The idea of changing a city for the better might be a daunting one but individuals with the requisite vision and initiative can make a meaningful difference. Here we celebrate six urbanists, activists, farmers and architects who are doing just that.
In May, as the heatwave season began in Asia, Bangladeshi social activist Bushra Afreen assumed her role as the continent’s first chief heat officer (cho) for her hometown, Dhaka. Before she was given the position, Afreen led a successful campaign to reduce high temperatures in the country’s clothing factories, where the mercury can regularly exceed 40c. “People in Bangladesh have always been used to a hot and humid environment but the urban heat-island effect has worsened the consequences of climate change,” Afreen tells monocle. “All you see are buildings and barely any trees, and everyone is packed together. Those built-up surfaces absorb a lot of heat.”
In 2021 a report by the World Bank warned that Dhaka, with a population of 23 million, was moving towards a permanent state of extreme heat. Afreen knows that she has no time to waste. “One of the first things that I started working on was to build public awareness of extreme heat as a public-health crisis,” she says. “I’ve been working with hospitals and healthcare centres to help with messaging and to reach citizens.” This community engagement is a crucial part of her approach to the role. “I want to work with my community and listen to the most vulnerable because heat in Dhaka doesn’t affect everybody equally.” Her appointment makes her the newest cho of a handful worldwide; the others are in Miami, Athens, Santiago de Chile, Monterrey, Freetown, Melbourne and Los Angeles. All are women, which Afreen says is no coincidence. “It’s very much intentional because heat, and climate disasters in general, affect women the most.”
When monocle spoke to Afreen in June, she was getting ready to launch her next programme: an urban greening project. “We need to increase our tree canopy to provide shade and cool down the city, particularly in informal settlements and low-income residential zones. Those are the areas where they are needed the most.” It won’t be an easy task to transform the concrete jungle that is Dhaka, one of the world’s most densely populated cities, but Afreen remains hopeful. “We need to be super aggressive with our nature solutions because they are the only way to recover what we have lost to urbanisation and build up our resilience quickly.”
The Rio Carnival takes over the city centre every year but few respectable Cariocas would deign to live there. Though almost 40 per cent of the population works downtown, only 4 per cent calls it home. This has long puzzled urbanist Washington Fajardo and inspired him to draft a successful scheme, Reviver Centro (“Revive Downtown”), to build more apartments and increase the area’s residential population. The pandemic left 40 office buildings vacant there and led to more than 500 street-level business closures, including those of many iconic restaurants. Public safety suffered and a census found that there were 7,000 rough sleepers. “Rio’s downtown emptied out worse than the centre of any other Brazilian city,” says Fajardo.
Eduardo Paes, who was mayor during Rio’s 2016 Summer Olympics, was returned to City Hall in January 2021 and brought in Fajardo, his former adviser, to head up the city’s urban planning institute and revitalise downtown. Fajardo studied how US cities had emerged from the fiscal crises of the 1970s and 1980s, and travelled to Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit and Philadelphia to find out how they had grown their downtown residential populations.
Fajardo rented a flat in the neighbourhood to see it from a resident’s perspective. He launched a public dialogue and canvassed property developers to ascertain why they weren’t willing to convert some empty office buildings into homes. It wouldn’t make sense financially, they told him, so he drafted legislation that created a bonus: for every 100 sq m of residential units in the centre, property firms would earn the right to buy an additional 40 sq m of planning approval in the city’s most lucrative areas. The fees, in turn, went into an affordable-rental-housing scheme and improvements in the downtown public realm.
Since the initiative launched in July 2021, it has enticed developers to transform offices into 2,682 new apartments across 26 buildings. Fajardo is eager to turn the page on downtown Rio’s monocultural identity and inject a bit of the carnival spirit into it year-round. “The model of central business districts dehumanised downtowns,” he says. “We still celebrate Carnival downtown. I want to create urbanism through revelry.”
Many residential courtyards in Helsinki have been converted into parking areas and rubbish-collection points. As a result, residents have forsaken them. Kaisa Viitanen co-founded a grass-roots movement to reclaim these grey, bleak spaces and turn them into urban living rooms. “We started by planting flowers and adding greenery,” she tells monocle in Helsinki’s Punavuori neighbourhood. “Other people followed our example and, all of a sudden, I started seeing flowers being planted everywhere.”
Last year the city gave Viitanen and her Korttelipihat Takaisin (“Reclaim Block Courtyards”) movement funding to put together a practical guide that citizens can follow to turn their courtyards into green spaces. “That has several benefits,” she says. “It fosters a stronger sense of community, improves air quality and helps the residents of a block to get to know each other.” There is no predetermined model of how to do this, however: some courtyards have been turned into mini-parks with trees and grassland, while others feature raised flowerbeds, play areas for children or barbecues.
What they all have in common is that they are social spaces where residents can come together. “Some cook, some do yoga and some build nesting sites for urban birds,” says Viitanen. In the Käpylä neighbourhood, which consists of mid-century wooden villas and terraced houses, the elderly residents of one apartment block have become local celebrities after turning their courtyard into a green oasis and have become expert gardeners in the process. “Sometimes elderly people in cities can feel lonely. This kind of activity gives them a sense of purpose and belonging.”
What advice would she give to those who want to make a difference in their cities? “Set an example and others will follow,” says Viitanen. Often they just need inspiration and someone to show them that it’s possible. “People assume that changing the urban environment is a cumbersome process that involves rules, committees and political connections – but all it takes is a group of like-minded people to get things started.” And, of course, an open-minded city administration that trusts its citizens to know what’s best for them.
Look towards the eastern shore of Lake Ontario in downtown Toronto and an asymmetrical silhouette will catch your eye. Clad in smooth, light-grey concrete, one of the best-designed recent additions to the city happens to be a storm-water processing plant. “With all of our work, we try to think about how the landscape performs with the building,” the plant’s architect, Pat Hanson, founding partner of local practice gh3*, tells monocle. “The idea of it being a working landscape that is in sync with what we have built is important to us.”
Many of the essential facilities that allow a city to work are either built away from public view or designed to favour function over form. Hanson’s goal is to pull back the curtain and explore these functional elements. “It’s so interesting that we walk around the city and all of this stuff is going on underfoot,” she says. “Nobody really thinks about it.”
That principle influenced her design for the sleek slopes of the storm-water facility’s roof. The sight of water rolling off these when it’s raining serves as a subtle visual suggestion to passers-by about what is happening beneath: the flow of storm water into the plant, which cleanses it of detritus before releasing it into Lake Ontario.
“Many practices might just take the architecture of infrastructure and do it the way that it has been done before,” she says. “We see it as an opportunity to design something in a more authentic, unique way.” gh3*’s other recent works, including Edmonton’s much-loved Borden Natural Swimming Pool and vast new Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage, have similarly elevated notions of what well-designed pieces of urban infrastructure can add to the built environment.
“Cities know that they have to pay more attention to the quality of design and set the bar a little higher,” says Hanson. Mayor’s offices that have enlightened procurement departments and appoint city architects are leading that charge most effectively, she adds. “The successes of these projects have made people think much more about architecture because these buildings have become a point of pride.”
Organic crops and beehives probably aren’t the first things that spring to mind when you think of Tokyo. Yet, in a corner of densely populated Itabashi, these are what you’ll find. Hasune Farm is a labour of love for Yu Tominaga and his partner, Mayumi Kawaguchi. This area and neighbouring Nerima were once full of farms supplying produce to Edo (now Tokyo). But after the Second World War, such rural spots were transformed by rapid urbanisation.
After Kawaguchi’s father passed away, she had to make a decision about the future of the fields, which had been in her family for generations. “One idea was to sell the farm and develop it,” she tells monocle. “But we felt that land like this in the middle of Tokyo was very precious.” Tominaga was working in marketing for Sony but decided to switch to farming. He went back to college part-time to learn about organic agriculture, then worked for a year with another farmer and fully took over in 2019. Today the couple grow more than 50 herbs and vegetables. Companion plants such as aubergine and dill grow alongside each other while bees are kept in hives at the edge of the farm. The couple are trying out an old variety of rice that doesn’t require watery paddy fields. A few neighbours might complain about noisy farm machines but most consider Hasune an asset to the neighbourhood. Hundreds of children come to the farm from local schools to help out; three times a week, a farm shop opens and produce is picked to order.
The couple supply to restaurants but also to their culinary venture, Hasune Plant, which is housed nearby in Kawaguchi’s parents’ home. The building was gently renovated and landscaped, providing the perfect backdrop for chef Takayuki Shiraishi to make dishes such as soramame bean and tofu mousse, and sea bream with courgettes, grapefruit purée and rucola flowers. Diners who come to the restaurant might have no idea that the farm is only moments away. A couple of egg-laying hens roam next door and Tominaga uses food waste to make compost. “Urban farming has huge potential,” he says. “It adds so much to the local community and there’s no distance between us and our customers.”