The Monocle Manifesto | Monocle

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As the world and global opinion turns, monocle remains irrepressibly optimistic about cities – or at least their enduring potential to help people live well, regardless of income, outlook or industry. While no city is perfect, the best ones know how strike a balance and remain places of opportunity, discovery and excitement for all. So shouldn’t more politicians, ceos and civic leaders be concerned about making the most of the places most of the world now calls home? After all, what could be more important to our collective future than properly talking about how we build, assemble and share such spaces? 

Buildings, businesses and bus routes are only small parts of the matrices that make appealing cities tick. There’s also history, style and culture to consider. There’s some software to attend to too – the ways we should behave and the rules we should all endeavour to follow. How might a graciously deployed “good morning” affect the way you feel on your street? What if we considered children more closely when designing public spaces? How could better housing and hospitals provide dignity for all? Permit us to ascend our soapbox briefly in this, our city-focused issue. Here, we offer a few ideas that we believe will help focus attentions, bind communities and create neater social contracts in cities where such things can sometimes fray. Read on for monocle’s manifesto on how best to darn, repair and, in places, reweave the city’s social fabric. — L

Prioritise residents


Cities should be for the people who live in them. Begin by limiting short-term home rentals and cracking down on stingy landlords who are piling people into damp, dismal homes. We also need to stop areas from becoming single-use given over exclusively to students or the elderly – a mix is usually best. Rubbing shoulders with all kinds of people engenders connections, tolerance and mutual respect.


Make use of what’s there


Glossy renderings so often reimagine blocks and neighbourhoods in supposedly sustainable ways. But surely the discipline of reusing and rebuilding offers developers and architects a more interesting test. Isn’t adding to the urban patina and iterating on what works better than razing sites to the ground only to build up another trend destined to become tomorrow’s wasteland? The newest buildings are rarely the best.


Waste not, want not


A well-run community should consider ways to better manage its food waste. The good stuff could be redistributed and offered to people living on the street (always in dignified settings with showers and other key facilities) – look at Massimo Bottura’s worldwide Refettorio concept for inspiration. For the waste that’s passed its sell-by date, there’s a case for community compost bins to help out nearby allotments.


Sit comfortably


Rekindle stoop culture and loosen rules so that people have space to set up a table outside their home and enjoy the street and the neighbours. With its cobbled canalside lanes that fill up with picnic tables as the evening takes hold, Amsterdam excels at this. Come on, the city seems to say, join us for one.


Slow down bad drivers


Register electric scooters and bikes to individuals and have them pass basic safety and proficiency tests before taking to the streets. Bad drivers should be fined and banned. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean nannying or bothering people with unnecessary bureaucracy or red tape but having a mechanism to halt persistent pests would help the authorities, should they need to hit the brakes on dangerous driving.


Take safety seriously

In cities like London, street crimes such as bike and phone theft are viewed as a part of everyday life. Brassy thieves know it too and act with impunity knowing that they’re unlikely to ever be challenged. It shouldn’t be this way. Safety matters and efforts need to be made to reassure the most vulnerable in our communities that the streets still belong to us all.

Don’t idle


Automobile engines should be turned off while vehicles are stationary: it’s better for emissions and the air quality of the people sauntering past. Keeping the car ticking over while you scoff a sandwich at the wheel or hum along to the radio waiting to pick up a pal isn’t very civic-minded. Cutting the engine shows consideration for those around you, as well as the planet.


Hire more gardeners


Many cities are busy installing new planting schemes and greening streets. Long may the movement grow. But what about all those ambitious but now browning “green walls” that got little attention after the ribbon was snipped? Let’s not forget that parks, verges and riverbanks should be left to explore but still need tending to.


Grow your own


We also need a new allotment revolution to encourage and allow people to grow their own produce. It helps keep things cool and prevents flooding, yes. But there’s also the magic of eating something that you’ve coaxed to life yourself. How about a little agricultural education – and appreciation – for the younger generation too. It’s useful for food security and to let children know that fast food doesn’t grow in corner shops. Connecting with nature is nourishing.


Think laterally

The linear park movement (à la New York’s High Line) still has plenty of room to grow. These snaking routes capture the imagination, get people walking and make all-important use of what’s already there. Pity the project that involves building a new structure where an existing space would do just as well – and at a fraction of the cost and disruption too.

Build beautifully


Beauty is important, even if architects don’t mention it enough. Why, then, don’t we make schools, hospitals and other civic buildings that sing, in turn making it easier to learn, to heal and to work? Implicit in this thinking is a message – to students and those convalescing or working in city hall – that where you live matters.


Shake it up

Embrace gentle density. Some buildings leave people lonely, isolating them high above the streets. We need more properties of various sizes and textures that provide for people of all incomes and encourage them to rub shoulders. Keep domestic structures below five storeys, ensure that they have windows that open and can channel a breeze, affix awnings to keep the heat in check and maximise outdoor and communal areas to stimulate mingling.

Play for keeps


Prioritise play and children. Cities have become too hard-cornered and adult-focused. What about pavements that bounce and blacktops that encourage children to draw with chalk? We shouldn’t just cater to boys and football either. Play is inclusive and universal, and should always be treated as such. We need fewer spikes and hard surfaces, and more places to lay down, delight and be amused.


Wave from your window


Penthouses might sell for top-dollar but glassy towers are chilly, impersonal and disconnected from life on the street. Instead, we need to follow the Georgians and build better ground-floor dwellings with bigger windows that are the right distance apart to allow people to see in and out a little. Bigger windows are better for natural light and make you feel like you’re part of a community that extends beyond your own front door.


Make a splash


Our waterways belong to all of us, despite the flood of private companies cashing in on them and pumping them full of nasties. Clean-ups such as that undertaken in Copenhagen demonstrate the civic value of providing people with somewhere to swim, dive and drink. Water helps to cool our cities, lure in wildlife and create spaces to unwind – purifying them is ambitious but why should that be a barrier to success?


Design inclusively

Take care of people with mobility needs. Not with red tape and alarms but with gentle, intuitive curves and quiet urbanism. This isn’t about carrying out endless risk assessments and making the built environment miserable by redesigning it to meet hurried needs. Rather, people move at different speeds and some are steadier on their feet than others. So let’s leave room and try to cushion their fall if we can.

Make amends

We all think that what we do is worthy but, if we’re honest, some jobs are just inalienably more crucial to society than others. So how about we fess up and foot the cost for some decent housing for teachers, nurses and carers. Part of building a better society is acknowledging that some people have spent too long being undervalued – and then making amends.

Pick up rubbish


We wouldn’t want to trash the world’s waste collectors but, from Manhattan to Marylebone and Le Marais, budget cuts at city councils have left too many cities strewn with coffee cups, plastic packaging and other detritus. We need bins, street sweepers and projects that inspire community pride. The battle is lost when residents themselves walk past that newspaper on the floor and don’t stoop to pick it up and pop it in the bin.


Build outside the box


Developers should evolve their repertoires and allow more types of housing to flourish. Cities’ fundamental allure is that they’re accommodating to all: shared, co-op, self-built and whatever else people will happily inhabit. We are still stuck in a one-size-fits-all model, offering expensive, derivative homes to a cadre of middle managers who can afford them. It’s time we started thinking outside the box.


Cry foul


Here’s a filthy little fantasy for anyone who’s ever surveyed a soiled city pavement in despair: what about clean-up duty for frequent foulers? What about mandatory training for those who own animals to make sure they’re kept well and happy? A nominal fee for the registration could help with clean-up costs and better kennelling and care for strays and fund charities. Without such solutions, London and Paris are barking up the wrong tree.


Think of the animals


Encouraging nature doesn’t just mean greenery. We should ensure that buildings have spaces for birds to nest, that parks feature flowers from which bees can collect pollen and that ponds and waterways are for frogs and dragonflies as well as bike couriers and picnickers. Green corridors that let creatures migrate without fear of being squashed under a running shoe mean that some bits of land have to be out of reach for humans – and that’s just fine.


Keep the noise down


We’re not hungry for rules or finger-wagging but, while we’re passing down some decrees, why not regulate food-delivery drivers on electric bikes or noisy scooters? A clever last-mile solution done on the cyclists’ own steam would help reduce emissions.


Be on brand

Have a city brand: a recognisable logo, colour scheme and crest. It might sound trite but having a symbol to rally around really can help. Zürich’s crest is fresh and simple, Lisbon’s is ornate and original, and Amsterdam’s? Well, the three-character xxx marque by Edenspiekermann (nothing to do with they city’s X-rated pastimes, thank you) delivers a message to all who see it on buildings and manhole covers. Branding carries a memo – it’s up to you what it says.

Embrace the makers


Make physical spaces in which entrepreneurs and start-ups can flourish. Not everywhere needs to be a strip-lit office or shop unit either – loosen the rules so that people who print, whittle and sculpt can be part of the streetscape too.


Help social housing


Social housing needs a hand. Look at Vienna and you’ll see how successful Europe’s biggest landlord has been at offering enviable places to live at every price point. Leaving everything to the market condemns some to fall through the cracks. Rent protection and a more open application scheme (perhaps for artists too?) will help enrich our cities.


Support local media


A great newspaper, TV channel or even a well-kept bulletin board can help people feel connected, represented and informed. Yes, we need fearless journalists sitting in on town-hall meetings that most people would find tedious to check that the politicians are in order – but great journalism can inspire as well as upbraid and educate.


Don’t call it a night


Allow the night-time economy to flourish. Let cocktail bars keep their doors open, clubs hum and basements have bass-heavy parties. It’s a delicate balance but some cities have got it all wrong by letting mega-clubs ruin neighbourhoods in one part of town while fussy residents get small, well-meaning bars shut down for playing the jukebox at 23.01 on a Friday night. The default should be that cities can be a bit noisy and that great venues make areas more enjoyable.


Trade places


Relaunch local trade guilds. Need a woodworker or winemaker? There could easily be a resource (and, yes, some well-branded signage for the window) that shows which nearby businesses are locally owned and worth patronising. Let’s not let the chains stomp out the independents.


Protect and serve


Reinvent the Japanese koban police box for Western cities. Having somewhere to report incidents is one thing but a little presence on the streets is just as important. Keeping policing local rather than busing untrained recruits into hotspots is about building trust and understanding the causes of crime, not just pursuing arrest quotas.


Promote digital decency


Ban loud phone calls on train carriages, noisy online games in restaurants and speakerphones, well, everywhere. Business owners and managers should be in charge and lead from the front. Ultimately, cities are big and busy, and offer some thrilling anonymity. But that shouldn’t mean that some people can retreat into selfish little worlds that deprive others of the right to a little peace and quiet now and again.



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