Soul of the city | Monocle

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For thousands of years city-makers have wrestled with the concept of the ideal urban centre. And at Monocle we work hard to make our own humble contribution. There’s no one-size-fits-all method but there is one basic tenet: the neighbourhood, and its street life, is the starting point.

“When you think about good places in cities, they have a corner shop, a café or bar within walking distance and pocket parks for kids,” says Helen Lochhead, professor of architecture and president of the Australian Institute of Architects. “In Sydney, we’ve been focusing on the 30-minute city. But it needs to be about the five-minute city, the five-minute village. Within a very small space, all your needs can be met.”

Vancouver has a scheme to ensure that parkland is within easy reach

How do we go about creating this village? For starters, our buildings need to interact with the street in a way that encourages activity; we need balconies and windows for us to call down from and building frontages that are close to footpaths. Density is critical – let’s opt for town houses, while keeping building heights below five floors. And public spaces should be used to full effect, reducing our reliance on private gardens.

The same rings true for our green spaces and waterways, whether they be parks, forests, rivers or lakes. “We can’t just rely on little bits of open space,” says Lochhead. “You have to have generous lungs in a city, like a Central Park; space where you can connect with trees and wildlife.”

Reviving the local neighbourhood also requires streets that are walkable and accessible. “It’s important to consider the pedestrian first,” says Danish-Canadian urbanist Mikael Colville-Andersen. “If you want people to walk more, make the sidewalks wider and reduce hazards.” Easy connection to the city’s commercial offerings is important too. “People are always going to choose transport options that are the fastest way to move around,” says Colville-Anderson.

So how to make the ideal city? We need to start small but think big. Here we outline 20 of our favourite projects, followed by a blueprint for the perfect neighbourhood. Our hope is that you’ll find ideas to get any city moving in the right direction.

Kuala Lumpur – A neighbourhood garden can grow far more than vegetables; it nurtures a sense of community too.
By James Chambers


You will regularly find Ng Seksan, one of Malaysia’s most influential architects, planting sweet potatoes, morning glory and various fast-growing vegetables at a community garden (or kebun kebun) in the affluent Bangsar neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur. Vegetables are grown by volunteers on this one-hectare sunny hillside plot and donated to orphanages and soup kitchens. The neighbourhood’s residents can pop in to help with weeding, planting and watering. The plot belongs to an electricity-transmission company (and is also home to chickens, ducks, rabbits and a cow).

Ng (pictured) has been scouring Kuala Lumpur for such empty strips of land and the success of Bangsar’s kebun kebun has inspired at least seven similar projects across Malaysia. “To me it is one of the most important projects of my entire career,” says Ng, who also advises like-minded individuals, connecting them with experts, funding bodies and the relevant local authorities. “Land in cities is such a precious commodity and there are not enough parks for the people. We felt that too much of our public land was being converted into private use.”

Ng, who turns 60 in November, trained in New Zealand before returning to Malaysia and building up his own practice. Six years ago he stepped back from commercial work and international commissions to focus on urbanism projects that support culture and education. One example is KongsiKL, an arts space based in a warehouse donated by a private developer.

Ng is working on a new kebun kebun along the riverside in Kerinchi, a less affluent part of Kuala Lumpur. It is designed for residents to grow and harvest their own crops in order to supplement often poor diets and to provide a fresh income stream.

Beirut – An art deco architectural gem gets a welcome refresh.
By Leila Molana-Allen


Beirut’s La Tour building, an art deco masterpiece built in 1949 by Italian-Lebanese architect-engineer Edgard Sisto, has dodged the unlucky fate of many historic buildings. Rather than being demolished, the striking complex is set to be given a facelift by Beirut-based architect Karim Nader.

It is not just an unusual beauty but a vital part of the city’s architectural history, says Nader. “This building is a transitional piece between the traditional architecture of Beirut, which uses stone, and the modernism of the 1970s, which used concrete in a very radical way.” The studio plans to update the building to contain four large apartments and a rooftop studio, as well as a café and flower shop in the lobby.

Created to resemble an ocean liner, the façade emulates the decks of a ship and has circular porthole-shaped windows. Nader plans to retain these features, which he says reflect a period when construction was geared towards liveability and aesthetics. “It is a certain quality of living that was advocated at the time,” he says. “For instance, the curved balconies give a panoramic view of the sea.”

While remaining true to Sisto’s original, Nader plans to bring La Tour into the modern day by connecting it with nature, using climbing vines, planted balconies and a lush rooftop garden.

Genoa – The city’s vital replacement bridge sets a high bar for new builds.
By Ivan Carvalho

Two years ago the Morandi Bridge collapse left 43 dead and Genoa divided. But hope emerged from the rubble. Genoa’s mayor, Marco Bucci, was given special powers to fast-track rebuilding efforts and the city’s most famous resident, architect Renzo Piano, donated a design with nautical lines that nod to the city’s maritime past.

With teams working around the clock, the 1,067-metre span, with enough steel to build three Eiffel Towers, was erected in less than a year. “You feel proud of the work because we’ve closed a wound,” says Francesco Poma, project director at Webuild. Let’s hope that it becomes a benchmark for future infrastructure projects in Italy.

Copenhagen – Floating islands bring new life to the city’s waterways.
By Michael Booth


Copenhageners once considered their harbour and canals an inconvenience best left to tourist boats. But over the past 15 years the cleaning of the water has paved the way for open-air swimming, a vast new beach area in Amager Strand and various pedestrian and cycle bridges, opening up entire new spaces on the waterfront.

The latest efforts to utilise the waterscape are Copenhagen Islands, small floating pontoons made from a steel frame around a flotation unit of 4,000 recycled plastic bottles, with larch-wood cladding. The 20 sq m prototype island, CPH-Ø1, was launched in Sydhavn (South Harbour), an area which has seen rather soulless residential development in recent years. The aim is to launch three more islands – a “parkipelago”, if you will – by spring 2021. The idea is that they can be moved around to bring life to different parts of the harbour as floating public spaces for picnics, swimming and boating, with plans for saunas, mussel farms and cafés.

Seattle – Electrical substations are necessary for keeping the lights on but they’re almost always painful to look at. It doesn’t have to be that way. 
By Will Kitchens


When the city’s public electric utility, Seattle City Light, proposed taking over a city street for construction of a new substation to serve the booming South Lake Union neighbourhood, it had to prove to the city’s design commission that it would benefit the public. The utility enlisted architecture and planning firm nbbj to help find the answer.

The result is the Denny Substation: a shimmering, stainless-steel structure encased by an elevated linear park with a community centre, a learning centre and even a dog park – all of which don’t impede the substation’s primary purpose of transforming high-voltage electricity into power that can be used by city buildings. “To my knowledge, a substation integrating these public amenities has never been constructed,” says Jose Sama, the project’s lead architect. “It’s a one-off.”


Operating since 2019, the substation has become something of a community hub for pedestrians and pooches alike. “The thing about civic architecture is that you can design and build these things but if the community doesn’t actually take a sense of stewardship, they die,” says Sama.

While the substation’s $210m (€186m) price tag raised some eyebrows, it’s a worthy price to pay. The lesson: civic infrastructure needn’t be unsightly.

Vancouver – Equal access to bountiful parks is a marker of a fair city. 
By Tomos Lewis


Katherine Howard (pictured), a planner at the Vancouver board of parks and recreation, says that social and economic divisions in the Canadian city are becoming increasingly obvious. Enter VanPlay, a key component in the city’s attempt to bridge the disparity.


The goal of the scheme is to ensure that every one of the city’s 230-odd parks is easy to reach via public transport or bicycle and that facilities are of as high a standard in less affluent neighbourhoods as they are in wealthier ones. “It’s a question of inclusivity,” says Kurt Culbertson, CEO of Design Workshop, the North Carolina-based studio that led the consultation on VanPlay. “Do certain segments of the population feel welcome in a park? Are there barriers to access?”

The problem is partly one of rapid growth: areas that are densifying most quickly with new residential developments, such as the formerly industrial East Side, receive more city funding for public spaces. The goal of VanPlay is to direct funds to the parts that get left behind. “In those areas, parks are often overused,” says Howard. “VanPlay has shone a light on that and allowed us to act on it.”

Nairobi – A formerly neglected library in the Kenyan capital is turning over a new leaf to better reflect the needs of the community in this bustling metropolis. 
By Tristan McConnell


The McMillan Memorial Library in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, opened in 1931. Built in remembrance of a rich American, it was a colonial flagship and a whites-only establishment until the eve of the country’s independence, which came in 1963. Unsurprisingly, the library was not taken to heart by Kenyans and, during decades of neglect, the imposing neoclassical building and its anachronistic collection slid from view. But now reclamation is underway.

“We are working with what we have, to reformat it to fit a present-day purpose,” says Angela Wachuka, a publisher who co-founded Book Bunk, an organisation seeking to revive the library as a contemporary urban space, with Wanjiru Koinange (both pictured, Wachuka on right). A digital catalogue of the McMillan’s 100,000 books and periodicals revealed that some had not been taken out since the 1960s, while borrowing fell off a cliff in the 1990s. The collection “does not reflect the demographics or interests of Nairobi today,” says Wachuka.

But repurposing the McMillan so that it has a place in the city’s landscape and imagination requires more than just new books; it demands fresh thinking and uses. Last year, Book Bunk organised 21 events – including gigs, screenings and readings – breathing new life into the old library. “We want the library to be a centre for arts, a really vibrant place that reflects Nairobi,” says Wachuka. 

Monocle comment: Libraries are rightly being revived in many cities. They should be seen as a central element of architecture and an important gathering space for communities.

Zürich – Regulating the city’s temperature with a plentiful water supply. 
By Carlo Silberschmidt


Switzerland’s love of the water is well known: chic Boesch and Pedrazzini boats on the lake and the occasional stand-up paddler floating down the Limmat, Aare or Rhine rivers are common sights. And while a surge in amateur captains manning smaller rubber boats has prompted Zürich to enforce basic rules to ensure safety (carrying rescue devices onboard is mandatory as of this summer), this hasn’t lessened the numbers taking to its lake and waterways.

Its clean water is already the envy of many other cities and Zürich is looking for more ways to make use of it. For more than 17 years the city has been testing the use of deep lake water to cool buildings in the summer – and heat them in the winter. Over the past 18 months engineers have been working on taking the project to the next level by cooling Zürich’s entire financial district, which is home to a third of the city’s largest companies.

While the project could take another decade to be completed, the potential is enormous. “Through the lake-water system, we could save up to 660,000 litres of heating oil a year,” says Thomas Jeiziner of EWZ, the city power-supply company that is managing the project.

Copenhagen – The role of city architects is shaping our spaces for the better. 
By Gabriele Dellisanti


Before taking over as Copenhagen’s city architect in February of last year, Camilla van Deurs (pictured) spent more than 10 years working with urbanist Jan Gehl, exporting the Danish approach to urban living around the world. Now she’s bringing the lessons she learnt back home. 

What does your role involve?
Copenhagen has a long tradition of having a city architect as an independent advisor, primarily for politicians and the mayor. I am an on-call expert on architecture and urban matters.

What does your international experience bring to Copenhagen?
I spent so much time sharing the notion of liveability that once the role of city architect opened up I felt the challenge of making an impact here. Copenhagen might be world class in some aspects but there are cities that fare much better in certain fields. Paris, for example, is really progressive in dealing with traffic management and climate change.

Any exciting projects up your sleeve?
I am working on removing cars from the inner city. We held a citizens’ assembly, inspired by Toronto’s model of direct democracy. The idea is to remove 75 per cent of through-traffic and add green non-commercial spaces, which will improve air pollution and improve quality of life.

Monocle comment: Copenhagen’s long tradition of city architects should be a model for other cities; they can play an important role in helping municipal governments keep an eye on design as they remake their cityscapes.

Stockholm – Fancy a dip? Life’s a beach in the Swedish capital.
By Liv Lewitschnik


Stockholmers like to make the most of their light-filled summers. With nights that never go quite dark through June and into July, the city’s beaches come into their own. And as Stockholm straddles the salty, sometimes choppy Baltic Sea and the more languid Lake Mälaren, there are swimming holes to suit every taste.


“Stockholmers love their beaches,” says the city’s vice-mayor of environment and climate, Katarina Luhr. “We can swim right in town, that makes our city unique. And we work hard at making them accessible to all. Right now, the focus is on establishing better services, such as loos, at the beaches.”

The 31 official urban beaches (there are many more besides), are packed in high summer and the city remains on the lookout for more. “We always scout for new spots where people can swim,” says Luhr. 

Monocle comment: From La Spiaggia on the Arno in Florence to the revamped banks of the Vistula in Warsaw and the new swimming beach on the Willamette River in Portland, urban beaches deserve a closer look from city planners. Jump in while the water’s cold.

Quito – A new metro connects the city and offers a chance to transform it.
By Ed Stocker

It’s not easy to build transport links from scratch. But in Ecuador’s capital Quito, authorities have charted an underground route that brings the Andean metropolis, known for its historic colonial centre, firmly into the 21st century.

Construction began in 2016 and the metro is set to open in January 2021, linking El Labrador in the north with Quitumbe in the south in just 34 minutes. The quickest time to take that route currently on public transport is two hours. “How the city rethinks the metro as the backbone for larger urban transformations will define its success over time,” says Ecuadorian urbanist and architect Felipe Correa. “The careful insertion of inner-city affordable housing, the introduction of social services, updating and expanding educational facilities and the introduction of new recreational hubs – among other projects – should be conceived and designed in relation to the urban spine established by the metro line.”

But Quito isn’t stopping there. Despite being a lung-challenging 2,850m above sea level, the city is also adamant on further developing its cycling infrastructure, aiming for 5 per cent of all journeys to be made by bike by 2025. It is also hoping to add electric buses to its fleet and considering a cable-car system. Quito, it seems, just wants to keep moving.

Hamburg – A mixed-use development that locals can grow into.
By Nolan Giles

While the regeneration of Hamburg’s port area – with its gleaming Herzog & de Meuron-designed opera house – has been widely celebrated, some components of the overhaul have flown under the radar. The kptn development is one area that deserves its time in the sun. Designed by local firm Blauraum Architects, it provides an innovative model for mixed-use development in the city – all built in the characterful red brick that reflects the area’s industrial past.

A key feature is the “micro-apartments” within its housing stock. Buyers can start with a small unit and as their family (or salary) grows, they can purchase a neighbouring apartment, knock the walls down and expand their home.

Bangkok – Clean and quiet new electric ferries (the first of their kind in southeast Asia) are set to revive the Thai capital’s canals.
By Gwen Robinson


Snaking through Bangkok’s seething urban sprawl is a network of old canals, or khlongs, going back centuries to when the city was a trading post on the banks of the Chao Phraya river. With more than 1,160 canals stretching some 2,270km within city limits, Bangkok was originally envisioned as a canal town, with its waterways providing a crucial transport network. Yet only three main waterways are currently served by public ferries: the Chao Phraya River, Khlong Saen Saep and Khlong Phasi Charoen.

Now the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority has launched an electric-ferry service to transport commuters and sightseers from the city’s central Hualamphong rail station along one of the main canals, the Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem. The first of seven electric ferries was launched at the end of May to supplement the existing fleet of old diesel-powered boats.

The compact EVs glide silently and don’t belch fumes, and can run for five or more hours before a recharge. With seats for 40 passengers, they have three times the capacity of the diesel ferries and the service will be free for the next two years. The idea is to launch the next seven EV ferries within six months and to expand the service to two more canals. If all goes to plan, the city could move closer to its aspiration of being the “Venice of the East”.

Seoul – A disused train track becomes a verdant gathering place.
By Josh Doyle


Seoul might be starved for green space but its urban planners have made an art out of making do. There is Seoullo 7017, an elevated tree-lined path that helped brighten up a gritty neighbourhood around Seoul Station. But most popular is the linear green space: Gyeongui Line Forest Park. After the Gyeongui Line train was moved underground, the space was turned into a long oasis of green that in most sections is just 10 metres wide. Citizens gather to sip beer on the grass as would-be K-pop stars busk for the stylish crowd of dog-walkers and pedestrians heading for nearby bars, cafés and a new department store.

“It’s about accessibility and being able to feel the beauty of a green area in the city centre,” says Hong Woo-jin, a city official overseeing the park. The planners’ approach has caught the attention of other Asian cities. “Teams have come in from Hong Kong and Singapore to study the park’s success,” says Hong. 

Monocle comment: Skinny parks, starting with New York’s High Line, are loved not because of their size but because of their imaginative use of space.

Adelaide – Where clever signs serve as a welcome mat to cyclists.
By Nic Monisse


Wayfinding for cyclists in cities is frequently neglected. If present at all, signs are often small and use incomprehensible lingo (where would the Q2 bikeway take me?).

Enter the city of Adelaide and Studio Binocular with its clear and legible designs for the Frome Street Bikeway. Launched in 2014 as part of the city’s ongoing protected cycle-lanes programme (another portion is due for completion next year), the signs act as a beacon, guiding Adelaideans along roads that are cycle-friendly.

Using bright colours and showing distances and times to destinations, the signs point out, for instance, that a ride from the river to the central market takes four minutes. They also signal that cyclists belong on Adelaide’s streets.

“I think sometimes bike wayfinding gets lost in the mix of signs designated for road users and cars,” says Laura Cornhill of Studio Binocular. “Our signage simplifies information for people reading at the speed of a bike. And if people are walking or driving, it alerts them to the fact that there is this cycle lane here.”

It’s hoped that this will help to play a part in changing people’s travel behaviour in this car-centric city. And it seems to be working: some 80,000 people have pedalled down one of the signposted streets in the past year.

New Delhi – A horticultural and ecological haven with restored Mughal-era monuments and fountains brings a breath of fresh air to northern India. 
By Lyndee Prickitt 


For 200 years it was a scrubby patch of land that swallowed up the ruins of grand Mughal-era monuments in New Delhi. But after years of campaigning to turn the land into a park, followed by a decade of diligent landscaping, Sunder Nursery opened to the public in 2018. Within weeks it became packed with people picnicking, walking and taking photos among the colonnades, roses and tombs.

“It’s been an incredible journey, especially to see how quickly Sunder Nursery has become a favourite hangout place for so many people across the board,” says Ratish Nanda, CEO for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, whose experts created the park with its own funding and continue to act as managing trustees. “It doesn’t matter about your economics or religion. People love being here.”

The 90-acre park has 15 heritage monuments, mostly tombs and wells from the 16th and 17th centuries, six of which are Unesco World Heritage sites. A museum and two open-air amphitheatres have also been erected. The park has already hosted dozens of events, from storytelling festivals to a German Christmas market. On Sundays a corner of the park is reserved for a popular farmers’ market, complete with food stalls showcasing regional cuisines.

There are plans to build a lakeside restaurant as well as a conservatory to display the tropical rainforest of India. But preserving heritage is only part of Sunder Nursery’s mission. “Most of New Delhi’s ecology has disappeared. So the park has recreated its four original ecological zones to raise awareness,” says Nanda. There’s been an unexpected – and welcome – outcome. “The birds have come back – we’ve seen birds here that have never been seen in modern New Delhi.”

Melbourne – Guiding developers to create better places to live.
By Nic Monisse

How to stop developers building apartments solely with the goal of making quick sales? As long as the minimum structural and planning requirements are met, there’s very little pushing developers to erect buildings that contribute to lively streets. To fix this, the city of Melbourne created its Design Guide, which is intended to raise the quality of new developments. Part inspirational urbanism textbook and part planning regulation, it was officially incorporated into Melbourne’s planning scheme late last year.

The guide looks at best-practice design, explaining decisions without jargon and giving evidence for how developers can improve quality of life for residents and workers – and, hopefully, their own returns. “We want to reinforce the importance of Melbourne remaining a city for people, with great design and spaces at ground level that are functional and appealing,” says mayor Sally Capp. “This means concealing ugly service infrastructure and parking at street level and focusing greater attention on creating spaces that add to the vibrancy of our community and economy.”

Capp, like many Melbourne residents, will be hoping that the result is fewer blank façades and featureless towers, and more bustling cafés and plazas. It’s a clever move by a city that knows that high quality design entices both people and investment.

Osaka – How to make a friendly city, one small garden at a time.
By Junichi Toyofuku

“People used to know their neighbours,” says Yugo Kataoka. “Today there is anonymity.” That is something that he has set out to change. Kataoka is the project manager of Minna no Niwa (everyone’s garden), a group of 20-odd tiny gardening plots dotted across 74 apartment buildings at Senri Aoyamadai, a housing development in Osaka.

The idea was conceived in 2015 by architect Toyo Ito and put into action by the Urban Renaissance Agency (UR). Kataoka, who works for UR, approached residents about using neglected outdoor spaces for gardening. Anyone can ask for a patch to grow flowers and herbs. “This leads to a community because it provides an opportunity for people to meet and talk,” says Kataoka. “The landlords should want to see happy residents. It’s a form of social capital.” 

Monocle comment: These green spaces might be small but they are socially important; a smart means of creating a sense of community.

Hong Kong – The largest island is a mecca for mountain bikers.
By James Chambers


“Hong Kong is becoming a mountain-biking hotspot in Asia,” says Ludovic Dufetel, a management consultant and mountain-biking fanatic. The city’s mountainous terrain played a big role in his decision to relocate from Singapore three years ago.

monocle met a muddy Dufetel on Lantau Island while he was trying out the city’s newest mountain-bike facilities. Upon completion, Lantau will have some 35km of biking trails and include the city’s first dedicated practice ground; set across 4.5km and catering to all levels, it will be one of the largest in Asia.

The project forms part of a broader vision for Hong Kong’s largest island that’s being overseen by the Civil Engineering and Development Department (cedd), including much-needed public housing on Lantau’s north side. But the hilly south side is being preserved for nature and recreation. Building tracks and bike trails has been a novel project for cedd. Nonetheless early feedback has been positive. “With smooth, machined trails and jumps this is a great addition to the trail system,” says Dufetel.

Paris – A new media HQ brings the printed word into focus again. 
By Annick Weber


Newspapers have defined Paris’s urban landscape ever since the city’s much-loved kiosks were introduced in the 19th century. But as the way media is consumed is changing, so is the mission of these neighbourhood fixtures, outside which racks of postcards and tourist souvenirs are eclipsing the once-dominant news titles.

A new urbanism project is set to rekindle the city’s relationship with the printed word. By September the up-and-coming Austerlitz neighbourhood (near the recently redeveloped Gare d’Austerlitz) will be home to the HQ of Le Monde Group, blending staff offices with a sprawling public plaza in which the city can come together.

France’s leading news group commissioned Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta to design an open, accessible space inspired by the values and outlook of its titles. The building is clad with a pixilated glass façade, while the plaza is covered by a wavy canopy to represent the unblocked flow of information. A visitor centre, auditorium, café and riverfront terrace will offer staffers and passers-by a respite from their daily duties. “With its bold new plaza and semi-transparent outer skin, the headquarters create connections to the general public, giving citizens a sense of ownership towards the building,” says Kjetil Traedal Thorsen, co-founder and partner at Snøhetta.

Monocle comment: News companies take note: bureaux with inviting public spaces can give a face to a newspaper, helping it to take part in the life of the city.

photography: Véronique Hoegger, Simon Bajada, Alana Paterson, Reuben Singh, Jun Michael Park, Paulius Staniunas, Khadija Farah, Paul Munene, Jimi Chiu, Jan Søndergaard, Lek Kiatsirikajorn, Jared Chulski, Karim Nasser 

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