal boats, hosted live events and told jokes.
2019 was a particularly vibrant year for us. Our Guardian Concrete Week series on the evils of cement won the Foreign Press Association Award for Environment and Science. The empty doorway, our series of profiles of the lives of people who died homeless, took home the British Journalism Award for Features, and our revelation of the segregated playgrounds scandal was nominated for Campaign of the Year. We earned several other awards for our cycling and mobility coverage and the illustrated city series. We published our first print supplement, the Canal Revolution, in collaboration with the lovely folks at the Observer, and made a global documentary series, on divided cities. Last but not least I’ve hosted a podcast, launching shortly, about the songs that shaped cities at crucial moments in their history.
Now, however, it’s time for a change. After many years of renewed generosity from the Rockefeller Foundation, whose arms-length support meant that we retained full editorial independence in every way, Cities is closing its doors.
As an exclamation point, Cities will conclude this week with something we have generally avoided: expressing some forceful opinions, outright. We have normally focused as much as possible on original reported journalism, telling the stories of how the lives of citizens are changing, using their own words. But now we will make the case for five big, ambitious interventions that we think could improve cities for the better. Please read them. Tell us if you agree with them. We want these declarations to stand as an encouragement for new efforts to help further the cause of improving our cities, and for other journalists to take up the ever-fascinating story of our cities.
The Guardian, of course, will continue to focus on urban journalism – in our terrific international news coverage, our Environment, Science, Health, Technology, Education, Society and Culture desks, the Global Development site, our groundbreaking project The Upside, and elsewhere. I strongly encourage you to follow those sites by signing up to some newsletters and social media accounts.
In the meantime, I’d like to thank our staff, who have collectively made Cities what it was: my inspiring predecessor Mike Herd, who defined the site so profoundly we take his vision for granted; perceptive deputy editor Nick Mead; ebullient production editor Tash Reith-Banks (originator of the wonderful illustrated city series); the talented commissioning and community editor Claire Burke; our indefatigable photo editor Jo Blason and our US editor-at-large Mark Oliver, an island of sanity. Particularly brilliant former desk editors have included Elle Hunt (I strongly recommend her terrific feature on Vienna), Francesca Perry, Marta Bausells, Athlyn Cathcart-Keays, Basia Cummings, Rory Lewarne, Naomi Larsson and Saptarshi Ray. We also couldn’t have done Cities without our colleagues on other Guardian desks – chiefly Jamie Wilson, a hugely supportive international news editor who really helped us define how Cities could help further the Guardian’s core editorial mission; as well as our sharp-eyed head of photography, Fiona Shields; Upside and Membership and all-round ideas man Mark Rice-Oxley; editor of philanthropic projects Tracy McVeigh; the giant Guardian US and Australia editors John Mulholland and Lenore Taylor; deputy editor Owen Gibson, who helped chaperone our segregated playgrounds campaign; and Guardian editor Katharine Viner for all the encouragement.
A special shout-out must go to the Guardian’s unparalleled Foundations team, led by powerhouse Rachel White; her predecessor Ben Hicks, who masterminded the deal that created Guardian Cities; and Eleanor Clark, an absolute rock for us here in London. There are too many incredibly gifted writers to thank, but three stood out: Oliver Wainwright, the closest Guardian Cities has come to speaking in a single voice; Harriet Grant, whose tireless reporting led to our most tangible real-world impact, the banning of segregated playgrounds; and Jon Watts, who didn’t just write the best piece Guardian Cities has ever published, but was always generous with time, ideas, advice and support. Last but not least, a huge thank you to our multimedia executive producer Jess Gormley, an honorary Cities member if ever there was one and who, along with the gifted young producer Anetta Jones and soon-to-be-too-famous-for-us-to-hire director Max Duncan, created the outstanding Divided Cities, which stands proudly as our final, and best, documentary series.
Above all, however, the site was made by you – and I don’t mean that figuratively. Your comments, opinions, suggestions and criticisms helped inform and shape our coverage. You helped us find and expose segregated housing, tipped us off to egregious examples of pseudo-public space, took over our Instagram feed, competed for the best urban ideas in your hometowns, shouted out questions and opinions at our live events, even boarded our canal boat. Or you just read us. For that, above all, we are hugely grateful.