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On a new urban politics

Politicians on both sides of the political divide are failing to provide a comprehensive set of solutions to the US’s urban malaise. Forging an approach that prioritises the needs of citizens on a local and national level could be the key to saving our cities.

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In September my daughter will enrol in a bilingual preschool in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. On paper, the plan is an urbanist’s fantasy: we will cycle to the school via a “neighbourhood greenway”, a street designed to slow traffic. Once she’s inside the preschool’s seven-storey mixed-use building replete with rooftop playground – and I’ve locked my bike away – a nearby subway station will whisk me wherever my day leads. 

The flipside is that we have to cycle past one of Seattle’s worst spots, where drugs and stolen goods are openly sold on the street. Addicts congregate daily, while people with untreated mental illnesses shadowbox their demons. Graffiti taggers hit small businesses with impunity and many shops are now vacant. Despite $1bn (€924m) of municipal expenditure on shelters and housing in the past decade, garbage-strewn encampments – a magnet for gun violence – sprawl nearby. Sporadic police presence and infrequent arrests do little to deter the grim scene, while social worker outreach barely makes a dent. This deadly cocktail plagues many US cities. While rumours of the deaths of Seattle, Portland and San Francisco are greatly exaggerated, quality of life deteriorates the longer that these stubborn pockets of disorder persist.

To fix this situation, we need a new urban politics that looks beyond blinkered divisions. While Republicans tout law and order, they are hostile to public transport and social housing, which has made them mostly persona non grata in US cities, where they claim just two mayoralties among the 30 largest metropolises. Instead, most municipal elections pit moderate Democrats versus progressive ones. The moderates have shown a willingness to confront urban ills but good intentions are not enough. The progressives have abandoned the dead-end slogan of “defund the police” but they still resist hiring more cops, prosecuting drug crimes and stepping up involuntary commitment. As a result, there is no political home for citizens who want increased investments in quality urbanism and stronger action on street disorder. My city feels cleaner and safer in the 18 months since mayor Bruce Harrell took office but he shows little appetite for denser housing or new rail lines. 

Forging a new urban politics would recognise that cities alone cannot fix national political decisions. Washington must strengthen the social safety net, secure the border against drug trafficking and provide emergency shelter and housing nationwide. Local leaders must prioritise the needs of the citizens who make cities vibrant. If fentanyl smoking on buses deters commuters then remove those involved. If the escalating cost of cleaning graffiti pushes shopkeepers out of business then prosecute vandalism ordinances. Compassion and tolerance, while noble ideals, have left everyday citizens questioning the viability of their hometowns. If we want to save our cities, it takes the moral and political courage to say no.

About the writer: Scruggs is an award-winning journalist who writes about built, natural and cultural environments. His reporting has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City, Thomson Reuters Foundation and The Washington Post. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.

 


Lisbon vs Airbnb

Rising rents are threatening the quality of life in the Portuguese capital but is the short-term rental site really the only one to blame?

Lisbon had changed a lot since my previous visit. About 15 years ago (the exact date is fuzzy), I’d fallen in love with its grilled sardines, vertiginous streets, perennial sunshine and low cost of living. Returning with my family in May this year, I noticed just how many more people were packed into the centre, from sightseers riding its now ubiquitous electric tuk-tuks to groups of half-cut lads on stag dos. Given its quality-of-life draw, it’s hardly surprising that people want to visit or even move to the Portuguese capital permanently. Aided by incentives such as the investment-focused golden visa, as well as its digital-nomad equivalent, many expats have made the city their home in recent years.

During my few days in Lisbon, I met a middle-aged Floridian who had moved last year, as well as an English couple who were looking to return to the Portuguese capital where they once lived after a few damp years in London. There are now plenty of cafés that cater to the avocado-toast and açai-bowl crowd, and where a flat white will set you back €4. The problem is that, in a country where the minimum wage is just €760 a month (the median in Lisbon is a little higher), you end up with an English-language-menu dual economy where the patronage is almost exclusively foreign. Rents have, of course, rapidly risen.

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So how do you limit this influx of people? And has any city managed to find the perfect formula? Lisbon’s mayor Carlos Moedas, a former EU commissioner, doesn’t think his city has too many visitors, at least for now. “We have tourism and it’s very important for us,” he says. “But we cannot let Lisbon just become an Airbnb city.”

This is why new Airbnb licences have been frozen in 16 of 24 Lisbon parishes. The central government has followed suit on nationwide restrictions; it also announced in February an end to the golden-visa programme. These moves send a message and are aimed, in part, at cooling the spiking property prices and making sure that, in Lisbon’s case, its city centre doesn’t get carved out by short-term rentals to the detriment of real residents. The fear of a theme-park effect, felt in places such as Venice, must be at the back of minds.

The temporary Airbnb freeze in Lisbon is up for review in December. I hope at the very least that some restrictions are kept in place. But one must also be careful about piling in on a single bogeyman. Lisbon’s problems are complex and varied, including stagnant wages and real-estate speculation. Airbnb, for all its ills, has helped crumbling buildings in the historic centre to receive much-needed renovation investments that they might not have otherwise had. Tourism represents 20 per cent of Lisbon’s GDP and its digital nomads – through places such as Unicorn Factory Lisboa – bring in more capital. City hall hopes that it can balance being market-friendly with social policies aimed at the most vulnerable including building more housing and buying existing stock to rent at subsidised rates.

An outright ban on Airbnb is unrealistic but Lisbon must continue to closely and carefully monitor short-term rentals, rather than going hard and fast now before letting the issue fall by the wayside. A city stripped of its core residents isn’t worth the trade-off – not for all the açai bowls in the world. 

About the writer: Stocker is Monocle’s Europe editor at large, based in Milan. A regular on planes zipping around the continent, he was previously Monocle’s Americas editor at large in New York. Before moving to the US, Stocker covered Latin America from a base in Buenos Aires.


 

On isolation in cities 

Organisations and design practices in Singapore are coming up with novel solutions to lonely city living. 

Big cities, lonely people. There are many reasons why life in crowded and busy metropolises can be isolating. In Asia, long working hours, small apartments and the prevalent use of food-delivery services have contributed to people being less social, increased loneliness and a rise in the number of mental and physical illnesses. 

It is, of course, a global issue: the UK and Japan have appointed loneliness ministers. But in Singapore, where there are already plenty of communal amenities such as parks, community centres and coffee shops, the goal is getting people out of their apartments to use them, mingle and make friends. And it turns out that you can design your way out of the problem – at least partially.

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Skyville at Dawson housing project, by Singapore’s WOHA practice, features terraces and gardens on every eleventh floor of its 46 storeys; all 960 homes have easy access to (and views of) these green pockets. They draw people outside – or even just to their windows, where they might see a friendly face and wave hello. A National University of Singapore survey found that Skyville residents knew more neighbours than those living in other estates of a similar size. 

Still, while amenities such as dog runs, ball courts and garden plots do well to bring together neighbours with common interests, communities need a hand to integrate disparate social groups. In Macpherson, an older Singaporean neighbourhood where new residential blocks have been added, the community- centric practice Participate in Design brought older residents and newly settled young families together to create art for the estate. As well as being a bonding exercise that helped to form some unlikely friendships, it fostered a sense of ownership and belonging.

 In another corner of the city-state, philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation and design studio Forest & Whale are looking at ways to make the local coffee shop double up as a place that offers community care. One proposal suggests that coffee shops start a gift-card programme. It’s a simple but clever idea: a gift shows you care and a coffee subscription gives people a reason to spend time at the café, rather than at home alone. 

These designers and community organisations prove that cities don’t need to be overwhelmed by loneliness and the mental-health fallout that comes with it. Most cities already have the basic ingredients for these community-building initiatives, from the coffee shop to the neighbourhood park via the corner to be livened up. A tweak here or a nudge there can make humans do what they’re already inclined to do: forge bonds and build together. 

 


Learnings from enduring cities

Cities are resilient beasts; not even wars, natural disasters or firestorms ignited by candles can keep them down. Here are five of the most ill-fated metropolises and the wisdom that can be gained from them. 

Cities might have their ups and downs but they remain extraordinarily difficult to kill. When one considers how many have been demolished by disaster or war, what is remarkable is how few of them have stayed that way. Arguably the only ruined human settlement that can be safely said to be permanently abandoned is Pripyat: the Ukrainian town of 50,000 people evacuated following the 1986 explosion at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear plant. Indeed, when Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, visited Japan in May, he went to Hiroshima. With his usual flair for spotting the local connection, he said that Ukraine’s more recently devastated cities would recover, just as Hiroshima had – and he was undoubtedly right. Below is Monocle’s far-from-complete list of cities that have returned from the dead – a testament to the endurance of our urban spaces. 

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Darwin 

Darwin was levelled by Cyclone Tracy early on Christmas Day 1974: 71 of its citizens were killed and more than 80 per cent of its buildings were destroyed or damaged. The remote capital of Australia’s Northern Territory had been abruptly rendered uninhabitable: about three-quarters of its population of 47,000 was hurriedly evacuated. By New Year’s Eve, however, Australia’s government had announced plans to establish a Darwin Reconstruction Commission, with a mandate to rebuild the city within five years. It was done in three, adhering to rigorous new building codes that were rolled out across the country. Today, Darwin is home to 150,000 people and while several cyclones at least as powerful as Tracy have struck Australia since, none have done a fraction of the damage.

Warsaw

Many of Europe’s cities required rebuilding after the Second World War but few were rebuilt with the fabulous defiance of Warsaw. When the shooting stopped in 1945, Poland’s capital was a ruin. Instead of building a new city, Varsovians determined to build the old one all over again. Warsaw’s rubble was reconstituted into facsimiles of what had been destroyed, guided in part by the paintings of Bernardo Bellotto, a nephew of Canaletto. 

By 1955 the heart of Warsaw’s new Old Town was beating once again. Reconstruction of surrounding streets continued over subsequent decades with the Royal Castle completed in the 1980s. Warsaw’s (not-actually-very) Old Town is now a Unesco World Heritage site. And deservedly so, as much for what it represents as what it looks like.

Lisbon 

In 1755, Lisbon – one of the world’s richest cities, a great port and a hub of empire – did not have the advantages of electricity or internal- combustion engines. A colossal earthquake on 1 November that year prompted both a tsunami and, by toppling uncountable candles lit for All Saints’ Day, a six-day firestorm. The devastation was near total; the imperial wealth hoarded in waterfront warehouses lost.

Lisbon was returned to life by its chief minister, the formidable Marquis of Pombal, one of those characters able to sense opportunity in disaster. He ordered Lisbon rebuilt on a logical grid pattern and applied building codes intended to mitigate against earthquake and fire. He also laid new drains and buttressed the waterfront. Lisbon’s downtown is still known as the Baixa Pombalina.

Beirut 

It is arguable that rebuilding Beirut is a little like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge – a process that must be started all over again just as soon as you think that you’ve finished. The pretty beaux-arts city centre, which earned Beirut the nickname “the Paris of the East”, was destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War of 1975 to 1990. 

It was rebuilt by Solidere, a controversial public-private developer founded in the mid-1990s by Lebanon’s billionaire prime minister, Rafic Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005 by a car bomb, a few blocks from what Solidere had rebuilt. A colossal explosion in the Port of Beirut in 2020 has necessitated further repairs to the city: it must be hoped, if not expected, that these will be done in deference to Beirut’s rumbustious spirit, rather than in defiance of it.

Jerusalem

The Old City has been attacked, sacked and pillaged any number of times over several turbulent millennia, and squabbled over more or less constantly – and, indeed, currently. The most recent major rebuild involves Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, which was substantially destroyed by the Arab Legion during fighting in 1948, taken by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967, and gleamingly refurbished since. What with one thing and another, Jerusalem is probably the oldest continuous (and ongoing) demonstration of the extraordinary ability of cities to regenerate.

About the writer: Mueller is a contributing editor at Monocle as well as host of Monocle Radio’s The Foreign Desk and (usually) The Monocle Daily. He has visited several ruined international cities of one kind or another, including Pripyat in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

 


An aspiring megacity

With a booming population, Lagos is a ‘megacity’. So what are the basic issues that need to be addressed before the Nigerian city can live up to that term? 

 

Lagos is a “megacity”, a city of more than 10 million people, yet the term has taken on a wider meaning: a heavily urbanised metropolis designed for the comfort and appeal of the rich alone. It can also be thought of as a place that, while not a utopia, creates opportunities for everyone to belong. 

With a 450km stretch of coastline and an exploding population attracting commercial and economic interests, Lagos is continuing to grow at a rapid pace. The population of the Nigerian city that I call home is expected to hit 40 million by 2050. But it needs more than ultra-modern infrastructure to be a megacity.

The government’s current vision of a mega-hub is an urbanised centre with a rapid rail system, world-class malls, tourist infrastructure, more airports and developed industries ranging from technology to food. All of these elements are needed but they do nothing to address the problems of poor Lagosians, and middle-class ones like myself, who often find themselves locked out of discussions and even displaced from the city. 

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While Lagos can attract negative comparisons for a long list of reasons – from endless traffic jams and gaping, smelly gutters to homeless people sleeping under bridges and untidy streets – the good life still exists here. Managed correctly, it could be an example to both Africa and the world. 

First of all, the sprawling city needs to have a smooth and efficient bus system that is capable of carrying thousands of people affordably (rather than more expensive and less extensive rail projects). Investments should be made in proper low-cost residential housing, job opportunities for the teeming population and a constant electricity supply (among other critical amenities). Without such basics, we are going nowhere. The government should focus on these rather than developing exclusive areas for the wealthy. 

The threat of climate change also needs to be addressed. In Lagos, we are living – luxuriously in some parts and hopelessly in others – a mere two metres above sea-level. By 2050, as the city’s population reaches the projected milestone, the sea will have risen by at least a metre, displacing millions of people and causing billions of dollars in economic damage. The current government needs to turn its attention to this threat by engaging in smart climate initiatives, such as saving the remaining wetlands instead of encroaching on them, as is currently happening as the city expands.

Imagine what Lagos could be like if we saved it from its worst problems: a megacity humming with accessible beaches, a thriving art and music scene, a never-ending nightlife, a base for booming technology industries and endless economic opportunities for a mosaic of different cultures and ethnicities. 

That for-now imagined Lagos would no longer simply be a launchpad for myself and others to pursue ambitions in the West; that Lagos would be a permanent home, a place to lay down proper roots and not seek to escape every few years. 

In that Lagos, there would be affordable housing with constant electricity, a working transport system, an enviable lifestyle and equal access to global opportunities. In that Lagos, the transformation into a true global megacity would be complete. 

About the writer: Adetayo is a writer and journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria. He has reported for numerous media outlets including Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Vice and African Arguments. He was longlisted for One World Media’s Print Award in 2021.

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