It’s not necessarily the billion-euro development, star-architect-designed gallery or shiny new ferris wheel that makes locals feel good about their town. Monocle believes that the measure of a city is more about everyday wonders – pavements, well-designed schools, punctual transport – rather than one-off, grand projets. Here’s our list of the top 25 urban elements that make the city.
It’s remarkable how many cities pay so little attention to the key arteries leading to and from their major transport hubs. As first impressions count for everything, getting this right goes a long way towards making residents feel happy they’re home and potential investors pull out their chequebooks. Singapore understands the business of first impressions better than any other city. Its ultra-lush landscaping from Changi is testimony to this.
Sometimes you don’t have a piece of Swiss watchmaking strapped to your wrist. On these occasions, time-keeping is made so much easier if there are well-maintained street clocks. In Prague there is no excuse for running late. The streets are filled with elegant clocks fixed on top of tall, slender poles. Some clock faces are back-lit, allowing them to double as street lamps, while others have route-finding features attached.
For many Chicago commuters the landmark of the $500m (€371m) Millennium Park is the bicycle station quietly tucked away in a corner. The two-level McDonald’s Cycle Center provides indoor storage for 300 bicycles, lockers and private showers with towel service. Built with federal funds, the park sold the naming rights to McDonald’s last year, which will cover the station’s operating costs for the next 50 years.
The Athenians know how to do cinema, but eschew velvet seats, popcorn and surround sound for the simple sophistication of gravel under foot, the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine, cold Mythos, sunflower seeds and moonlight. On sweltering summer nights, book your canvas director’s chairs in one of Athens’s 60 or so Therini Kinematografi and join the cicadas experiencing the stars beneath the stars.
There’s something quite magical about watching trams in Barcelona, Strasbourg or Frankfurt glide silently along beds of grass as they do their city circuit. Where possible, this attractive combination of efficient public transport and inspired landscaping should be standard as part of the urban fabric.
The high-rise gets the Swiss treatment. In Steinhausen, Switzerland, architectural firm Scheitlin-Syfrig + Partner has designed minimalist apartment blocks constructed from red cedar wood. While other cities continue to build Identikit 1970s-inspired blocks, these point to an alternative and more satisfying direction for apartment living.
Whether it’s for skating, cycling, jogging or simply taking a stroll at dusk we always hunt out a bustling riverfront. Melbourne brings the focus back towards its waters with the new Birrarung Marr park located on the north bank of the Yarra river, adjacent to Federation Square. With landscaping by Taylor Cullity Lethlean and Paul Thompson, heritage-listed elms and native flora are brought right back into the city – something Monocle thinks can only be a good thing.
Japanese convenience-store Lawson is diversifying with new brands Natural Lawson, Lawson 100 and Lawson Plus. The latest is Happy Lawson in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district, which is aimed at parents of small children. This child-friendly conbini sells food, toys and books and offers up to two hours of childcare.
The rise of all-inclusive package tours in the 1970s almost killed off the garden allotments that are a fixture in cities across Europe. With three weeks in the Canaries affordable to the masses, a patch of vegetables surrounded by a few apple trees and a tiny house no longer looked so attractive. Today, the concept of grow-your-own and holidaying closer to home has made garden allotments the height of modernity and Copenhagen’s sturdy little colony houses a benchmark for sustainable community planning.
Until recently, few people thought of the High Line, an abandoned subway track snaking through the West Side of Manhattan 9m above the ground, as anything other than ruins. Now the 2.4km of track is set to become an elevated park, spanning Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. Developers are already starting to move into the area – expect more apartments, restaurants and offices to appear shortly.
Every city could use an iconic fire station – the simple things done well mark out a great urban environment. Designed by Boge Lindner Architects, this fire station can be found at Gelsenkirchen, in the north of Germany. The two-storey building features a modernist design, black concrete exterior and glass panelling. The gym, bedrooms and roof patios add a domestic touch.
The public lavatories at Tokyo’s Omotesando Hills centre prove that even the humblest of amenities deserve attention from the world’s top architects. Designed by Tadao Ando with an opaque glass front, they glow like a lantern at night and more than hold their own in a street lined with buildings by famous architects.
We’ve had enough of running around cities trying to find a Wi-Fi hotspot. Call this a business town? That’s why we salute Málaga and its ambitions to become the most Wi-Fi enabled city in the world. With the help of telecoms company FON España, it plans to have free access in over 80 per cent of the city by the end of the year.
Nestled in the heart of Stockholm but somehow slightly removed at the same time, Djurgården is a bit of country in the city with the added attraction of a zoo, restrained theme park, stately residences and cosy cottages. At once wild and perfectly manicured, it’s the best park we know for an after-work picnic, a Saturday afternoon in the long grass or an evening stroll in late September.
If malls are going to continue to be a feature of sprawling suburbs then they should take inspiration from the best. Bal Harbour Shops north of Miami continues to win awards for its great management and tenant mix – Bottega Veneta, Saks, Tod’s and Chloé. Launched in 1965, it has become a modernist masterpiece by preserving its typography, fountains and art. With its abundance of greenery and outdoor concept (no air-con in the common spaces) it was eco-chic long before the term was invented.
Taking a dip in cool waters is one of the loveliest ways to shake off those frustrating, chaotic city days. The Kastrup Sea Bath in Copenhagen, designed by White Architects, is a soothing wooden structure featuring a long jetty that culminates in a gentle arc-shaped swimming and diving platform.
London has lots of parks but none is as beautiful as Regent’s Park, designed by the architect John Nash in 1811. There are over 166 hectares of boating lakes, nature reserves, rose gardens and football pitches. But we love it for an early morning jog when it can feel like you have a huge slice of London all to yourself – well, apart from the camels, monkeys and kangaroos nodding at you from their enclosures in adjacent London Zoo.
There is nothing quite as inspiring as doing your weekly shopping at a local, colourful and chaotic city market. Barcelona gets it right again with the Santa Caterina market, recently refurbished with a riotous design by Benedetta Tagliabue and Enric Miralles.
No matter where you are in central Tokyo, you’re never far from the nearest police box, or koban. Manned by at least two policemen, the koban is community policing in action – the place to go in emergencies or simply for directions. Look out for the police issue Bridgestone bikes and the koban sign with kawaii (cute) mouse Pi-Po, the mascot of the Tokyo Police.
Sydney’s not blessed with many great shopping areas – witness what’s become of poor Double Bay. But the mini high street of Plumer Road is a beacon. The low red-brick buildings have a welcoming post-school buzz when children gather to buy sweets and mums pull up in BMW X5s to pick up roast chicken for their dinner tables in Vaucluse. At weekends locals walk down to grab coffees and papers. Plumer Road works because it’s compact and has all the shops and services you need.
As we’re not getting any younger and taxi drivers tend not to be from the city they happen to be driving in, the easier it is to read the numbers on the outside of a building the better. Berlin (in fact many German cities) make illuminated numbers a standard feature on offices, apartment blocks and single family residences. In our dream city, we’d make it part of the building code and enforce it rigorously.
There’s no excuse for suburban platforms to be unwelcoming places to wait for a connection to the city centre. For authorities short on design inspiration, a trip on the Rhätische Bahn between Chur and St Moritz is a good place to start. The tiny station at Filisur shows what can happen when you reduce a project to the essentials – good materials, superior construction and smart design. The wood, concrete and steel structure fits perfectly with the Alpine setting but would work as well in the suburbs of Busan.
Every city needs functional, high-quality seating from which to watch the world go by. Monocle is a fan of Barcelona’s robust and iconic benches. Find these scattered throughout the city’s streets and public squares and take time out to enjoy the view.
With its undulating pathway and 12m-wide plaza suspended above the Seine, the Simone de Beauvoir footbridge in Paris, designed by Feichtinger Architects, joins the recently redeveloped Bercy district on the Right Bank to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France on the Left, offering a scenic and relaxing way to experience the city.
Japan is leading the way in imaginative mixed-use developments. One of the latest is Tokyo Midtown, a €2.23bn retail, office and apartment complex. Along with carefully selected restaurants and fashion stores – no tacky chains here – it also offers first-rate food shopping and a 24-hour supermarket. There’s a cultural element too, in the Suntory Museum, and a design exhibition centre.