Monocle talks to influential leaders in society - Issue 172 - Magazine | Monocle

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Essay 1: Urbanism
Living with water
Landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom on how cities can adapt to rising sea levels.

Growing up in Bangkok in the 1980s, I loved the presence of water in my day-to-day life. With the tropical climate came flash floods during the rainy season but this was just part of living in a delta city. Then, in 2011, a severe flood overwhelmed Bangkok and what had been an occurrence you could adapt to became an unimaginable disaster. The scale of the flooding was due to climate change but also the city’s own mismanagement. Hundreds died and millions lost their homes – and much of this was avoidable. After that I asked myself, “What can I do?” 

I was a landscape architect. I had graduated a few years before and was aware of the effect that ageing infrastructure, combined with climate change, had on my city. Bangkok is home to more than 10 million people, including me, and welcomes over 20 million tourists every year – that’s a lot of people for a city only two metres above sea level. And, as was becoming increasingly clear, not only was Bangkok prone to flooding, it was sinking. 

The exponential growth of skyscrapers and an influx of inhabitants in the past 40 years has stretched the city to its limits. After 2011 most agreed that natural disasters on this scale would only become more regular and intense. Once upon a time, the farmers who had lived in the delta managed to integrate these natural cycles into their work. They would build adaptable housing raised above the ground, use natural materials and approach water as a part of their practice. 

During the early urbanisation of Bangkok, these methods were pushed aside. The mantra was: out with the old, in with the new. The new in question was based on the Western model of urbanisation. Concrete and a dense urban environment were seen as the key to a new, prosperous Thailand.

By forcing a one-size-fits-all approach on the city, we lost touch with our past. Though these new amenities provided comfort and ease to many people in Bangkok, it was also deeply at odds with the Thai climate. Concrete didn’t allow the water to drain away, unlike the porous wetlands, making roads prone to flooding. Policymakers looked to other big cities, often in Europe and the US, to manage their own disasters, forgetting how different their climates were. They built dams and irrigation canals, and tried to extract the water from the ground. These expensive projects proved ineffective in a crisis. Water, which had once been a natural part of the environment, was now a problem to be solved. Building with fear in mind – the fear of water in the public space, the fear of flooding, the fear of nature – brought us the calamity of 2011. In the making of a modern Bangkok, we had forgotten to include what was beneficial about the old ways in which we did things. Sometimes you have to look back to move forward. 

With that in mind, I changed my own designs and practice. Where I came from has been essential to the way that I approach the world. I’ve been rethinking the spaces we use in cities, especially when it comes to reintegrating greenery. What spaces, like rooftops, can be better utilised to make an urban environment like Bangkok more pleasant for the people who live there? To me, modern design means that these constructions will live in harmony with the surrounding environment for years to come. As a landscape architect I am just one part of that shift. 

Climate change is frightening. It feels like an impossible challenge and it often implies fundamentally changing the way we have progressed over the past 50 years. When looking at climate change, people often prefer to shift the blame. Everyone knows that cities are huge carbon emitters. A way to avoid the problem, and what many cities do, is to buy up carbon credits or replant trees. These solutions, beyond being outright ineffective, also avoid any kind of concrete change. Redesigning the environment, on the other hand, is more costly in the short term but becomes a way of reclaiming the problem as a solution. 

If, as a landscape architect, I can bring one stone to the edifice, making people’s lives easier and safer, that’s a huge step. I’ve detailed my own approach to water because that is where I’m from and a part of who I am. Now it’s time for other ambitious people at the frontier of the struggle against climate change to look at what problems their cities are facing. 

Too often in our globalised world we want to forget where we come from. What could be heat in Mumbai or drought in La Paz is a question of readapting rather than forcing the places to adapt to you. Pessimism is easy so look for optimism because that’s where change can happen. I hope that the next generation of policymakers, designers and landscape architects can, like me, look at the world and see solutions rather than problems. 

About the author:
Voraakhom teaches landscape design at Chulalongkorn University and is the founder and chief executive at Landprocess, a Bangkok-based firm that addresses climate uncertainty.

In praise of  Warsaw
Polish journalist Mateusz Mazzini on why everyone should move to the Polish capital.

Praise should never come on the basis of a single observation. Rather, the hype needs to be confirmed from an array of vantage points. Those wanting to assess the quality of life in Poland’s capital are, therefore, in luck, as Warsaw offers a multitude of perspectives. One can glance over the expanse of the city, now made up of almost two million inhabitants, from the viewing terrace of Varso Tower, a recently opened skyscraper that is also the tallest building in the EU. Standing at 230 metres high, this is a good place from which to begin one’s assessment of Warsaw’s attributes – both old and new.

Recent additions to the landscape include the Museum of Modern Art, a new footbridge over the mighty Vistula and the southward expansion of the city’s tram network. But in Warsaw, the old is never far from the surface. The Palace of Culture and Science, a Stalin-era skyscraper, remains a point of reference for everybody, while Three Crosses Square, with its neo-renaissance Saint Alexander Church at its centre, and the adjacent, boutique-filled Mokotowska Street are the fashionable heart of the city. 

Those afraid of heights can take a more down-to-earth approach. If the word on the street is that Warsaw is booming and attracting investors, tourists and expats – well, let’s walk that talk. Despite the fact that Poles are drivers to the point of addiction, and many consider their vehicle a part of the family, the city authorities have been making considerable strides in transforming Warsaw into a more pedestrian-friendly city. If you’re of a subterranean inclination, communist-era underground passages are magical labyrinths of kiosks and one-stop shops for newspapers, warm soup and doughnuts. For a city whose population swells by 12 per cent during the working week, Warsaw’s public-transport network is relatively problem-free by European standards. OK, buses do get stuck in traffic more than they probably should but trams offer an obstacle-free ride. Though it only has two lines, the metro is reliable and regular, running for 20 hours a day. The second line, crossing the Vistula, is the latest addition to the network, with three more expected to open by 2050. Tired of wondering how many trains you will have to let pass before you can squeeze onto a packed carriage every morning? Exhausted by countless turns and staircases you have to take before reaching the right platform? Well, move to Warsaw: there is no commuter drama here. The system might be relatively underdeveloped but at least it’s easy to navigate. 

Still sceptical? Let’s look at the data. According to a report by Oxford Economics, a research consultancy, in 2022, Warsaw had the highest GDP growth of any major

European city and is projected to hold this record until at least 2026. Much of this success is due to young entrepreneurs who are flocking to the city. Unexpectedly, Brexit is one of the causes of Warsaw’s international success. As Poland marks the 20th anniversary of its accession to the EU, it is reaping the rewards of what initially seemed a curse – outward migration that is now making a sharp U-turn. After joining the single market, many Varsovians feared an irreversible brain drain as thousands of young people, with little opportunity to put their talents to good use at home, left for Europe’s (mostly the UK’s) best universities. Now they are returning en masse, bringing expertise and disposable income with them. All of the major technology unicorns around the world have Polish researchers and coders driving their expansion. Come and find out why that’s the case. Or better yet, move your company here. With one of Europe’s highest average attainments in mathematics and two out of three Poles able to communicate in professional English, there is a robust workforce to make good use of. Artificial intelligence might be on everybody’s mind these days but the intelligence that underpins Warsaw’s economy is anything but artificial. 

Warsaw, in common with any thriving city, does not lack in growing pains. Housing is scarce and average prices have recently exceeded those in Madrid, Manchester, Rotterdam and Genoa. The city also struggles with air pollution, especially in winter. Some municipal investments

What does it really feel like to live in Warsaw? It is a city that puts its people first

are late and chaotic: the tram expansion, aimed at linking the city’s southern district with the centre, is a result of the public lagging behind the private. Warsaw has been expanding rapidly in recent years but to call it an “organic development” would simply be code for a lack of official planning. Hundreds of thousands of Varsovians have a comfortable space in which to live but no ability to commute to work other than drive. A rapid population growth, especially in the suburbs, has exposed the lack of easily accessible childcare provision, with more than 2,000 of the city’s inhabitants not getting a place in pre-school in 2022.

But enough with hard data. Let’s talk about experience. What does it really feel like to live in Warsaw? As a foreign- educated, binational writer with a past that includes living in the UK, Spain and Italy, the simplest answer that I can come up with is that Warsaw feels European. Yet the Europeanness of Warsaw is radically different to that of Paris, Amsterdam or Milan – and that’s only for the better. Contrary to the Western metropolises, collapsing under the burden of outdated infrastructure and with city centres deprived of native inhabitants, Warsaw is a city that puts its people first. There is a financial argument to be made here too; this is a very affordable city by European standards. A 90-day public transport pass costs €68, compared to €778 in London, €259 in Paris and €303 in Amsterdam. Higher education is free. The overall cost of living might be rising but it is still considerably lower than in most Western European cities; indeed, Warsaw is cheaper to live in than Prague, Budapest and Bratislava, the other major urban centres in the region.

Beyond money, there is that intangible currency: excitement. Unlike other places, which attempt to capitalise on their past, Poland’s capital is betting on its future. Young people throng the streets, sipping good coffee (yes, finally) before dining in some of the most interesting restaurants in Central and Eastern Europe. Memories of a monocultural, grey and boring city are long gone. The wider metropolitan area has more than 300,000 foreign-born residents. Maybe you should consider joining them?

Warsaw has its fair share of problems but there are none that cannot be solved with better policy planning, much of which is already in the pipeline. Unlike older cities, with their solidified landscapes, here almost everything is (relatively) new and fresh so even drastic changes come at a lower price. Car-snarled city centre? The city council is planning to declare most of it car-free in the near future. Pollution? Urban grants to co-finance heating- system replacements are among the most efficient in the country. A shortage of childcare options? Warsaw is already spending more than €1.5bn a year on educational endeavours, including early education. Lack of affordable housing? This is expected to change with the incoming government; Vienna is constantly presented as a role model for the built environment. If you copy, use the best blueprint. 

Unlike Berlin, Paris and London, which increasingly resemble open-air theme parks for tourists, with economies dependent on easy money from low-skilled services and property markets dominated by short-term rentals, Warsaw invites you on a journey that will not lead to a dead end. There is much to be discovered, accomplished and invented here, and the city needs all the help that it can get to make it happen. Two years ago it opened its arms to more than 350,000 Ukrainians fleeing Putin’s invasion and many remained, having established businesses, resumed academic careers and even started families. For a city, and even a country, which had remained almost entirely ethnically homogenous since the end of the Second World War, this was a major change, indeed one that many feared. But Ukrainians, and before them Belarusians, as well as members of many other diasporas – Irish, Turks, Americans, Italians – have not only found a place that they could quickly call home but have contributed to this city becoming Europe’s hope for the future.

The people of Warsaw are no strangers to adversity. In 1944, after the Nazis destroyed almost 85 per cent of the city by setting it alight in revenge for the Warsaw Uprising, there were only 1,000 people left out of a pre-war population of 1.3 million. They survived with no shelter, food or water, only with dreams of rebuilding what had been lost. Eight decades later, Warsaw has risen from the ashes and its never-say-die attitude has become a significant part of its identity. This city rebuilt itself from nothing. If you feel like your own life needs a new spirit, look no further. 

About the author: 
Mazzini is a Warsaw-based reporter, writing for Gazeta Wyborcza and Polityka. He covers western and southern Europe as well as the Global South. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, El País and others.

Essay 3: Geopolitics
The future is small
Armenia’s former president Armen Sarkissian on the power of small states.

It is not yet fully understood that we are living in a world that is dramatically different from the one that we inhabited even 30 years ago. This radically changed environment has created a unique opportunity for small countries. Maybe not for every small state but for the ones that are also smart states. The idea of soft power was created by a good friend of mine, Professor Joseph Nye from the Kennedy School at Harvard. He was analysing the hard power of the US, which is its military and its economy, and its soft power, which is its values, freedom and culture. But there is another power, which is smart power. Smart power is power that is always focusing on the future, not the past – and small countries are very well equipped for that. If you look at any index of national performance, most of the top 10 states will be small. If you look at GDP per capita, a lot of small states are far ahead of the big ones. People live much better in small, smart states.

I have been prime minister and president of a small country. That size enables you to make sharp decisions. In the classical world, the most important thing had been the scale of the state: its military and economic power. But the dimension of the future is smartness – and technology. The Uae is one of the great small smart states in this respect. The world’s only artificial intelligence (AI) university is in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

We are already used to the idea that multinational companies are effectively virtual small states. Google is a small state. Apple is a small state. And their effect is huge: it is an open question whether the US government has more influence on Facebook or the other way around. Soon, small states such as Estonia, Denmark, Ireland, Switzerland and Singapore will be able to produce immense new technological advances. In the future, the power of technology, the power of science, is going to be dominant. It has always been difficult for small states to survive without the patronage and protection of large nations but the military power of the future will not be so dependent on size. AI will allow a small state to have a powerful military presence. You won’t need 100 million people to have an army of one million because that army can consist of drones. This is why I have been lobbying to create an organisation of small, smart states: the S20. We are past thinking that small states are just an entourage to bigger ones.

About the author:
Sarkissian was president of Armenia from 2018 to 2022, and prime minister from 1996 to 1997. His latest book is The Small States Club: How Small Smart States Can Save the World.

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