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How do you go about changing a city? An ambitious, progressive mayor with a sizeable municipal budget certainly helps but it’s not the only way to do it. Transformation often begins with a single project – occasionally even a tiny, grassroots-led plan – which then inspires people to think differently about their streets, neighbourhoods and cities.

Not every project need be as successful as Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Stream or New York’s High Line to bring about positive and lasting change (though, of course, those projects have set the bar for truly transformative urban shifts). But even incremental changes, whether they’re driven by a top-down plan, a bottom-up approach or a combination of the two can act as a catalyst for bigger things. There’s also no one-size-fits-all method; projects work best when they honour a city’s unique set of circumstances. Some of the most impressive urban projects are kicked off by the very people who live in the city day in and day out.

From the private-public partnerships that are adding greenery to developments and the temporary fixes improving the look of streets under construction to the simple solutions that encourage walking, cycling and more physical activity, smart projects, large and small, have the power to transform cities for the better. We take a look at some of the best.

01 Simple sunbeds

Wroclaw

Reviving neglected public spaces needn’t require a massive overhaul. Take, for example, NO Studio’s simple sunbeds installed on the grim, neglected concrete steps by the Oder river in Wroclaw, Poland.

The project is part of a set of micro-installations by the Wroclaw-based studio, comprising Michal Majewski and Magda Szwajcowska, which favours a problem-solving approach to design, spanning temporary and small architecture. After assessing Wroclaw’s needs and exploring rifts in urban planning, it designed a series of “small interventions” to add colour and function to under-used spaces. Installed with the support of the Museum of Architecure in Wroclaw, the bright sunbeds near a historic bridge in the Old Town provide colour and a spot for passers-by to rest their feet while taking in the historic surroundings. The studio has since completed similar seating projects in Vilnius.

Monocle comment
NO Studio’s sunbeds show that smart urban design can be as simple as seeing familiar places with fresh eyes and that minimal changes can lead to significant transformation.

02 New school

Amsterdam

When Amsterdam’s hottest nightclub, Trouw, shuttered in 2015, some feared that the closure heralded an era of uptight local councils and party-pooping police. Far from it. A year later the club’s founder Olaf Boswijk unveiled De School: a nightclub, restaurant, café, gym and cultural space inside a former school, which was leased to Boswijk and his team by the local government as a way of bringing life to the neglected building and rejuvenating the area around Van Galenbuurt in west Amsterdam.

Although a venue with a 24-hour licence, where club nights often run until 10.00 the next day, might seem risky, De School is designed to appeal to all, not just the rowdy few. The restaurant, DS, is a multi-course, white tablecloth affair that draws a well-heeled crowd; frequent art exhibitions are popular with young creatives and culture-minded tourists; and mellow evening concerts are a hit with local revellers (especially those who might not meet the club’s 21-and-over rule).

De School shows that bringing in young entrepreneurs can yield results, from reviving a gloomy neighbourhood to giving residents a much-needed place to let off steam.

Monocle comment
Town halls should encourage creatives to make use of any neglected spaces – they are sure to inspire new activity in the neighbourhood.

03 Jump street

Richmond, Virginia

Some of the smartest urban projects address not just how people use public space but how people spend their time in that space. Last year, Sports Backers, a non-profit organisation that promotes active lifestyles in Richmond, Virginia, launched the “UpSwing” project in partnership with city hall and the vcu da Vinci Center. The simple scheme set up jump-rope stations around the city. Located in places where people can expect to be waiting – at bus stops, say, or outside the dry cleaners – the stands feature retractable jump ropes that can be used by children to pass the time.

Though the scheme is small in scale, its benefits are wide-ranging. By encouraging kids to spend even short parcels of time being active, rather than sitting with their eyes glued to their phones, the jump-rope stands sow the seeds of good habits early on. They also provide a welcome distraction for bored children, offering relief for harried parents. What’s more, the playful nature of the stands adds some levity to the city’s streets.

Monocle comment
Not all urban endeavours need to be serious. By thinking more playfully about the city’s fabric, it’s easier to inject some activity into residents’ lives.

04 The Patch Project

Toronto

The rapid growth of Toronto’s downtown means construction hoarding is plentiful. But this feature of city life, which would usually be considered an eyesore, is being reimagined as an art canvas. City legislation passed in 2014 allows hoarding surfaces to be transformed into temporary public art spaces.

The Patch Project, an extension of local charity the Steps Initiative, has since transformed underused spaces across the city. Employing a roster of more than 130 artists, the works of local photographers, muralists and installation artists now grace the construction sites that dot the streets. For Anjuli Solanki, Patch Project’s director of community programmes, it’s about more than just beautifying the city superficially. “It’s a way for people who don’t have the means to go to a gallery to access art. It also transforms spaces that feel unwelcome into outdoor galleries,” he says.

Monocle comment By connecting artists and spaces in need of temporary vibrancy, cities can ensure that even while building something new the streets always seem fresh.

05 Inflated infrastructure

Aarhus

On average, each inhabitant of Aarhus cycles 2.5km a day and nearly everyone has at least one bike, if not a whole line-up of two-wheelers. With so much pedalling going on, tyres take a beating. Since 2007, however, cyclists have been able to take advantage of free bicycle pumps that are dotted around the city.

Veksø, a Danish company that has specialised in the design and manufacture of urban furniture and cycling products since 1950, was tasked by the municipality to produce the hard-working pumps. Each has a handy nozzle that fits practically all valve types (including those on wheelchairs, mopeds and prams). These snug, stainless-steel stands are part of the city’s push to make it one of the most cycle-friendly cities in Denmark, and that’s not all. It is also spending €34m on cycle routes, new signage and bike-park terminals with the aim of ensuring that at least 35 per cent of all school and work trips are made by bike. Now that’s an investment to get pumped up about.

Monocle comment
That deflated feeling when you have to abandon your languishing bike is avoidable. With a little help from the city, robust cycling infrastructure will ensure the health and efficiency of its commuters.

06 Market movers

Madrid

If you want a true taste of Spain’s revival, just take a walk through the capital’s municipal markets, once crippled with debt, abandoned by shoppers and risking closure. A flurry of solidarity fed a fight-back across the city. Most recently, the Mercado de Vallehermoso, in Madrid’s Chamberí district, allowed grassroots growers’ association Día de la Cosecha to transform its long-abandoned loading dock into a feast of stalls.

“[It] was a paradox: a food market starving to death,” says Juan Luis Royuela, project director and owner of cheese stand La Cabezuela. Stalls offering tasty morsels from suppliers located within 120m of the market have boosted foot traffic and lifted the barrio’s economy. All with a modest €120,000 investment (half paid by the association and the rest with a council subsidy) and another invaluable factor: the permissive attitude of the administrative powers-that-be. “Reviving neighbourhood markets isn’t just a question of economics,” says Royuela, “it’s cultural as well.”

Monocle comment
Letting residents reshape their own markets with a dollop of democracy is a winning recipe. Respond to community needs and they’ll vote with their feet.

07 Floating forest

New York

When New York City-based artist Mary Mattingly launched Swale – a food forest atop a repurposed barge – into the city’s waterways, it challenged conventional city policy. Foraging has long been banned across the city’s 12,000 hectares of public land and when Swale first docked in 2016 it filled an important gap. Residents of the South Bronx, an area often described as one of the largest “food deserts” in the whole of the US, could now find fresh fruit and vegetables.

Today, Swale travels between the Bronx, Brooklyn and Governors Island. In 2016, nearly 60,000 New Yorkers set foot on Swale. “[It] exemplifies what happens when there are forageable public spaces,” says Mattingly. “It’s a stage for the idea of public food in the city. Our goal is to have accessible spaces on land.”

Momentum is on the project’s side. “Agencies are increasingly eager to find resilient food sources and this is one of them,” says Mattingly. Mayor Bill de Blasio is on board and a foraging pilot project is underway at Bronx’s Concrete Plant Park.

Monocle comment Bureaucracy can often throw up challenges for smart change. By thinking outside the box – or in this case, outside the city’s land – Swale has proven the value of its concept, making policy change more likely.

08 Wayfinding win

Athens

It’s fair to say that for the past decade or so, quality of life in Athens has not been a top priority for the cash-strapped Greek government. So, in 2010, Atenistas was born – a grassroots civil society effort to tackle the issue. In the years since, the group of urban activists has done everything from mending pavements to greening neglected public spaces. Many of its interventions focus on bucking the city’s reliance on the car and improving access for pedestrians, whether locals or tourists, and it regularly holds guided walks that explore the city’s art galleries, libraries and so on. In 2015, Atenistas set to work creating a network of way-finding signs that encourage people to explore the city on foot by showing how close many of the centre’s major areas and attractions are. In addition to being practical aids for navigating the city, the signs also add personality to the urban landscape.

Monocle comment These bottom-up, small projects have a significant impact on everyday life for residents, while encouraging people to walk more helps to reduce pollution in a car-clogged city.

09 Dipping in

Berlin

When, in 1998, brothers Tim and Jan Edler presented their plans for a swimming area in a branch of the river Spree canal in Berlin’s city centre, they weren’t completely serious. “Back then, we regarded our concept for the regeneration of the Spree canal into a recreational area as a congenial utopia,” Jan recalls. “We barely dared to think about executing it.”

Local politicians duly slapped it down. After all, the Spree is primarily a commercial waterway and Berlin’s outdated sewage system overflows into the river on days of heavy rain, making it notoriously dirty. But something about the proposal sparked people’s imagination. The Flussbad – as the project has been named – won two LafargeHolcim Awards and much international attention. Private and public funding to study feasibility and technical requirements followed and, two years ago, Berlin’s new city government surprised residents by naming the Flussbad as an urban-development goal in its coalition contract.

A boat testing a floating natural water-filtering system is now docked at the site of the Edlers’ original proposal, opposite the Humboldt Forum. The main hurdle for the Flussbad is bureaucratic: the river is managed by federal government, which also handles sections of its banks, while other parts belong to the state of Berlin and the Mitte district. But going from proposal to projected plan is a good start.

Monocle comment
Exciting ideas often start with a bit of pie-in-the-sky. Though the plan to completion isn’t clear, by mixing urban utopianism, local activism and state-of-the-art technology, the project could make a serious splash.

10 Make a splash

Tokyo

Back in the Edo period, Tokyo was a city of canals. But after the Second World War, many of these waterways were cemented over or otherwise polluted by rapid economic and urban development.

One stretch of water – the Shibuya River – which runs for 2.6km and connects to Tokyo Bay, is about to be cleaned up and beautified after years of neglect. The clean-up operation is part of a new development, set to open in September, called Shibuya Stream. It sits on the narrow waterway and is one of six redevelopment projects currently under construction around Shibuya Station by property, rail and retail giant Tokyu Corporation.

At one time, the site was a platform on the Tokyu railway, one which was moved underground in 2013. Soon it will be home to a 35-storey tower, also due to open in September, offering a mix of retail, offices, restaurants and a hotel. But the highlight of the project is the beautification of the river and the street for the community. Fresh water will be pumped into the currently stagnant waterway and Tokyu is working with the local government to plant greenery alongside. Two squares at each end of a tree-lined 600m-long promenade will host markets and festivals.

Monocle comment
Japan’s limited urban space often results in sky-high developments. Plans like this connect with the citizens at street level.

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