When it comes to improving urban life, a little imagination goes a long way. And there’s plenty of it in Monocle’s fantasy city.
monocle’s perfect city is at once a daydream and a rallying cry for people to consider their urban spaces more closely. We’ve gathered 25 ideas from our far-flung travels to entertain as well as to nudge readers, architects, entrepreneurs and developers to delve deeper into what makes their cities tick. We’re keen to draw attention to some overlooked opportunities to enrich city life. Yes, we know the importance of affordable housing stock, green spaces and human-scale buildings. But how about surprises? Might that derelict car park or wasteland be a pop-up swimming pool, outdoor gym or community theatre? Cities need to be fun. So let’s break new ground and take a tour of monocle’s model metropolis.
We’ve always looked admiringly at Lisbon’s quiosques as places to congregate for a bica (Portuguese espresso) or a chilled suco de maçã (apple juice). In our ideal city, there are trees, a breeze and a decent canopy under which to recline. Plus, some sturdy wooden street furniture from Brno-based Mmcité on which to settle. There’s also room to leaf through a newspaper, natter with friends and enable the children to let off steam in the square. So many “must-see” city stop-offs are ho-hum: often boring bits of infrastructure rather than real places to meet. So what can be done to enliven squares, piazzas and pedestrianised areas? Somewhere to sit, some shade and something to sip. Simple.
Not all cities are blessed by beautiful beaches. But somewhere to strip off and take a dip can transform urban life and be a great social leveller too. See how Stockholmers seek out secluded corners of Lake Mälaren and Varsovians clink glasases on the banks of the Vistula – these are places to commune. Our ideal city has plenty of spots to paddle, from lidos to a lake and a clean harbour, plus a beach within a short hop. Water can cool tempers and combat the heat-island effect created by all that concrete; not to mention that there’s something transformative about the power and presence of water. A trip to Lake Zürich, Vienna’s Gänsehäufel or Copenhagen’s harbour on a hot day will cure you of your cynicism.
When nature calls, good design should oblige, and we’re flush with ideas on this one. Our editors have been impressed by Tokyo’s investment in public conveniences, which are clean, airy and always immaculately kept, so you’ll never be caught short. Our perfect city will start with a series of guest-designed loos by our favourite designers’ studios. Toyo Ito will make one in the main park; David Chipperfield is in talks to take the museum quarter; and Tosin Oshinowo and Isay Weinfeld are on the long-list for stops on the main drag. Let’s just say we’re on a roll. Better public services are sorely missing in many cities – let’s get to the bottom of it.
Our perfect city follows Turin’s example by lining public spaces with porticoes and loggias that offer covered walkways and some shade from the elements. In private homes and developments, we’re also keen on bringing the outside in with generous balconies on which to drink, dine and enjoy the fresh air.
More outdoor spaces, even for those without a ground-floor berth, adds some security in the form of extra eyes and ears on the street. We’ve also stuck to Danish urbanist Jan Gehl’s rule of thumb that residential buildings shouldn’t stray too much higher than five floors or they risk their connection to life at street-level. High-rises in glass-and-steel towers with windows that won’t open are very sad indeed.
It’s time for a switch. We’ve taken great care to get the light right in our ideal city – and that starts with a contract from the canny folks at Barcelona’s Urbidermis and a clever tie-up for the rollout with French firm JC Decaux (which knows a thing or two about a decent bus stop too). Come nightfall, that means warm wattages, which offer security and visibility but don’t dazzle you into submission with the cold, blueish glare of many ill-thought-out leds. Think streetlights, not searchlights. Our point isn’t to be mawkish or sentimental about a candlelit past – but cities including Paris and London have repurposed their comely old lanterns to cast a more sustainable glow.
A clear visual identity can help a city to gel its image and give people something to rally behind. Picture something simple embossed flags, licence plates, civic buildings and buses. A simple logotype, colourway or pattern can go a long way without travelling far. For a masterclass, it’s hard to see beyond Lisbon’s distinctive coat of arms (two ravens perched either side of a ship), Zürich’s simple blue-and-white insignia and the sheer breadth of beauty in Japan’s prefectural logos. Each of the Japanese regional crests feels totally distinct, contains a clear colourway and is often accompanied by a decent backstory about a plant, animal or founding myth. Oh, we might need a city mascot too.
Cities aren’t quite silent yet but quieter electric cars, tighter construction rules and snitty neighbours have conspired to make them more sombre than ever before. This lull in the urban din has, in turn, made residents even less tolerant of bars or clubs with the temerity to ply a later trade. That’s a bad road. In our ideal city, there are still spaces for ateliers where people clatter and make things – and we’re encouraging a buoyant, boisterous night-time economy. That means leaving spaces for people to clink glasses outside, having rooftops to party on and protecting businesses that moved in before the moaning neighbours. Staying up until sunrise occasionally is a pleasure of city life. If you’re so against that, you might prefer it in a village.
Too many trams were torn out of city centres when the car came to prominence – but perhaps it’s time to get back on track? A swift, well-maintained Siemens fleet that’s boldly branded (like, say, those red-trimmed numbers in Vienna) will help to stem traffic, reduce emissions and keep more people moving. The smooth ride will be appreciated by older folks and children, especially on uphill slogs. Our ideal service runs around the clock and has a few lines crisscrossing the city centre but no fiddly ticketing to contend with. Any questions? Well, there’s always a driver and conductor on board and well-designed maps to hand (and to censure loud phone users). Whether you’re paying by card, cash or a city travel card, our civic-minded residents value the honour system that’s humane. No one is flinging grandma off if she forgets her handbag. Everyone here is heading in the same direction.
Compromise is a two-way street and monocle’s perfect city embraces many ways to travel. Yes, there are leafy streets with ample and well-kept pavements for pedestrians but also lanes for cycling and space for cars (to drive and park in) and buses too. Crucially there’s an onus on getting along.
That starts with cycling proficiency at a young age. Motorists – imagine this – give way willingly. Buses and trams only really take the main roads, and the city has an unhurried air. The order is kept by steeper fines for speeders and badly behaved cyclists, plus traffic lights that change slowly, enabling dodderers and families to cross safely. We’re taking some cues from Tokyo’s Tomigaya. Oh, and people here are engaged, aware and able to tear their gaze away from their phones long enough to identify a ball bouncing near a road or a light turning amber.
Parks are vital but how about letting verges, roundabouts and the fringes of railway lines grow thick with nature too? Our city doesn’t preen or manicure every inch of nature and knows that such a policy is better for biodiversity than “green walls” that need endless watering before they curl, brown and die (here’s looking at you Perth). Won’t ivy or a few well-adapted wildflowers do? We’ve also looked to see where we can bring nature into existing structures, from bird bricks, in which our feathered friends can nest, to community allotments with cabins where it’s agreeable to while away a sunny day (the Danes do this enviably).
There’s something important that we didn’t mention about getting about. Yes, we’re talking to you in the suit and you in the Lycra with your headphones on. Zipping around on e-scooters, unicycles or skateboards is, we can confirm, a bad look if you’re over the age of 10. As such, we’ve outlawed anything similar and severely limited the providers that operate in the city. Ride hailing is allowed but most prefer our taxis. We’ve even developed technology that traces the rental bikes we use so they don’t “accidentally” end up in a canal, blocking doorways or strewn across pavements. Let’s take responsibility for the pile-up.
As retail rentals plummeted after the pandemic, some canny planners realised that food nourishes neighbourhoods. A good market like ours can do many things, including tempting footfall, making city residents healthier, providing a platform for culinary talent and connecting farm-fresh produce with hungry punters. Some cities renovated older spaces, such as the Mercado do Bolhão in Porto or the revamped halls across Helsinki. But new spaces can also grow in overlooked industrial sites such as Sydney’s Carriageworks. Our market sells produce and has proper on-site restaurants, as well as hosting cookery classes, knife-sharpening workshops and wine tastings.
Sometimes social capital can pay dividends in unexpected ways. Our city council is fastidious about planting shapely, mature trees and keeping their leaves from blocking drains in autumn. We run a world-beating recycling system and address residents’ and businesses’ concerns on the day that they’re lodged. In exchange, people feel vindicated in taking some responsibility for the spaces around their homes, in their neighbourhoods and near their workplaces. Our city takes pride in the impressions it makes on visitors, long-term neighbours and new residents.
Our well-funded cleaning team keeps the city spick and span but we’ve also invested heavily and taken a position on keeping so-called “street art” off walls, trains and away from public spaces. Why? Despite the estate agent’s arithmetic that graffiti equates to an interesting neighbourhood, it really doesn’t. Not every wall needs a mural. It’s mainly just scruffy. Most of the mindless daubing is thoughtless at best and a nasty surprise for the victim at worst. Our crack team of cleaners are on alert and deal with most issues before the paint dries (see page 30). We’re not so harsh on the “artists” we catch though: the standard punishment is an afternoon or two scrubbing walls and repainting the work of other offenders.
Keeping the high street healthy means stopping cities from being turned into a series of warehouses frequented by couriers and postal vans. We’re all for the convenience of quick deliveries but we’ve also decided to level the playing field and levy a tax on companies that don’t have a proper retail footprint. With any luck, other cities will follow. The effect is twofold: fewer delivery trucks clogging the streets and a higher incentive for those businesses to take proper retail spaces and enrich the life of the city rather than speeding past it in a blur of cardboard boxes. That’s how a city can really deliver.
Done right, retail in the real world is still an easy sell. Our ideal city has plenty of sunny little boutiques stocking well-made wares. The secret? We’ve incentivised smaller spaces with cheaper, more flexible rental agreements so that anyone can afford to set up a small business. If things go well, they can move on up or take another space and employ even more people.
If not? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We also give our grants to inspiring young retailers. A few businesses did go big but it was always the point for most to remain small, unique, honest and interesting. We’ve resisted importing a mall or purpose-built precinct for now: keeping our high streets hale and healthy is a priority, which means breaking the hold of chains that pay poorly and don’t fit the city.
Our train station adds a sense of arrival to the city when you pull up at its platforms (like Milano Centrale). Transport hubs act as first impressions for visitors and a “welcome home” for others, so we’ve given ours a facelift but kept some of the grandeur of yore. You can set your watch by departures and arrivals. And unlike most stations, there’s a proper newsstand, independent deli and sandwich shop, as well as fast wi-fi and an absence of vice and uproar that defines most city hubs today.
Cities are simmering and noisy air-con units are adding pollution to the climate conundrum. Ways to fight back include more greenery, flowing water and bringing a breeze to buildings that would otherwise absorb the heat. Taking our cues from tropical architecture means encouraging a through-flow of air. How about adding Brazilian Cobogó bricks to let the cooling zephyr waft through? Capturing rainfall while considering humidity and where the sun hits makes homes more resilient, sustainable and comfortable.
It’s not authoritarian to want to show some presence on the beat. Our immaculately turned-out police force is a dab hand at directions, helping the elderly with their shopping and seeing to it that everyone feels secure and safe. Our bike-mounted boys and girls in blue cover ground quickly and their presence on saddles helps as a deterrent to the small amount of crime in our law-abiding city. Our city police aren’t portly, cherry-cheeked, out-of-puff volunteers when trouble emerges; all must pass a rigorous fitness exam to patrol the streets. Many of the team speak multiple languages but all are fluent in good manners and civility. Welcome to the neighbourhood.
Our city has a rich history but we’re also keen to invest in its future. That begins with beautiful kindergartens and schools. It’s important that education doesn’t happen in packed portacabins by main roads and under strip-lighting. So much of schooling – and the lessons that stick with us in life – is about what we feel rather than what we’re told.
In this respect, we’ve tapped Spaniard Andrés Jaque of Madrid’s Reggio School and the Moroccan team behind Rabat’s Jacques Chirac School. That’s how to invest in spaces that excite as well as educate. There’s a lesson there.
What if that car park, derelict space or tyre fire was a pop-up swimming pool, outdoor gym or community theatre? Maybe next month it could be a space for screenings, street food or a flea market? That’s the idea of the Meanwhile City, which came from Petro Marko (see Expo). It means using spaces before (and as) they’re developed for new uses, encouraging landlords not to chain up, padlock or fence off areas that could be put to profitable new uses. In our ideal city there’s a long list of canny initiatives lined up to add life to forgotten corners of town. Coming up? A summer sauna club.
Home means different things to different people and families come in all shapes and sizes. So we’ve embraced a range of architectural styles, cherishing what’s there but ensuring that developers don’t skimp on new builds, then disappear once they’re signed for. Our town has a backbone of sturdy brick terraced houses – many with shops below – which have been repurposed to a range of sizes. Elsewhere are newer builds with character, older villas and houses to suit most tastes. Plus integrated social housing, of course.
We’re elevating our expectations of unused roof space. Developers already pop solar panels, rainwater-capture systems and planting on most roofs. We’re also well on the way to self-sufficiency and better biodiversity thanks to urban gardeners, allotments and a few well-placed bird bricks. We’ve developed a side hustle selling the city’s lavender-scented honey from our many thriving apiaries and just approved licences for new rooftop restaurants and bar spaces. Things are looking up.
Designing for all ages starts with wide, even pavements for ambling, pedestrian islands in roads to offer slower walkers more time to cross and somewhere shady for the elderly to read the paper. We’ve also built adventure playgrounds, inspired by Gärten der Welt and Park am Buschkrug in Berlin, with water, slides and sandpits for children. The spaces are leafy, fenced-off and have room to run, play and doodle in chalk.
We love our city but the ease of zipping off for a weekend elsewhere or to connect with colleagues adds to its charm. monocle’s perfect city is served by a brisk, regular express train to our little airport and the zippy connections haven’t gone unnoticed either. Last year we welcomed a record number of visitors (and a little handy investment). Other people, it seems, have been studying our success rather closely. You too might have found some benchmarks, nudges and reasons to reflect on what your own city hits and what it’s missing. Until next time, safe travels. Come back any time.