Thinking cities | Monocle

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01 Richard Florida

— Professor of business & creativity, University of Toronto

How cities renew

Welcome to the age of the authentic. The roster of global cities profiled in this issue testifies to the need to refine our ideas about quality of life. In fact, I’m starting to think we need to dump that term altogether. What matters now is quality of place. I define it as the intersection of three key elements of our cities: what’s there (the natural and built environments); who’s there (the people); and what’s going on (what people are doing, our relationship with the natural and built environments).

The key factor today revolves around the ability of places to attract talent and unleash it in a broad cross-section of the population. An energised city is the place where creative, entrepreneurial, and forward-thinking people from every walk of life, every class, every lifestyle want to be. And people with abundant creative energy don’t want to be safely tucked away somewhere. They want accidents to happen, look for the rough edges and seek the authentic. As urbanist Jane Jacobs said, new ideas really do require old buildings.

Some of my very own critics like to say I am an advocate for urban areas populated solely by “yuppies, sophistos, trendoids and gays”. But that misses a crucial part of the equation. Quality of place is not just about consuming. Yes, nice apartments help, as do good cafés and bars and football in the park. But the real energy of a place comes from the edges, the clashes that happen when ethnic neighbourhoods rub up against hipster quarters, where gay ghettos impinge upon “strollervilles”. It’s the real, authentic experiences and the jagged edges between neighbourhoods that create the energy that attracts the people who are today’s economic drivers. This is what New York did extremely well in the past, but now that’s threatened by escalating rents and a malled-over Manhattan. London, too, as rents rise into the stratosphere – where’s the next Hoxton Square going to be? Like Jacobs once told me: “When a place gets boring even the rich people leave.”

The conventional stuff still matters: a place needs to be clean and safe and have good schools and pipes that work. It needs to have economic opportunity, especially since so many of us are no longer tied to one job for life. A good mayor helps, as do business and cultural communities that care and invest. Yes, the old is new again, but only if it is really new.

The new quality of place adds two factors to the mix – openness to diversity and the aesthetic dimension. It’s the urban equivalent of Maslow’s old hierarchy of needs. People need to feel safe and secure. We need to have opportunity, and we need leaders that get it and resonate. But today, more than ever, we need to feel welcome and be able to self-express. The energy of the city comes from this capacity to express, to think and act outside the norm, to be ourselves, to forge new identities, to create. A closed city is a dead city. Open cities thrive.

The aesthetic dimension – the beauty of a place – is critical. The cities with the deepest and truest hold on people have long been those with a strong aesthetic dimension. Think of the cosmopolitan charm of Amsterdam, the history found around every corner in Berlin or Vienna. The rose gardens of Portland, the minarets of Istanbul and the crumbling mosaiced pavements of Lisbon. This is what really draws people in – it’s what draws residents in. Not just tourists.

If this all sounds emotional, well it is. In an economy where talent comes in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities, where the best places in their fields have to compete for the best talent in the world, the only way to retain talent is to offer the kind of place that provides emotional attachment.

In today’s world, the ranks of global nomads get to pick their place. And we are tired of the smooth, generic, flattened-out worlds, where cars, foods and fashions are the same in whatever blanded global city you may be in. They blanch when another politician or pop star becomes the new face of another luxury brand. They’re over it. They want real places – the unique and authentic.

Monocle tonic 1:

Toronto, Richard Florida’s new home, has all the assets to lead a quality of place revolution in the Americas – good international flight connections from the city’s main hub and short hops from its downtown airport, a well educated, diverse population and a thriving city core. What’s the problem? Toronto suffers from a severe case of the “comfies” and needs to up its game. Hopefully, Florida and his host school can place a rocket in the right place.

02 Alain de Botton

— Author

London’s latest folly

Most Londoners have long been familiar with a patch of wasteground extending between Shepherd’s Bush roundabout and the access road to the M40. Non-­residents might recognise it as that derelict bit of land you pass as you approach London proper en route from Heathrow. While just to the east of this untidy scrub lie the exclusive terraces of Holland Park, the wasteground has for decades offered an incongruous home to sheds, caravans and industrial ruins.

Residents (like your author) with unfulfilled architectural ambitions could hardly fail to daydream on driving past this blank canvas: what masterpieces might arise here, a modern-day rue de Castiglione, a British version of Greenwich Village, or perhaps a reinvention of the London crescent for the 21st century. But these dreams are, unfortunately, about to be dashed, for in October of this year, after more than a decade of negotiation and construction, the future of the west London scrubland is at last being unveiled. The Australian property developer Westfield has ploughed €2bn into Europe’s largest urban mall, with 150,000 sq m of retail space, four department stores, 265 speciality stores, in excess of 40 restaurants and a 16-screen cinema.

Even by the degraded standards of shopping malls, the new White City development is a monstrosity. It is a large, confused shed, which – despite endless public consultations – offers the community nothing visually but a windowless façade clad in nauseating green panelling, with utter indifference to symmetry, proportion or (to use the simplest but most effective word in the architectural lexicon) beauty. While taking licence from the asymmetrical designs of Zaha Hadid, its contorted forms only provoke nausea and sadness. If all goes to plan, this monument to human shortsightedness and greed is set to dominate a critical corner of west London for the next 200 years.

Fortunately, there is a significant source of consolation on the horizon: it seems as if the development may fail. The property developer, despite a most aggressive lettings campaign, is having a hard time finding tenants. Part of the problem lies within the scale of its ambition. The White City mall wants to be not just an ordinary shopping centre, but the most exclusive one of its kind in the country. That is why it has been fitted out by the apparently world-famous “retail expert” Michael Gabellini, and has been equipped with the evocative sobriquet, “The Village”.

Tiffany, Dior and Louis Vuitton are all set to open stores in The Village, but no other luxury brands have followed them. There is a feeling that London already has Bond Street and Sloane Street and that, with economic slowdown upon us, this is hardly the time to begin creating a new temple for conspicuous consumption. There also seems to be a gradual recognition that the era of the shopping mall is slowly drawing to a close – except perhaps in the most extreme meteorological locales, suchas Dubai or Montréal – having fallen victim to a growing distaste for the spookiness and sterility of this most cursed of building types.

Urban theorists such as Jan Gehl or Richard Rogers have of course been arguing for decades that planners should abandon the disastrous ideas associated with mid-20th-century urban design (networks of vast motorways connecting dormitory villages, shopping precincts and office parks) and instead return to the 19th-century model of an integrated city, where sleeping, eating, consuming and working are all fused into a vibrant whole. Ironically, somewhere in their unconsciousness, it seems the mall’s developers have almost sensed their own folly, which is why they arrived at that name. They know that what most of us crave as shoppers is the human village-like scale found in the shopping districts of Paris, San Francisco or Amsterdam. However, it seems they lacked the courage of their latent insights. They preferred to give the mall the right name rather than endow it with the qualities that would have enabled the enterprise to live up to it.

One can almost feel sorry for the Australian investors who look set to lose at least a little of their shirts. Still, lovers of good design will have to hope that the White City shopping centre fails decisively, so the next time someone wishes to spend €2bn on creating a new urban centre, they will have to think a little harder.

Monocle tonic 2:

Local government should have looked to one of Japan’s three Ms (Mori, Mitsubishi or Mitsui) for development inspiration and gone for a balanced, mixed-use development that was also vertical and integrated seamlessly with its surroundings. Rather than opting for a monolithic structure this should have been a project of varying levels intersected by streets and alleyways. See our Perfect Community on page 145.

03 Jonathan Raban

— Author

Inner-city suburbs

Once, within my adult lifetime, the chief lure of the big city was the prospect of living in a community of strangers, different from you in every way – in age, income, language, class, manners, skin colour and occupation. The city was the ultimate human charivari, a polyglot honeycomb of social possibility, where unlike collided with unlike on the streets; as Dr Johnson said to Boswell, “A great city is, to be sure, the school for studying life.” But that idea is dying on us fast.

In Seattle, where I live, a massive civic reconstruction project is underway on 180 acres of land immediately north of downtown. Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, and his real estate company, Vulcan, which owns around 60 of those acres, are the prime movers in the attempt to create a new inner-city neighbourhood. The area, known as South Lake Union, is now an enormous building site: beneath the swinging booms of tower cranes, dozens of office buildings and condo blocks are climbing skyward, while fleets of excavators dig pits in the ground for more still to come. Brand-new candy-coloured streetcars, each with only three of four passengers aboard, ply the 1.3-mile line connecting the site to the downtown hub.

Until recently, this was a relatively low-rent quarter of the city, a place to visit for its junk shops, its odd, specialist services (the man who fixed the torn hood of my convertible, the man who restored and rephotographed a torn sepia snapshot and blew it up to full-plate size), its workmen’s bars and cafés, its down-at-heel arts organisations. Where else would the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society make its home, or the amiable, gloomy emporium selling secondhand office furniture? South Lake Union was a place where new immigrants could get a start in business, alongside old Seattleites practising useful if obscure crafts with meagre profit margins.

But it’s going, going, gone. I walk its streets now for the last chance to set eyes on that half-demolished Victorian brick warehouse, those century-old frame houses, their blue and green paint flaking from their shingles, the ornate art-deco car showroom, built in the age of the Packard and the Hupmobile. Soon, if all goes as planned, 20,000 people will be working here and 10,000 will be living in the half-built apartments and condos ($400,000 for a “studio”, otherwise a bedsit) Existing biotech companies and institutions are the anchor, and Amazon recently signed up to move into 11 office buildings in South Lake Union, bringing its Seattle workforce of 6,000 people from its present headquarters in an old naval hospital. Already, new businesses are opening at street-level every week to cater to this influx of population: gyms, coffee houses, boutiques, restaurants, sporting goods stores, a Whole Foods organic supermarket, all aimed at the affluent, well-educated twentysomethings in whom the quarter will shortly be awash.

There’s a lot to applaud here. Not only will South Lake Union dramatically broaden and deepen the city’s tax base (something dear to the hearts of mayors and their councils), it’ll have admirable density, at the equivalent of 38,000 people to a square mile, and be eminently walkable, safe, and green in its construction methods and materials. Its one snag is that it promises to have all the exhilarating diversity of the Stepford wives.

For South Lake Union goes way beyond mere gentrification. As the Vulcan website says, it is “rethinking the urban” to claim a big chunk of the city for one narrow demographic, defined by age, education, income and marital status (singles and couples welcome, children a problem). The provision of 100 units of “affordable housing” and an upscale retirement community won’t do much to dent the impression made by hordes of well-heeled 27-year-olds, clad in Seattle’s uniform of cargo pants, T-shirts, Converse hightops and iPhones, all with degrees, all eco-conscious Democrats.

Meanwhile, diversity has gone suburban. The best dim sum in the Seattle metro area are no longer to be found in Chinatown (known here as the International District), but in Kent, nearly 20 miles south, an unlovely congeries of new tract housing and office and industrial parks, which until the 1970s was a broad valley of market gardens that liked to bill itself as the lettuce capital of the world.

To go to the Imperial Garden restaurant in the Great Wall Mall on a Sunday lunchtime is to enter the kind of many-hued, motley society that used to thrive in the inner city. Here are the ethnic- ally blended families – Anglo-Chinese, African-American-Chinese, Korean-Chinese, Hispanic-Chinese. Here, Chinese grannies, so elaborately wrinkled that they must date back to the Qing dynasty, rock squalling American babies on their laps. The melting pot survives, but ambitious planning and high rents are driving it from its traditional home in the city to the remote suburbs.

I imagine a woman in her twenties, sitting in a studio apartment in South Lake Union, reading Our Mutual Friend on the screen of her Kindle, marvelling at the extraordinary vitality of Dickens’s city compared with the strangely anaemic character of her own. She has every amenity to hand, is within easy walking distance of restaurants, theatres, cinemas, the opera house, the symphony hall, the ballet, the downtown clubs with their rock bands, all the advertised pleasures of urban life except one – the essential element of human variety and surprise. The plum-coloured, energy-saving electric streetcar whispers past beneath her window, which commands a view of the dense constellation of city lights around the darkened lake. To the mayor, to Paul Allen, to the architects and designers who have rethought the urban, here’s a picture-perfect life.

But what a price we’re paying for it. Suburbia – once the synonym for dullness and conformity – is growing ever more socially and economically diverse, while the central city grows more and more “suburban”, as we used to condescendingly say. It seems to me a bad bargain for everyone, from the woman in her 12th-floor apartment to the immigrant stranded out in Kent. And it’s happening everywhere, this steady dilution and dispersal of life in the city, which threatens to undermine our best reasons for choosing to live in the city in the first place.

Monocle tonic 3:

Seattle is another US city that should sit in our top 20 list but falls a bit short. If the city’s centre is going to survive it needs to work on its density by reducing the floor size of major retailers and encouraging more interesting local and international brands to open up in the city. Seattle could also work harder by looking east and creating a workday that works in step with Seoul and Osaka late in the day and hands over to Helsinki before it goes to bed.

04 Ricky Burdett

—Professor in architecture & urbanism, LSE

Running cities

Cities are on the move, and their mayors are running fast to keep pace. With over half the people in the world now living in cities for the first time in history, cities are becoming more important as the nerve centres of global flows of people, capital and information. Mayors and city leaders are facing similar problems across the globe, whether they are managing exponential growth in Mumbai, Dhaka or Lagos – a city that attracts new residents at a rate of 40 people an hour – or retrofitting more established megacities such as London, New York or Mexico City. The good news is that mayors can, and do, make a difference.

In 2005, the formidable Sheila Dixshit, chief minister of New Delhi, transformed the air quality overnight in the Indian capital by forcing its buses and auto-rickshaws to convert from petrol to cleaner-burning compressed natural gas. By 2001, Enrique Peñalosa (see My Last Meal, page 214), the mayor of Colombia’s crime-ridden capital Bogotá, had introduced an extensive network of buses, cycleways and parks that have contributed to a drastic reduction in commuting times as well as a fall in crime. Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of Mexico City – after Tokyo the world’s largest city with 22 million people living in a sea of traffic – will soon launch a zero-carbon transport corridor. These initiatives not only deal swiftly with the problems that harm cities’ quality of life, but also produce tangible results in a matter of months rather than decades.

Of course, good stewardship does not guarantee political success. Ken Livingstone, the recently ousted mayor of London, introduced the controversial congestion charge in 2003, which has brought about a 20 per cent reduction in traffic in central London, without affecting economic potential. He also determined that any future growth in London should be contained within the city’s boundaries to stop sprawl and promote inner city investment: a move that has kick-started a process of private sector-led urban regeneration across the capital, and the emphasis on regeneration was a major factor that led to the successful bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

It is likely that London’s new mayor, the affable Conservative Boris Johnson, will stick to many of Livingstone’s left-wing policies because they have had a positive impact on London’s economic vitality and social vibrancy. Successful city mayors need exceptional negotiating skills alongside technical ability and know-how of the dynamics of city life: its sewers, its electrical capacity, its housing needs and so on. Lobbying central government, attracting foreign investors and playing a potentially dangerous game with property companies is as critical to the success of a career in City Hall as the ability to get the homeless off the streets and keep the city safe.

Running cities is an on-the-job learning experience. No training manual exists, so mayors increasingly look to each other for ideas. Some ideas can be replicated to resounding success, as with the TransMilenio bus transit system in Curitiba, Brazil, which inspired similar ones in Bogotá and Mexico City. Or Barcelona’s public space programme, which has influenced Rome, Toronto and London. But context sets the course. New York, for example, did not fare well in its attempt to bring congestion charging to Manhattan.

The UN predicts that over 75 per cent of the world’s population may be living in cities by 2050, many in the fast-growing economies of Asia and Africa where most people still live in urban slums. Recent attempts to improve the lives of people in the slums of Mumbai, São Paulo and Caracas show that much can be achieved with small-scale interventions – communal bathrooms, open schools and medical centres that transform the lives of millions trapped in urban poverty.

There is evidence that new city leaders are looking for and finding solutions to deal with massive social inequality and the impacts of climate change. Even though the biggest challenges in the 21st century continue to be global, the most effective solutions can often be found on the city scale. Mayors who manage to be ahead of the game will be those who learn from their peers, creating cities that are more compact, efficient and sustainable for the next generation of urban dwellers.

Monocle tonic 4:

Mayors need to get out more and should not be punished for the odd business class trip to see what their competitors and allies are up to. Too many local leaders look down the motorway for inspiration.

05 Roope Mokka

—Founder of Demos Helsinki


By 2050 the UN estimates that half of the world’s population will live in “self-built cities” – informal settlements, slums. I hope they’re wrong. I hope we all live in cities that we design and create ourselves. If slums can be built by those with access to almost no resources, imagine what the developed world could do. The idea of self-built cities is the greatest promise for urban development. The idea is that we open up the creation of cities in the same way we have opened the compiling of encyclopedias. It’s the same principle many industries are using to open up their design and marketing processes and which inspires “open source” software development. Opening cities up is one of the few positive developments in a problem-ridden wave of urbanisation in the 21st century. And it’s one that could make us happier. Today if you measure life satisfaction, even in countries with growing GDP, you will find that the line on the graph is flat. Now, as we slide into a global oil crisis, the fundamental questions of our time remain. What can we do to raise well-being in a post-carbon world?

There is tons of research into why some people feel happier than others. In all the answers, one thing keeps on coming up: the ability to guide your own life. Our greatest urban problem is not spiralling property prices, nor the ageing population nor safety. It is not zero tolerance, it’s not chain restaurants, nor is it ugly buildings or clone towns. These are merely symptoms.

Demos NOW has the concept of City 2.0 for Helsinki – an urban ecosystem of social innovation, governance and social risk funding. We want to turn Helsinki into a self-built city; a hi-tech low-carbon “slum” with an unforeseen quality of life. A wikicity.

In the City 2.0 the key element is how citizens re-engage with, and run, the city. In our vision of a self-built city you could open a daycare centre as easily as you write a new entry on Wikipedia. This is made possible by a system of citizen-wikis or posting boards. If you think your area needs something, let’s say a cheese shop, zebra crossing or green space, you could post your needs and be connected and make it happen. This “needs-mapping” system would help shape areas more dynamically than simple markets.

From the citizen-wikis the main demands and concerns would be collated and become the key policy initiatives or “commons” for the city. You would need a mayor, but their role would be to push through initiatives taken from the wikis. The mayor becomes the communicator. This is how social networking sites already work to cluster interests and connect people. It becomes revolutionary when these types of virtual systems are used to mould our physical surroundings and local governance.

The public voice is a powerful new resource. It has already changed how we use and make encyclopedias. Four years ago, no-one would have believed that millions of ordinary people could work together on an encyclopedia, let alone one that competes with the Encyclopedia Britannica in reliability and beats it in scale. Then along came Wikipedia. Cities are slower to build, but I believe that in 2050 we will look back and say the same about self-built cities or “wikicities”.

Monocle tonic 5:

Our ranking says it all – Helsinki is perfectly placed to become the hub of northern Europe. The city still has a few cracks to fill and could do some work harnessing more local creativity while also welcoming Japanese, Korean and Chinese talents.

06 Richard Alston

—Professor of Roman history, University of London

Lessons from antiquity

The ancients have given us much of the intellectual infrastructure of urban life. Thanks to them, we have the words citizens, politics, democracy and republic. But although we often think of Rome as a peaceful community of citizen philosophers, the city of a million people was enormously prone to disorder. How it coped offers lessons for our modern cities.

There has always been a tradition of aristocratic disdain for the riotous plebs, supposedly motivated by nothing more than bread and circuses. But in Rome such unruly masses were in fact a strong sign of political health, not social disintegration. Behind the surface of aristocratic Roman city politics, there was a dazzling array of organisations: burial societies, trade societies, ethnic groups, religious groups and neighbourhood organisations. When the mood took them, such groups could mobilise politically. With these organisations, the masses protected themselves from the domination of the rich and powerful, through a mix of moral pressure and direct action. Although these clubs were sometimes denounced in terms we would associate with street gangs, they were a powerful means of social integration, accepting foreigners, slaves and freedmen. Rome was a city without police, yet it did not dissolve into anarchy and although we cannot know the absolute levels of crime, muggers were fearful of victims calling out to neighbours and friends who would then haul them off to the magistrates.

Today when we visit Rome it is the great monuments that enthral. Ever since, urban planners have looked at Classical cities with their quiet, clean marble and seen visions of order and power. Analysts frequently support powerful centralised authorities who will assert a unitary culture and order. But surveys show that fear is rising in our cities. Our neighbours are strangers to us. We imprison our children to protect them from predators lurking around every corner, but in retreating from the streets, we abandon them to the antisocial and criminal.

If we want to learn from Rome, we should look not to its monuments, but to its streets, clubs, and bars. Politicians worry about the disparateness of cities and their populations, wanting to generate unity and a single culture. But a city’s strength lies in its diversity. Rome survived so long because it could incorporate Italians, Jews, Africans, Spaniards and Egyptians, and not in ethnic enclaves, but bound in with the collective life of the city.

If we want cities that work, then we ought to encourage diverse groups, even at the risk of the occasional riot. At least in such cities, people care; it is in quiet, disciplined cities that isolated hearts of darkness lurk, which might explode with fascist visions of bombs and terror. Our increasingly fearful and authoritarian culture looks to Rome as a model of order, but Rome suggests that a vibrant city needs multiple, diverse communities, in which all have a place.

Monocle tonic 6:

Bring back the public bath – updated. Most community centres have lost a sense of mission – they’re neither places for well being, nor centres for social benefits. Cities should seek to bring back grand facilities focused on health and socialising. The remaining public baths in Tokyo and Osaka still serve this purpose. Imagine what a series of exquisitely designed, immaculate facilities could do for damp Tuesdays in London, Edmonton and Oslo…

Q&A- Jacques Wallage

Mayor of Groningen


Which city has mastered quality of life?
I regard Basel as a very interesting mix of industry and culture and leisure. I was in Tallinn and although they have quite a lot to do when it comes to city planning, the inner city has successfully combined the medieval structure of the city on the one hand and wi-fi access and new technology on the other.

Who leads the agenda – public or private sector?
This depends on the position of the city. We live in the north of the Netherlands, which used to be an area with high unemployment and a very thin private economy. Here public spending is very important for development.

Are there soft elements that you feel cities are missing?
When we ask the people of Groningen what they think about their city, some surprising things pop up. For instance, they want more places to sit down when they are tired. Older people say the atmosphere is leaning more towards young people. They feel a bit displaced. What can you do to make everyone feel at ease in their city?

Are we being over-governed? Are cities becoming less fun?
There is always a tendency to over-govern. One of the lessons we learned is that you should accept spontaneous behaviour. For example, young people are skating close to the city hall. They make a lot of noise and people get frightened. But I think that when young people are skating in the heart of the city you should be glad.

Q&A Luis Monreal

Director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture


Which city has mastered quality of life? Among the bigger cities, Paris does a very good job. Also Geneva and Zürich.

What are the three most important elements to make a city tick?
A combination of social factors, such as health and education, combined with economic factors, such as levels of income, the ability to attract investment and so on. Just as important is the vitality of culture in a broad sense.

Who leads the agenda – public or private sector?
Both. As we have found in historic cities such as Cairo, Kabul and Delhi, public-private partnerships can be useful vehicles for improving urban areas.

If you could move to any city, where would you go and why?
Barcelona, because it was in the vanguard of urban redevelopment back in the 1980s and the results are still stunning.

Are there design or planning elements that all cities should embrace?
Every city should preserve a part of its history – and not just for sentimental reasons. Cultural districts are economic assets. Would tourists go to Rome if its monuments had given way to offices and car parks?

Is there a region that’s leading the way?
There is a real interest in improving the quality of life in Europe, whether it is through traffic congestion charges, revitalisation of urban spaces, or preservation of heritage.

Q&A Hisham Youssef

President of the UAE Architectural Association


Which city has mastered quality of life?
In the Middle East, I would say Amman. It’s a bit sleepy and quiet but the air quality, the buildings, everything is pretty perfect. That said, I wouldn’t live here for more than a few years.

What are the three most important elements that make a city tick?
Public space, civic institutions and street life.

If you could move to any city, where would you go, and why?
I would move to Tokyo. In the Middle East, that’s a hard one to answer. Cairo is difficult, Dubai has no soul, and Amman is a bit sleepy.

What’s preferable – strict or liberal planning?
You need a combination. In Dubai it’s too liberal. The developers have the power. You end up with a city with no public space. Then you have a city like Vienna, where things are too strict, mainly because of landmark preservation.

Are there soft elements that you feel cities are missing?
For a place like Dubai, it has to be street life. Street life doesn’t mean having all the global brands on one street. It’s the feeling of having cafés, bookshops, basically a sense of local culture. You cannot design charm.

Should cities ease up? Are we being over governed?
In the West, there are so many things you can’t do. In the non-western world, you can basically do whatever you want and that’s part of the reason I enjoy living in the Middle East.

Q&A James Jao

Architect and planner


What are the three most important elements that make a city tick?
People live in the city for various reasons. Most aim for employment, commerce and educational facilities; others for shopping and entertainment districts. It is a combination of all of these features that make any city tick.

Who leads the agenda – public or private sector?
The public sector should definitely lead. It has traditionally been the government’s role to lead quality of life campaigns. The private sector lacks the ability to mobilise all the necessary resources and therefore can only advise and assist.

Are there design or planning elements that all cities should embrace?
Four elements immediately come to mind: to improve the quality of life for residents, to provide orderly growth, to create an identity and to safeguard the value of its real estate.

Is there a region that is leading the way? Europe? North America?
I personally think Europe, especially Scandinavia, is leading the way in terms of quality of life. They put the region’s ecology and residents’ happiness first.

Are we being over-governed? Are cities becoming less fun?
No planning is perfect. A city needs people to have vitality but over-vitality will increase crime and over-burden its environment. Good city planning can be easily achieved with comprehensive public participation.

Q&A Peter Ferretto

Architect and lecturer


Which city has mastered quality of life?
Madrid is a city that embodies true urban living; it doesn’t follow European trends, it listens to its instincts and traditions and constantly creates its own quality.

What are the three most important elements to make a city tick?
Surprise and wonder – a city that catches you unaware, both in a good and bad sense. The union of nature and urban spaces. Monuments – by which I mean differentiation of scale and contact with the past.

Who leads the agenda – public or private sector? Surely the public sector; in this case we should really learn from America where the private sector has eliminated any sense of polis and introduced shopping mall urbanism.

If you could move to any city, where would you go and why?
Seoul, for two reasons: its rawness and determination to constantly evolve, and kimchi – western modernity can’t dislodge the true Korean DNA, where food and its ritual are as ever present today as they were 600 years ago.

Are we being over-governed? Are cities becoming less fun?
The most amusing aspect of cities today is that each metropolis claims a unique identity, achieved by getting a homogeneous blend of Starbucks, McDonald’s and new boulevards; we are still learning from Las Vegas, without the fun.

Q&A Pedro Reyes

Architecture-trained artist

Mexico City

Which city has mastered quality of life?
Quality of life equals boredom. I am a problem solver, so for me the excitement is when there’s room for improvement.

What are the most important elements to make a city tick?
If you work in the arts, the most important element is for there to be a scene: publications, openings, parties. It’s more exciting if driven by people, not the state or the market.

Are there ‘soft’ elements that you feel cities are missing?
With rising prices, people should organise urban orchards and community land-parcels.

Q&A Tom de Wit

President of SCUPAD, Salzburg Congress on Urban Planning and Development

Amersfoort, Netherlands

Which city has mastered quality of life?
You find many cities all over Europe and America that have mastered the concept of quality of life – what is important is that there is good competition in these cities on every level. Hamburg, however, has a very good quality of life and is a good example of how to reuse old elements of a city in a new way, such as the revival of the old harbour.

What are the three most important elements to make a city tick?
First, a city needs to have a nice shape and it is important to have interesting buildings. Second are social elements – it’s very important that a city is open minded and allows creativity. Thirdly a city must have good infrastructure and business facilities.

If you could move to any city, where would you go and why?
Amsterdam, as it is very open minded and there is room for people to be creative. There is a theory that if you want to develop a city, you have to bring artists into it and not economic power.

What’s preferable – strict or liberal planning?
Liberal. Often you can see how the government runs the city just by looking at its traffic regulations. Strict regulations mean you can only do things other people have thought out for you already and you don’t have to think for yourself.

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Monocle Radio


  • Global Music