City leaders with a desire to improve quality of life shouldn’t just draw up plans at their desks: they need to see how things work in other towns and cities. The answers are out there. To get you started, we’ve devised an inspirational grand tour of Europe.
Our editors spend a lot of time fielding calls and sifting through emails from developers, planners and investors who are looking for our take on the “city of the future”. It might be a developer from London’s Docklands wanting to know whether a container pop-up village is still a good idea (perhaps not); it could be a Singapore professor wondering how cities can better integrate artificial intelligence (good heavens, we’ll let our ’bot come back to you on that one); or perhaps a Brisbane PR asking for quotes for a presentation on how the CBD is being transformed in the Apac region (the Apac region is a rather large territory and only Aussies seem to use the term “CBD” so let’s rephrase the question).
If you’ve been following our take on urbanism for a while you’ll know that we have an archive of images that we feel represent the best in landscaping, engineering, retail, housing development and more. As we’re a generous bunch, we’re only too happy to share this knowledge but it comes with a caveat: interested parties need to experience these benchmarks firsthand and not just paste them into a presentation. It’s not good enough to brief a project team with photos of Tokyo shopfronts and say “we want something like this”. You have to understand the context.
Too many large-scale urban projects and redevelopments fall short of the renders and have nothing to do with places they’re benchmarked against. The shiny and expensive new HQ designed by an award-winning starchitect may look beautiful in architecture magazines but why are its street-level shops and services empty? Is it the result of a weak client who didn’t fight harder to have a softer relationship with pedestrians and passing traffic? Or is it the fault of planners at city hall who were so excited about having a big-name architect punctuating the skyline that they rolled over and went with the wishes of the developer and architect? It’s probably a bit of both, combined with a lack of genuine curiosity.
At Monocle we maintain that the basics of human settlements are neither overly complex nor particularly costly. Nevertheless, the quality of too much new development or regeneration falls desperately short of the mark. Zürich might place high in our city rankings (see our Top 25 survey earlier in this issue) but much of the new development near the city’s main station is wind-blown and barren. For a city famous for its meandering alleys and human sense of scale, this new addition is devoid of greenery, lacks texture and fails to communicate with its surroundings. In London many developments suffer from similar ailments: no shade for workers who want to lunch outdoors, too much token greenery that will never survive and an abundance of glass that creates an uninspiring uniformity.
For all those mayors hoping to revitalise a derelict neighbourhood, developers dreaming of building a new financial centre and architects seeking to make a statement, it might be worth visiting (and revisiting) the following checklist before reaching for the silver shovel.
A city that is easy to navigate reveals its charm much more easily than a congestion-clogged metropolis. From its zippy bus, train and tram network to the seamless integration of cycle lanes and road traffic, Zürich’s transport network impresses immediately.
Bus and tram stops are designed with the commuter much in mind; Limmatplatz, in the old industrial quarter, sports a well-stocked kiosk and nice loos too. In line with the city’s sophisticated architecture, the transit hub’s curved-concrete structure wraps around trees that help to provide shade. Comfort (and good design) continues across the transport system with well-designed trams weaving between key civic spots, while trains whisk international travellers off to Zürich Airport in minutes.
Pack a pair of swimming trunks and make the most of your time in a swimmable city. In the summertime Zürich’s well-maintained public swimming spots fill up with handsome bodies as waterside lunch breaks stretch deep into the afternoon. A dip in the pristine waters of Lake Zürich or a quick tanning session on a deck followed by a relaxing float down the river are part and parcel of any given sunny day here. A swimmable city means a healthier, happier population – and, of course, helps with tourism.
Stop off in Zug to catch the town’s station development, which was rebuilt at the start of the millennium. A truly integrated transport exchange – thought has been given to how cyclists and pedestrians connect with the station – it shows how a town’s relatively small size (Zug’s population is just 30,000) needn’t stand in the way of a modern transport hub.
It also helps if you are a bit of a tax haven. You don’t need a Central or Yoyogi park to be a city that does greenery well: Milan’s strong point is making the most of its pavements and rooftops with street-side planters and verdant balconies.
Smaller neighbourhood parks provide green space all across the city and, most importantly, many are well equipped with swings and slides for kids running riot and plenty of room to roam for waggy-tailed pooches. City hall’s investment in plant-filled apartment tower Bosco Verticale and the surrounding area of Porta Garibaldi also prove that this is a city that has blossomed since hosting Expo in 2015.
In its cafés and bagni kiosks, sunbathers sit alongside city-dwellers for lunch and aperitivi, in a transitional space that admits both the dressed and the half-naked. Other than being the perfect spot for a passeggiata (a social stroll), these pavements also make for excellent cycling paths that seamlessly connect coastal towns.
Don’t forget to study how the Italian piazza continues to function. There’s a reason why we refer to an Italian square with its native name: a piazza isn’t just an opening between a couple of crossroads but a specific feature of Italian city life without which many towns would wither. It’s a microcosm of urban spirit that distils all that’s necessary for a community. In its quintessential version it features at least one newsstand, a bar complete with outdoor seating and a drinking fountain: all places where residents can not only linger but engage in a little civic discussion too. They are essential to the urban environment.
When it comes to pushing through a scorching summer, few keep it cool like the Italians. They may make for endurance sunbathers at the beach but in their cities they know the importance of a few shady spots to keep heat fatigue at bay. Lush trees not only add greenery but turn all streets into breezy ambling grounds – and you’ll be hard pressed to find any restaurant or bar that, come May, doesn’t extend onto the pavement with riotously coloured awnings and umbrellas.
Munich likes to call itself the northernmost city in Italy (something about the sunshine, one assumes) but its airport is all German efficiency. The new Terminal 2 satellite, reserved for Lufthansa flights, is a masterclass in airport management, combining great retail with speedy and secure passage for visitors (although it needs to up its game by providing better newsstands). From there take the train to the Hauptbahnhof and cast your eye over Auer Weber’s plans for the new station (set to be completed by 2026). Then take full advantage of the city’s hedonistic side, sampling a few Bavarian brews in a top Biergarten before swimming in the river at the Englischer Garten.
While in Munich, take some time to look at the housing developments designed by Euroboden, the architecture practice founded by Stefan Höglmaier. When he’s not designing buildings himself, he’s collaborating with the likes of David Adjaye and David Chipperfield.
Take a trip north to Hamburg to wander around the Eppendorf neighbourhood with its independent boutiques, coffee roasters (we recommend Burg) and homeware shops – the perfect example of a thriving community. This is what a functioning high street looks like.
Fifteen years ago it would have been almost unthinkable to dip a toe into the fetid (and highly polluted) harbour. But today diving in headfirst is a symbol that summer has struck the Danish capital. Bikes too have helped keep Copenhagen moving and – unlike in London, Tokyo or New York – you don’t have to be a spandex-clad, car-dodging daredevil to get the best of its safe and simple-to-use bike lanes: the transport interchanges are ripe for aping by ambitious urban planners. Also take a peek at the shop-front libraries that have started sprouting up on high streets, cleverly mixing public services into traditional retailing areas.
The Mathallen Oslo in the Norwegian capital, Vanha Kauppahalli next to Helsinki’s harbour and Östermalms Saluhall in Stockholm all ooze old-world charm. Offering seasoned traders and independents a berth in a pretty building is also a surefire way to tempt punters with rumbling tummies and support small businesses. Longish winters aside, a summer tour will show designers the value – and perfect proportions – of the city’s funkis-era balconies: the inheritance of those Stockholmers lucky enough to live in an apartment built in the inter-war years.