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Our big cities often come across as daunting, sprawling megalopolises yet we are hardwired to carve out communities that operate on a more human scale. These enclaves can have the feel of a rural village – with all the familial bonhomie of the market place, corner shop, piazza or village common. The truth is that many modern-day urban villagers rarely leave their neighbourhood of choice, despite considering themselves deeply cosmopolitan. Their ’hood fosters a staunch sense of belonging.

It’s no coincidence that these urban villages feel authentic. Many of them really did start life as hamlets in the wilds but were swallowed up as cities expanded (London has many good examples). Most have fought hard to retain the character and community that make them such compelling places to live.

Here we profile three very different urban settlements: Hong Kong’s vibrant Tai Hang, tucked behind the high-rises of Causeway Bay; the storied (and once rather infamous) area of Monti near Rome’s Colosseum; and the breezy, tree-lined streets of Auckland’s Devonport.

Tai Hang

Hong Kong

“We know everyone here and would happily give our keys to neighbours and help each other with deliveries,” says Sammi Wong, owner of the Kanamono hardware shop in Tai Hang. It’s an urban village tucked away behind the high-rise office buildings, neon-lit shopping malls and crowded pedestrian crossings of Hong Kong’s retail mecca, Causeway Bay. “Rarely will you find a residential community in Hong Kong so secluded but accessible to the central business district,” he adds.

Tai Hang is a compact grid of lanes and alleyways lined with postwar buildings known as tong lau. People living in these six-storey low-rises soak up plenty of sunshine during quiet days, while a mixture of Hong Kong’s dai pai dong (food stalls), Japanese restaurants and artisanal ice-cream sellers pull in diners seeking a little evening calm.

The neighbourhood has kept its charm without straying into nostalgia, attracting small-business owners who buy into the residential atmosphere. “It’s an area for unwinding rather than flaunting,” says Dick Fai, who founded post-production studio Seesaw in 2012 and chose to live just around the corner.

The original Tai Hang villagers were Hakka Chinese migrants from the mainland. “The clan-like sense of belonging and the close-knit community was born in the 1930s,” says Chan Tak-fai, a resident who has witnessed the area’s urbanisation. When Chan was born the village bordered the harbour. Now a boys’ school, a recreation club, a library and Hong Kong’s most famous park sit next door on land reclaimed from the sea.

During the mid-autumn festival, when rows of red lanterns illuminate the area, villagers wind through the narrow lanes holding aloft a handcrafted grass dragon that carries hundreds of smouldering incense sticks on its back. The century-old tradition bonds new and old residents together. “We send out invitations to new ‘Tai Hangers’ to become part of the dragon crew,” says Chan, who conducts the famous fire-dragon dance.

A permanent museum about the fire dance is set to open in 2019, although on the flipside a popular congee bistro is closing after 32 years due to rising rent. Still, the area continues to fire up a new generation of residents. “Cultural practices and traditions preserve a community’s identity in a big city,” says Lee Ho-yin, director of the Architectural Conservation Programmes at the University of Hong Kong. “People living in the neighbourhood is the best way to preserve it.”

The insider’s view:

City secrets

Who:Clare Dowdy, architecture and design journalist, on what makes a perfect urban village.

I live in a village. I know it’s a village because around the green there are a couple of pubs, a library, butcher, baker, fishmonger and grocer. The green hosts a summer fete and once a year we “beat the bounds”, which involves tramping around the village’s boundary, banging the ground with sticks. This rural idyll is like something from a bygone era; hardly the model that comes to mind in the 21st century.

But my village of Nunhead is not down some potholed country lane but in London’s Zone 2. It is a healthy example of that worldwide phenomenon: the relatively self-contained neighbourhood within a large metropolis. A key ingredient for a successful urban village is a mix of a born-and-bred population with a hefty dose of newcomers. Between them these residents support not only the long-standing traditional shops and services but also the new ventures, such as a fancy deli or a micropub.

What’s more, Nunhead has benefitted from London mayor Boris Johnson’s largesse: as part of an effort to improve the lot of the capital’s “villages”, the businesses around the green have been given a facelift; the green now sports a children’s play area and a smart new community centre; and money has been made available for community events.

Nunhead’s village status is in part thanks to its distance from the capital’s throbbing heart: it’s 10.5km from my house to the centre of London. That means it’s a bit of an effort to go into town for a night out, which benefits the area’s pubs and restaurants.

The Ivy House pub oozes village camaraderie. It stands on a street whose only other attraction is some allotments; people often pop in wearing wellies and holding cabbages. Just four years ago it was failing and forced to close but has since become London’s first co-operatively owned pub. Likewise, Nunhead train station was threatened with closure as so few villagers commuted or indeed went anywhere. But with the arrival of young professionals, the platforms are bursting at the seams.

But all this village joie de vivre comes with a health warning. As house prices continue to rise, newly attractive neighbourhoods such as Nunhead will become home to more incomers. And then? The risk that the very charms that made them so appealing will be lost.

Monti

Rome

With its ivy-laden ochre buildings and narrow alleys wide enough to allow Fiat and Piaggio Ape to splutter along them, the neighbourhood of Monti is just a short, steep staircase away from Rome’s roaring Via Cavour. With the Colosseum only 10 minutes on foot, Monti is a quiet inner-city pocket with a strong identity.

“You don’t just pass through Monti, you enter,’ it,” says Paolo Bellino. The journalist has just bumped into friend Renato Gargiulo; a roadside catch-up is in order. “When people from abroad come here, they’re amazed at the atmosphere,” says Gargiulo. “People say hello to each other, old ladies lean from the windows for a chat.”

Just 30 years ago this was an impoverished area where humble craftsmen shared streets with prostitutes and loan sharks. Yet as lively bars, clothing boutiques and bakeries have poured in over the past decade, Monti has become the Romans’ favourite spot for aperitivo or a sun-soaked sit down in the piazzetta: the square that, like in any good village, is at the heart of all activity here.

Some old-school Monticiani may have grumbled from inside their workshops when organic restaurants started popping up but the staunchly independent nature of shops old and new (apart from a somewhat incongruous branch of American Apparel) has kept Monti faithful to its village feel. Mario Miccinilli sells shoe polish and brushes in the shop his father opened in 1952; 83-year-old barber Adriano Santoloci’s impeccable haircuts still cost just €15; and brothers-in-law Carlo Polica and Gianfranco Martelli dispense pecorino and lard from a grocery last renovated in the 1970s. Old friends come to Tonino Parisi’s garage, reach for a chair and while away the afternoon on his doorstep. “This isn’t really a workshop: it’s a living room for motorcyclists. It looks like I’ve adopted them all,” he says.

A new wave of artisans are carrying on Monti’s crafts heritage. Via Urbana alone is now home to a popular watchmaker, a bike repair shop and self-taught woodworkers (and brothers) Edoardo and Francesco Giusti. “The veteran artisans are a big help: whenever we need advice or need to borrow tools, they’re here,” says Edoardo from the showroom-cum-workshop where the brothers design furniture and interiors.

Young architects, journalists and film directors may have moved into Monti’s apartments but at the dark-wood counters of wineries there’s space for long-time shopkeepers and young aspiring screenwriters to raise a glass of ruby red. “Monti has maintained its identity and has resisted selling out,” says Edoardo. “The Monticiani care too much – they don’t want to squeeze their area. In fact, they guard it with care.”

Devonport

Auckland

“Sometimes you have to pinch yourself,” says architect Geoff Richards, who can walk from his home in a renovated working man’s cottage in the seaside suburb of Devonport to his studio in a converted billiards hall just off the main street in seven minutes.

Richards has lived here for 30 years – he jokes that he wound up here because it was the only place he could afford back when it was deeply unfashionable and filled with old people sitting on their verandas. These days Devonport’s pretty streets of tightly packed wooden Victorian houses are highly desirable and can easily reach NZ$3m (€1.8m) for anything with a view – but that tight-knit feel remains. “People feel very strongly about living here,” says Richards. “They know what their favourite beach is and in what wind.”

Developed in the 19th century, Devonport is one of Auckland’s oldest urban villages and was originally rather well to do: doctors and lawyers built elegant wooden houses along the seafront. Though it’s 14km by road to the city centre, it’s always had a strong connection to downtown Auckland thanks to a regular 15-minute ferry ride. After the construction of the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1959, Devonport was abandoned by the middle classes and the place developed a feisty working-class character, which still remains despite its return to fashionability.

It’s a pretty place, with two extinct volcanoes rising above winding streets and sheltered beaches. Its main drag, Victoria Road, leads away from the ferry terminal, past the grand Esplanade Hotel and the Devonport Library, the latter a beautiful contemporary building that sits in a grove of pohutukawa trees on the waterfront.

The area’s village feel is supported by its independent businesses. Drop by Devo on a quiet backstreet for a perfect espresso served from a hatch window or Corelli’s for classic home baking. There are a couple of pubs, multiple childrenswear shops and The Vic, a 1930s cinema that was saved by the community and now shows art-house films. There’s also one of the city’s best second-hand bookshops, Bookmark.

“I love being close to the city,” says creative consultant Madeleine Richards. “But I also love the feeling of being miles away from it.” Richards works from home; she and her artist husband Aaron Cole-King live with their two children in a townhouse just back from the harbour. “It can be a really inspiring place,” she says. “You’re connected to nature and the elements.”

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