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What makes a great city?

On 9 July 2019, I had the pleasure of chairing a panel and audience discussion at a well attended Manchester International Festival (MIF) breakfast event in the MIF Glass House next to Manchester Town Hall. The topic, ‘What Makes A Great City’, drew an audience of city planners, architects and other designers to see presentations from the panel and engage in the debate.

On almost all liveable city indices culture scores highly, and MIF’s MD Christine Cort spoke about the festival’s proactive programme of taking culture into the community. Something else MIF is known for – exporting original work to perform all over the world – helped create international awareness of the great city Manchester is.

Seeing what is already great about a city before you start doing new things is a key factor, said Urban Splash CEO and MIF chair Tom Bloxham. He pointed to Manchester’s first unsuccessful bid to host the Olympics, mounted in 1984 under the leadership of Cornerhouse founder Bob Scott, as the starting point for Manchester’s successful regeneration as a city in recent decades.

The diversity of the city region and its radical heritage were highlighted by Eamonn Boylan, chief executive of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. To make a city great it was important also to know in what areas it can be truly world class and not try to be great at everything. This is why advanced materials and health innovation, identified in the GM Independent Prosperity Review as world class strengths, are at the heart of the recently launched Local Industrial Strategy.

Finally, Levitt Bernstein director Jo McCafferty identified urban mix, flexible adaptation of buildings and land use, sympathetic regeneration of existing buildings, green space and invention as key ingredients in making a great city.

There was a lively audience discussion which continued after the event. ‘What Makes A Great City’ was organised at MIF by Levitt Bernstein and sponsored by Trowers & Hamlins.

This article was first published by Images&Co.

Kasper de Graaf
Kasper de Graaf
Kasper is a writer and producer with wide experience of innovation in cities, industry and institutions. He has delivered innovation schemes in Vancouver, Istanbul, London, Manchester, Glasgow and numerous other cities. Kasper led the South Bank IQ research study about innovation in South London and co-authored the study ‘Creating a Manchester Design Manifesto’ with Lou Cordwell. He is a director of the design group Images&Co and the arts and culture organisation 2NQ, a steering board Member of the UK Design Action Plan ( and vice-chair of the Finsbury Park Trust. He has produced Design Manchester’s annual public debate about design and society since 2014 and chaired it since 2018. [Photo: Jake Bernard]
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