Tuesday. 12/1/2021

The Monocle Minute

Image: NEOM

Opinion / Josh Fehnert

Line in the sand

The pandemic has forced us to rethink our cities but it hasn’t dimmed Saudi Arabia’s ambition to experiment with making settlements from scratch – often plonked in inhospitable stretches of desert. Cue the Kingdom’s plans, announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this week, to build a zero-carbon city by the Red Sea in the country’s northwest.

Intended to cover a 170km strip of a 26,500 sq km, $500bn (€411bn) business zone named Neom, the mooted million-person settlement will be built by 2025. It is a step in the creation of the country’s Vision 2030 plan to wean the Arab nation off its dependence on crude oil, which was announced in 2016. Tempted to relocate yet? Me neither.

Challenging the wasteful way we build is creditable but it takes much more than homes, factories and transport to give such spaces a lasting appeal. At Monocle we’ve long argued that it’s the less-tangible aspects of quality of life (think art, culture and good food, as well as space for entrepreneurialism) that give cities their verve, vibrancy and identity. Attracting young talent will be the difference between Neom’s success or the creation of another dusty white elephant in the sands of the Arabian peninsula.

This isn’t Saudi’s first attempt to create newer, less oil-dependent settlements either. In 2015 plans for the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, or “cake”), north of Jeddah, was one of several projects slated to offer green growth and better places to live. Today, despite the abundance of slick marketing material, the city remains more rendering than reality; more a promise for the future than somewhere Saudis or investors are currently flocking. It’s a reminder that creating and nurturing sustainable cities takes more than money, materials and government mandates. Building from scratch is anything but a piece of cake.

Image: Getty Images

Business / Switzerland

Open minded

Many businesses around the world have complained of a lack of support in recent months but one Swiss group is taking it a step further. The #wirmachenauf (we are opening) movement has campaigned for restaurants and shops to defy an order to stay closed this week. The group says that many shops have nothing to lose – either they open now or close their doors for good – and the primary goal of the protest is to put pressure on the country’s government to increase support. Gastrosuisse, the country’s largest hotel and catering association, opposes defying the law and distanced itself from the movement but it has acknowledged the impossible situation in which the industry finds itself, noting that the Swiss hardship clause, which releases government funds, is one of the strictest in the developed world and very few restaurants have received enough money to survive. “If the federal government does not act now, the industry will face a third wave of layoffs,” says Casimir Platzer, president of Gastrosuisse.

Image: Getty Images

Health / India

Big shots

India this weekend begins vaccinating its population in one of the world’s biggest rollouts. Two vaccines have been approved for restricted emergency use by the country’s drug regulator: Covishield, developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca and manufactured by India’s Serum Institute; and Covaxin, a vaccine from Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech.

Phase-three trials have yet to be completed on the latter, prompting concerns from health experts, which are only compounded by a reported lack of transparency in the approval process. India, which before the pandemic manufactured more than 60 per cent of the global supply of vaccines, also plans to produce them for others: Bangladesh has signed an agreement to acquire 30 million doses of Covishield by autumn and Sri Lanka, South Africa and Nepal are seeking similar deals. The move is a clear response to China’s own vaccine diplomacy in the region but India should be careful not to let a hasty process damage its reputation as the world's pharmacy.

Image: PCA-STREAM

Urbanism / Paris

Garden centre

Paris’s most famous avenue is set for a dramatic transformation after mayor Anne Hidalgo announced a €250m revitalisation of the Champs-Élysées. Part of an ambitious city-wide greening project, tethered to its hosting of the 2024 Olympic Games, space for vehicles will be halved along a 1.9km stretch, with traffic lanes transformed into tree-lined pedestrian areas. It marks a return to the 19th-century design ethos of planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann that first invited café terraces, light and greenery onto Paris’s streets. The proposed changes were championed by the Comité Champs-Élysées, a non-profit group comprising community and business leaders. Dissatisfied with how traffic and mass retail had made the avenue noisy and bland, it began campaigning for its green redesign in 2018. This success should be a spur to anyone frustrated with the quality of their own civic spaces: sometimes banding together and lobbying city hall is all that’s needed to jolt them into action.

Image: Getty Images

Hospitality / Thailand

Come out swinging

Thailand’s tourism minister is hoping to lure foreign visitors back to the country with a modified quarantine solution that involves swinging golf clubs under the warmth of the South East Asian sun. Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn yesterday announced a proposal to allow international visitors to spend two weeks isolating in the country’s golf resorts in a bid to balance health concerns with giving the country’s struggling tourism industry a much-needed boost. It comes as Thailand is experiencing a second wave of coronavirus infections, with hundreds of new cases recorded every day this year – so expect a premium to be placed on ensuring that the project is carefully managed. But as isolated outdoor activity is said to have little impact on spreading the virus, it’s a canny way of enticing visitors back to the country – and the kind of practical solution that other tourist destinations might consider taking a swing at.

Image: Alex Ingram

M24 / Meet the Writers

Monocle Reads: Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin is a cultural and literary critic who has written for publications from the Financial Times to The Guardian. She speaks to Georgina Godwin about her book The Future of Seduction, which details the ever-changing world of sex, dating and relationships in the digital era. The book is one of five essays in the Futures series.

Monocle Films / Belgium

Urban growth: Solitair tree nursery

Cities are often seen as the flipside of nature: synthetic, sleek and sometimes impersonal. For places that pine after being greener, the Solitair tree nursery provides a blueprint. Monocle travels to Belgium to visit it and discover the value of investing in the future.

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