It’s the beginning of May, I’m peering from my roof terrace overlooking London’s West End and wondering what my taxes have been paying for during these last few boom years in London. No, it’s not a period of heady merriment in London at the moment but surely there must be plenty in reserve from all those years of record growth? Or is there?
You might want to join me in this exercise and survey your surroundings, regardless of where you reside. Are you happy with what you see? Are the roads properly paved or are they bumpy, pot-holed and shabby? (For subscribers in Kabul, Baghdad, Ramallah et al read on.) Is there any public greenery nearby and if so is it blossoming and well-maintained? Have there been any recent initiatives to green-up your neighbourhood a bit more? What about the local shopping area? Is business brisk and is the community buzzing or are you concerned about too many “to let” signs flapping in the wind and a worrying number of chain stores that might be on the cusp of looking for bankruptcy protection? As I gaze out across the little patch of London I call home (and is also the base for our HQ), wondering where all the money’s gone, I’m more worried about what’s to be done with what remains in the coffers.
Monocle is generally all for free markets so long as there’s enough that goes back to the public purse to pay for the essentials that make a city tick. That includes employing the right people to make informed decisions about the future of the built environment. As I look around London I don’t think we have the right people in place to take this city where it needs to go. When it comes to creating new structures and developing urban plans there’s so much fear about the planning approval process that a climate of self-censorship has settled over the desks and boardrooms of not only the developers who raise the finance for new projects, but also the architecture and engineering firms charged with designing and erecting them. I suspect the same problem is plaguing many other cities that don’t have the schemes in place to attract the talent to encourage and govern urban growth.
London might be home to a wealth of brilliant starchitects, and the most respected engineering firm in the many breathtaking shapes of Arup, but none of them get to do much interesting work on their home turf. Yes, there have been big, high-profile projects with even bigger names attached, but by global standards they haven’t attracted too many cover stories by leading design and architecture journals, and have done even less to help challenge a vernacular that at best is about adding solar panels and more advanced heating systems to Georgian and Victorian forms.
On a recent Sunday tour of the neighbourhood I picked up a brochure for a redevelopment scheme of a parking lot that plays host to a Sunday farmers’ market. At present there are a series of competing schemes for what has to be one of the most desirable pieces of real estate in Europe (it’s still up for grabs by the way) but not one proposal dared rock the boat or invite fresh thinking. In every scenario there was all the box-ticking one might expect: an adult education centre here, an open square for public performances there and, oh look! The grocery store just ballooned in size and takes up half the scheme. There were no green rooftops with running tracks and tennis courts. No seven-day-a-week, covered farmers’ market. No hi-tech public toilets. No vision.
Cities need to revisit their budgets and pay proper salaries to men and women who are equipped with the experience and powers of persuasion to take bolder steps. Monocle has long argued for creative directors to work alongside mayors and this is a theme we’ll be carrying forward when our Global Quality of Life Survey hits newsstands from 18 June.
While we set off to find the best that cities have to offer we’re also embarking on a new venture – Monocle on the Med. From 1 June a new Monocle shop-cum- newsstand will be open in the Santa Catalina district of Palma de Mallorca. We’ll be there all summer and even using the space as a summer HQ. If you’re cruising at the western end of the Med, do drop by (more details can be found on page 156 or via monocle.com) for a glass of something chilled and to sample our new, exclusive collaborations. If you need room recommendations for Palma or have any story tips, drop me a note at email@example.com.
For more from our editor-in-chief, read his column in the FT Weekend.