In Germany home-owners can generate power and sell it to the national grid. Genoa runs an inspiring van-share scheme that’s cutting congestion and in Estonia they have adopted a simple fiscal reform that’s kept the economy booming. Ministers and mayors hoping for re-election in 2008 should study these public policy initiatives with care.
It’s time for our senior citizens to be given access to services that let them lead their lives with dignity. There are several schemes we think governments should investigate (let’s face it, we all want to look forward to a happy retirement). One of the simplest – and most effective – is in Stockholm, where seniors no longer have to worry about falling off a step ladder when putting up a picture. They simply call Fixer-Sven, a friendly chap who shuttles between houses in Stockholm, fixing practical problems free of charge.
Fixer-Sven is a service provided by the city of Stockholm for all citizens over 75. “I get 12 to 15 calls a week. The aim is to try and keep people from falling and breaking a bone,” says Sven-Erik Nordberg, aka Fixer-Sven. The idea was first introduced in the small town of Höganäs, which managed to halve the number of injuries from falls among its elderly citizens and save €1m in annual healthcare costs.
There are also moves to outsource care of the elderly to countries with sunny weather, lower living costs and a habit of respecting the old. Several Norwegian cities have care centres in southern Spain.
In an interview in 2005, Estonia’s former prime minister Mart Laar said he had only read one book on economics before taking office in his newly independent country in 1992: Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose. Laar chose to make Estonia the first European country to adopt the innovative, if controversial, flat-tax system, introducing a 26 per cent rate for both income and corporate tax (it is currently 22 per cent). Since then, several other emerging European nations – such as Latvia, Serbia, Georgia and Romania – have followed suit.
Economists still debate the superiority of flat tax versus progressive. Hardo Pajula, chief economist at the Nordic bank SEB, sees simplicity and transparency as the main virtues: one rate makes taxes easier to collect and control, and reduces hassle when completing tax returns. The most common protest against the system is the claim of unfairness. “Somehow, flat systems are deemed to be less fair than progressive ones,” says Pajula. “But as ‘fairness’ is a highly value-laden term, it is hard to argue against or for it.”
Even for fans of well-executed outdoor advertising, it’s clear that in some cities the visual overload on the streets needs attention. Just ask São Paulo’s mayor Gilberto Kassab. Last January he enacted a law to ban all outdoor advertising in the city. The Cidade Limpa or Clean City law, which prohibits billboards, advertising on trains and buses, posters and even flyers, is part of his war on what he calls “visual pollution” (São Paulo had an estimated 15,000 billboards). So far, public reaction has been positive. In a recent survey, 70 per cent said they approved of the ban. The advertising industry however is still fighting. Clear Channel Outdoor, one of the world’s largest outdoor advertising companies, was in the process of buying up the city’s billboards when the law was passed and is now suing to have it overturned on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.
Regardless, São Paulo’s rebirth – finally you can see the architecture – is inspiring other city leaders. Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires are considering similar measures. A ban was proposed in Auckland but the city council rejected it after protests from the outdoor advertising industry. As a magazine, we adore this idea.
One of the legacies of the alliance of Social Democrats and Greens in Germany from 1998 to 2005 is a law that requires power companies to allow independent energy producers – from small power plants to residential windmills and solar-powered homes – to transfer excess electricity to the national grid. The law also raised the price energy companies pay for this power from 10 cents to more than 50 cents per kilowatt hour. Rolf Disch, a pioneer in self-sufficient homes, says the law changed the economics of solar power overnight. His “solar village” in the new neighbourhood of Vauban is a model settlement. Owners of Disch’s solar-powered homes generate more electricity than they consume and receive hefty annual refunds from power companies. A cottage industry with potential.
In Tokyo, the city’s leader, Governor Ishihara, is planning to plant 500,000 new trees while, in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom is aiming to plant 5,000 every year. The greening of cities is set to be a major consideration in future urban design. There are obvious environmental benefits – cleaner air and a reduction of greenhouse gases – but also people just feel and behave better around plants and trees. It’s time for more radical steps, from making insulating “green roofs” compulsory on new builds (see Monocle issue 5) to coercing planners to incorporate urban landscaping into projects that benefit everyone. Building plots left untouched for years should be used as temporary public gardens. Let’s see a renaissance of the Victorian ideal of parks and public spaces for all.
Monocle thinks Zürich’s smart rubbish and recycling bins should be adopted worldwide. Each of the stainless-steel rubbish bins can hold the weekly waste from an average 60 homes but because two thirds of it stretches down to 3m below the pavement, the bin looks neat and unobtrusive. “The aim of the project is to fit the bins into the urban landscape. People like the containers because they look nice and don’t take up much space,” says Benjamin Wittwer, head of Zürich’s underground container project, which began in May 2005.
To date 70 containers dot the city and there should be around 200 when installation is complete in 2008. The bins are also safe: the underground compartment only opens once the lid is closed, allowing the rubbish to fall. Finnish company Molok makes similar bins from wood.
Genoa’s car-share scheme gets our vote for good urban planning. With a Unesco-protected centre and space limited, the city wants residents to rethink car ownership. Backed by public funds – the city owns a minority stake and Italy’s environment ministry footed the bill for the smart-card technology – the service offers 24-hour availability, use of bus lanes and preferential parking, and includes commercial vans for deliveries or outings to Ikea. The 60-car fleet runs on green fuel and 1,500 citizens are currently enrolled – well ahead of rival projects in Rome and Milan.
The Japanese government is doing its bit to preserve the country’s remarkable heritage of traditional arts, by conferring National Treasure status on its most highly prized buildings and works of art. It also hands out a similar honour to citizens: since the 1950s, the finest practitioners of Japan’s performing arts and crafts have been awarded the status of Important Intangible Cultural Property in recognition of their part in keeping the arts alive. Known informally as Living National Treasures (Ningen Kokuho), there were 106 at the last count, including the kabuki actor Sakata Tojuro IV and the potter Sakaida Kakiemon XIV.
National service doesn’t have to mean a six-month tour of duty in the back of an armoured personnel carrier in Afghanistan’s Helmand province or driving a forklift around a windblown airstrip in southern Iraq. For governments looking for new education programmes or more skilled labour, it can also mean an able-bodied force to tackle infrastructure shortfalls, man embassies and assist with overseas aid programmes.
With only a handful of European countries still boasting a conscription programme, others might consider launching initiatives that can re-introduce skills that modern education has allowed to slip from the curriculum (is there any harm in knowing how to build things with your own two hands, or how to dig a well?) and also instill a sense of national spirit where none exists. A nation’s brightest could spend time learning languages in a foreign outpost while processing passports quickly and efficiently; others could pick up new skills in everything from aircraft maintenance to waste management.
The threat of terrorism sees cities beset by “fortification creep”. Concrete bollards, crash barriers and other eyesores occupy public space around strategic buildings, making residents feel like they are living in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Monocle thinks city planners should consult with architects and come up with smart design that incorporates security. They could start with embassies, which should look more… well, diplomatic. One device they may find useful is the Tiger Trap. Covered in grass, it includes an unobtrusive perimeter wall and pressure-activated sensors that trigger the floor to give way in the event of, for instance, a car bomber hurtling over.