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Putting up the Ritz

Russia

On 1 June, the Ritz-Carlton Moscow will open its doors after months of delay. The 11-storey luxury hotel is on the spot where the former Hotel Intourist, a scruffy Soviet tower-block stood until its demolition in 2002.

It’s part of a pattern of rejuvenation for the Moscow hotel scene – and indeed the whole city – as once famous brutalist landmarks are given appointments with the bulldozers. Relics of another era, with shabby rooms and indifferent service, Soviet hotels across the city are being replaced with swanky equivalents.

The Rossiya – which was the largest hotel in Europe, just off Red Square – closed last year and will be replaced with a Norman Foster designed complex comprising four modern hotels and retail space. The Moskva, an eclectic Stalinist monster the other side of Red Square, was closed in 2004 and a new version is currently under construction – the exterior will remain largely intact but the interior will be definitively five-star.

The Ritz-Carlton aims to evoke a 19th-century imperial style. A night at the hotel won’t come cheap; the least expensive of the 334 rooms will go for around €660 a night. But Moscow suffers from a shortage of hotel rooms in all categories and with the demolition of so many centrally located hotels, demand is high – the hotel is already booked out over certain periods.

Youth parliament

Georgia

When Mikheil Saakashvili assumed Georgia’s presidency in 2004, beating down the doors of parliament and the corrupt pentagenarians behind them, he brought with him a team of young supporters. Three years later, they are running the country. Their ranks include minister of defence Davit Kezerashvili, 29; minister of finance Aleksi Aleksishvili, 33; and a host of other ministers, deputy ministers, and parliamentarians, many in their late twenties.

In part, this is a concerted effort to staff the government with officials untainted by Georgia’s communist era or corrupt post-Soviet past. So far, it seems to be working. Georgia is ranked as the world’s leading reformer in a 2007 World Bank survey and has successfully courted political and financial support from the United States, Europe and NATO. Georgian analysts suggest that the country’s young politicians – the majority of whom were educated in the US and Europe – have a particular finesse in dealing with the West that their predecessors lacked.

Perhaps the youngest and most influential of the new band is minister of economy Giorgi Arveladze, 29, who speaks about the drawbacks of youth from an office festooned with an EU flag and expensive chinoiserie. “Thank God I look older,” he says. “I’m bald already, and that helps.” Arveladze, head of the country’s penitentiary reform programme when he was 22, is an exception: most of Georgia’s young politicians are only recent inductees to civil service. Many, like secret service head Anna Zhvania, in her early thirties, previously worked in Georgia’s non-governmental sector or were members of the youth opposition group Kmara. Others, like First Deputy Minister of Economic Development David Natroshvili, 29, returned after leaving lucrative jobs abroad.

Saakashvili, armed with a degree from Columbia University and a good reputation, was only 36 years old when he became Europe’s youngest president.

Critical biomass

Sweden

“Our strategy is to reduce our dependency on oil. I’m pretty sure that by 2020 we will have succeeded in phasing it out in the heating sector,” says Ola Alterå, Sweden’s state secretary at the Ministry of Enterprise, Energy and Communications. It’s a bold ambition, but one city is already well on the way to being oil free.

Växjö has a programme that would make even Al Gore proud. The city aims to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 50 per cent by 2010 and by 70 per cent by 2025. The goal was set in 1993 and today emissions are down by 24 per cent. In comparison, between 1990 and 2005 the whole country cut emissions by 7 per cent. Växjö, with 78,000 inhabitants, has achieved this mainly by substituting oil with biomass for heating. The share of renewable energy in the city’s total energy system, including heating and transportation, is 51 per cent. Växjö hopes to be free of oil, diesel, petrol and peat by 2050.

Växjö produces its energy mainly by burning woodchip, a by-product of one of the region’s major industries, forestry. “Ninety per cent of the energy we use for heating is renewable. In transportation the figure is 2 per cent – it’s easy to see where the challenges lie,” says Henrik Johansson, environmental controller.

How Växjö is going green

  1. New cycle routes, safe and well-lit, are constantly being built around the city. Växjö aims to become Sweden’s leading bicycle city, with cycling comprising 20 per cent of all traffic by 2010.

  2. There are eight recycling stations in Växjö. The city is running a large campaign to encourage waste sorting, even though 90 per cent of its waste is already recycled.

  3. The municipality’s employees have been educated in eco-driving, and have access to a green car and bicycle pool.

  4. The roof of Växjö’s public swimming pool is equipped with solar panels. The city also subsidises members of the public who install solar cells.

  5. Växjö’s energy company VEAB produces over 95 per cent of its district heating and electricity using biofuel.

  6. In Välle Broar, the city is building a new area of energy-efficient highrises in wood, providing 1,000 flats. The walls will be made extra thick to minimise the need for heating.

  7. Parking is free for those driving an environmentally friendly car.

  8. In Biskopshagen, another 300 energy-efficient flats are being built.

  9. The city’s bus stops are currently being improved to encourage the use of public transport.

  10. Växjö has installed five ethanol fuelling stations, and a small amount of ethanol is mixed into all petrol. The city is also involved in developing DME, an alternative fuel, with Volvo Trucks.

Wi-Fi first city

Málaga

Málaga, in sleepy Andalucia, is about to become the most Wi-Fied city in the world – for the moment at least. Málaga’s ambitious plan for almost universal connectivity is the result of a collaboration with FON España. Founded on a “give a little, take a little” principle, FON is rapidly building a global, broadband-based community that will allow users to “donate” air time from their home- or office-based wireless stations to members and borrow from the community when they’re on the road (you have to pay €3 to become a member, or “Fonero”).

Francisco de la Torre, mayor of Málaga, and Martín Varsavsky, the president of Fon España, say that within six months, there will be free access to the internet in 80 per cent of the city. They are going to place 2,000 internet routers on public buildings.

Varsavsky claims that when the project takes off, it will put Málaga ahead of London or Paris in terms of connecting to the internet.“Málaga is a city of 1.5 million people which will be converted into a Wi-Fi model for the world,” he says.

FON, which last year won €18.5m backing from Google and Skype, is set to bring the multinationals to a city that has until now been considered nothing more than a holiday destination. The city authorities have put €200,000 of public money into the plan. Only one French village, Blanquefort, with a population of 15,000, has a similar scheme.Monocle believes that all cities should be following this example if they want to appeal to business travellers; it’s no longer good enough to rely upon coffee chains to provide Wi-Fi hot spots. Wi-Fi-enabled cities will also put a stop to five-star business hotels charging for a service that should be free.

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