FOR ALL OF OUR TALK ABOUT CITIES AND THEIR economic and architectural importance for the future, we must never leave behind the understanding of the human in those places where we live.

Our knowledge is growing that cities have become the context whereby we will largely figure out our future and how we should learn to “be” together. And, as we are learning, they will become the places where we must live constructively or destructively together. As municipalities absorb more and more of human activity, there will be a strong tendency to tear ourselves apart – verbally, economically, socially – unless we find new ways to confront our collective challenges.

Unfortunately, the problems facing our cities have taken on a kind of mechanical nature, as if some economic formula or some overall policy will heal all ills. These are vital to consider, but it will only be as we put the emphasis on how we live in the “everyday” of living that we develop the will to cooperate together for the difficult years ahead. In other words, every city-making exercise must be matched to the vision of who we are as a people if we are to find success.

Many years ago, I visited Brasilia, the modern capital of Brazil, when it was just being completed and as the population moved in. There were buildings without tenants, streets without cars, government offices without public servants, and neighbourhoods without neighbours. It was built in 41 months and stood as a testament to the ambitions of a proud people. Yet they were antiseptic dreams until the people moved in and made it the thriving community it is today.

Most of us will never get a chance to build a city from scratch; we have to design one and live in it at the same time. How we exactly do that has become one of the major challenges of our age. Where we live has a direct impact on how we see the world and our place within it. The intersection between a sense of place and the human narrative that enlivens it is one of the key driving forces for the future of the human race itself. We don’t just live in a city, we form it with values, with a sense of what the world means to us. The more the global structure reveals deep fissures on so many levels, the more difficult it will be to keep such realities, internal or external, from ripping us apart from one another. It will take work … and respect.

At the same time as technology and easier travel have increased the number of interactions internationally, they have also had a hand in revealing frictions long submerged. Social media, while introducing new possibilities to communities, has already developed a propensity to rip apart the fabric of city living, and unless we are careful, it can turn where we live into a place of mere opinions as opposed to shared values.

Who we are at our most human level will determine the nature of place in which we live and it will require spirit and understanding and not just modern buildings and transportation systems if we are to make our cities great. We all require some physical setting in which to pass through the various stages of life in order to securely reach our full potential. But if our cities become fractured by fissures of anger or suspicion, or just plain dysfunction, then it is only a matter of time until they threaten our progress as individuals and families.

Ultimately, our cities need to be built on what is precious to us, and not merely steel, fiber optics, digital domains, or concrete. To be human involves a common life and a common sense of purpose. If we don’t have that, it won’t matter how physically beautiful our communities are. The truly great city is a state of mind that offers a vision of the best we can be together.

That great author on cities, Jane Jacobs, once observed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by travelling; namely the strange. Our cities now bring the world – the strange – to us, and only by discovering our shared humanity will be build places of merit.