Saturday 18 February 2023 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 18/2/2023

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday

No quarter given

The seemingly innocuous ‘15-minute city’ concept has provoked a heated response among those who ordinarily might be cool on such matters. Andrew Tuck weighs in on the debate. Elsewhere, one commentator could be quids in if companies are taxed for keeping customers on hold and we ask whether the geeks have inherited the world of fashion. Plus: The Monocle Concierge surveys the current scene around Lake Lugano.

The Opener / Andrew Tuck

Drive on the right

How do you make a nice city to live in? It’s a simple question that has been central to Monocle since day one – it’s why we run an annual quality-of-life survey and why I get to host a weekly podcast called The Urbanist. Over the years we have looked at the value of green space, of creating neighbourhoods that are walkable and transport networks that move you around a metropolis with ease. But something strange is happening; a shift that threatens to get ugly if civic leaders are not careful: good urbanism is getting a reputation as something a bit too left-wing and middle class for some people’s liking.

This week, on Monocle 24’s The Briefing, I joined host Markus Hippi to talk about a story here in the UK involving a Conservative member of parliament, Nick Fletcher, who had said that the seemingly innocuous notion of the “15-minute city” would deprive people of their liberties and that it was an “international socialist concept”. There was much guffawing from his fellow MPs as he spoke but his view – one that has increasing traction – is that city planners are trying to curtail our personal freedoms by locking us into our neighbourhoods. Now, while some of this thinking borders on the bonkers, the way that these low-traffic, 15-minute zones are being created will diminish your “right” to drive a car. If all of the services that you need are a short walk or cycle from your front door then you might find that some people move around the city less and metropolises become more segregated. The big city lights dim.

The 15-minute city concept was honed by Carlos Moreno, a Colombian-French urbanist and professor at the Sorbonne, whose vision gained airtime during the pandemic. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and a member of the centre-left Socialist Party, adopted the idea in her re-election campaign in 2020. Does this make the 15-minute city an international socialist plot? Hardly but it’s not apolitical either. Why? The ideological meaning that is being attached to the car.

On the right, the car is being used as an emblem of freedom; a tool that allows you to move around your city, your nation, when you want. On the left, the car is now demonised as the ultimate example of planet-damaging individualism while the bicycle is revered as almost holy. And, at a city government level, this divide is shaping policies and the pace of change to a more sustainable future. And, yes, to be fair, politicians on the left will be more likely to support the notion of the 15-minute city – and with fewer caveats.

This week, I spent a fascinating afternoon cycling around Brussels with Pascal Smet, the region’s secretary of state for urbanism and heritage, and his spokesman, Damiaan de Jonge, for a story that I am plotting for Monocle. We cycled down highways transformed into pedestrian and bike boulevards; saw parks that were once car parks. I quizzed Smet about how this transformation had been delivered at some pace and how he had persuaded people to lose some of their car freedoms. He said that you must focus on the outcomes and prove to people that these changes are about quality of life for the majority. And riding around Brussels, it was clear to see that people were making the most of these changes.

So why could things get ugly? For starters, not everyone has Smet’s diplomacy; the skill to nudge people along. We live in a world of neighbourhood consultations that somehow always go the council’s way and preachy mayors whose methods alienate many citizens from the urban debate. There are people who feel ignored. In cities where the public transport is creaky (or a network’s staff regularly on strike), for example, a car can be vital. For many extended families or people working night shifts, a car is needed. Add on top of that punishing charges for driving a petrol-fuelled car (London) or imminent city centre bans for all but those wealthy enough to own an electric vehicle (Amsterdam) and you soon create the perfect environment for populist local politics and daft conspiracy theories.

If we want to get everyone on the low-emissions bus, it’s going to need a civic political class that can work with people’s concerns, avoid weaponising the arguments and understand that delivery will be shaky at times. Otherwise, urbanism will become seen as a pursuit that favours a left-leaning political elite – and much good work will unravel.

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The Look / Inconspicuous Wealth

Jobs in fashion

During the height of the normcore epidemic in 2013, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs became a style icon (writes Lauren Cochrane). While the polo-necked Jobs has been something of a unicorn for this look for more than a decade, other tech billionaires have now joined him on the fashion frontline.

During January’s autumn/winter menswear fashion shows, the influential Back Row newsletter declared “90s tech CEO” as the most common theme. It illustrated this by juxtaposing images of Zegna (pictured, bottom), Armani and JW Anderson models with photos of Jobs, Bill Gates (pictured, top) and Elon Musk in their gawky heydays: all wide-legged chinos, tucked-in polo shirts and goofy grins.

Image: Getty Images, Alamy
Image: Getty Images, Alamy

We all know what happened next. The geeks inherited the earth, leveraging their control of online information to make unimaginably large piles of cash. But one thing didn’t change: their unassuming style. Some have attributed this stubborn refusal to succumb to the sartorial trappings of immense wealth as evidence of their humility; others to a desire to remain inconspicuous.

Whether or not it is intended as a diversionary tactic, it has largely achieved the opposite effect. Most people know that the 21st-century tech CEO is more likely to be wearing a worn-out baseball cap and ragged jeans than a tailored suit. So the next time someone tells you that you look like a million dollars, you might want to buy some new trainers.

How We Live / Hold Tax

Costly wait

There are few more enraging statements (writes Andrew Mueller) than “your call is important to us”. Attempts have been made to quantify the hours lost to time spent on hold to banks, utility companies and other entities that regard their customers as an inconvenience. One 2016 study reckoned that Americans lost a cumulative 900 million hours on hold annually. In 2019 it was estimated that a given British citizen spends 14 weeks of their lives listening to Ed Sheeran songs while waiting for someone to pick up the damn phone.

Illustration: Mathieu De Muizon

Waiting on hold has become akin to the weather in that, while everybody complains about it, nobody does anything about it. The good news is that your correspondent has cracked it. The solution is this: companies should be charged for the time that they keep their customers waiting.

We can be reasonable about this. Nobody minds waiting five minutes or so but after that the meter should start ticking. The precise rate per minute can be decided by jurisdiction but it should be comfortably more than it would cost companies to hire sufficient staff to deal with demand. The revenue raised could be a valuable surcharge to corporation tax. And yes, I wrote this while on hold to my bank.

Monocle Concierge / Your Questions Answered

Across the pond

The Concierge was on Lake Lugano this week, pounding the watery beat in search of the best places to stay and things to do. If there are other destinations to which you would like us dispatched, click here – we will answer one question every week.

Dear Concierge,

I love renting the little motorboats on Lake Lugano. Are there any sites or restaurants on the lake that you would recommend?

Very best,
Richard Fox, Beverly Hills, California

Image: Andy Massaccesi

Dear Richard,

Congratulations on picking a great way to explore the area. Make a pitstop at the idyllic town of Porlezza; it has a population of just 5,000 but plenty of life along its waterfront centre. A walking path along the water’s edge leads to the Aria hotel, an elegant and exceedingly modern place to stay with a stylish spa. Consider a visit to the antique village of Castello, where you can see the frescoes of Paolo Pagani at the San Martino church.

The city of Lugano boasts Via Pessina, one of its great shopping streets, where gastronomic treats abound. Try the Grand Café Al Porto for refined pastries and snacks served under chandeliers, and the Gabbani gastronomy for cheese and other gourmet gifts. Stroll through the finely manicured waterside gardens of Ciani park and catch the area’s best contemporary art exhibits at LAC Lugano Arte e Cultura. Stop in at the jaw-dropping San Lorenzo cathedral and then take the funicular up to Monte San Salvatore – the Sugarloaf of Lugano. Buon Viaggio!

House News / Monocle’s St Moritz pop-up

Hit the slopes

Image: Basil Stücheli
Image: Basil Stücheli
Image: Basil Stücheli

Monocle’s new mountain pop-up shop is now open in the legendary Hotel Steffani in St Moritz. Inside you’ll find exclusive collaborations with brands we admire, from luggage to clothes and homeware, plus the latest issue of the magazine and a great selection of fine printed materials. Our Engadine outpost is welcoming visitors with takeaway coffee or hot chocolate until 26 March. See you there.
Hotel Steffani, 6 Via Traunter Plazzas, St Moritz

The Interrogator / Cheryl Chow

All in good time

After studying music production and engineering at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, Hong Kong-born singer-songwriter Cheryl Chow released an EP, Time Machine, in 2021 (writes Naomi Xu Elegant). Known by her musical moniker Cehryl, Chow is currently at work on a new album and will perform at Hong Kong’s Clockenflap festival in March. Here, she tells us about her obsession with Prince and the novel that she can’t stop reading.

Image: Jimi Chiu

Do you have a favourite weekend market?
I love perusing the Wan Chai market, aimlessly and hoarding small things that I don’t need, such as more socks or a new pot of basil.

Favourite bookshop?
I do love Kubrick in the Hong Kong neighbourhood of Jordan.

Any movie recommendations?
Aftersun. I could hear my heart break slowly and quietly after the movie. I just sat there. It’s beautiful and tragic.

A book that you keep returning to?
I’ve read Virginia Woolf’s The Waves over and over again. It’s about time passing, about what it means to be human and grow up and swim closer to certain people and things, and then farther as the waves stretch us apart from each other.

Who or what is your cultural obsession?
At the moment I’m obsessed with Prince. I have been reading about his creative process and his character, which I’ve found is inseparable from his creative process. My music sounds nothing like his but he’s a big inspiration to me.

What music do you listen to?
I love Stevie Wonder, Chet Baker, MF Doom, Bill Evans, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Caetano Veloso, Aphex Twin, Beach House, Aaliyah, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Mazzy Star. And there’s more, of course.

What do you listen to before drifting off?
Ambience from the Calm app.

Culture / Listen, Visit, Read

Salty and sweet

‘Newfound Oxygen’, Steady Holiday. Having shared the stage (and producers) with indie royalty such as Mitski and Beck, Steady Holiday – aka Dre Babinski – looks set to join in their ranks. This sophomore record sees the singer-songwriter deliver synth-inflected rock melodies that are both delicate and captivating. Her satin vocals evoke a sweet nostalgia and give this album a dreamlike patina. Single “The Balance” is an accomplished, soothing wonder.

‘B=f(P, E)’, Brigitte d’Annibale. Once you’ve finished doing the rounds at Frieze LA’s new venue at the Santa Monica Airport, head up the coast to Point Dume in Malibu to take a peek at artist Brigitte d’Annibale’s site-specific installation, B=f(P, E), which is taking over an abandoned construction site. Inspired by an equation by social psychologist Kurt Lewin, her multi-faceted, sculptural work explores the relationship between humans and the spaces they inhabit – and how they affect our behaviour and potential for connection.

‘Weasels in the Attic’, Hiroko Oyamada. Hiroko Oyamada’s surreal novella explores a series of unsettling occurrences shared by friends Saiki and an anonymous narrator. Each of the three vignettes shares a stylistic concern with sharp, sensory descriptions: the narration is suffused with the pungent aroma of salty miso paste, crispy dried shrimps and free-flowing saké. Beneath the surface lies a meditation on the psychological weight of infertility, complicated relationships and the complexities of contemporary Japanese life.

Retail Update / Toyota Century

Driving the market

Could the auto industry’s SUV obsession be about to intensify (asks Junichi Toyofuku)? Rumour has it that Toyota is launching an SUV version of its popular Century saloon (a speculative render is pictured). Since debuting in 1967, the ultimate chauffeur car has been adored by Japanese emperors, prime ministers and business leaders.

Image: Theo Throttle

The luxury SUV market has grown massively in recent years with car-makers such as Rolls-Royce, Porsche and Aston Martin racing onto the scene. Last year, Rolls-Royce sold a record-breaking 6,021 SUVs around the world – an 8 per cent year-on-year increase from 2021. Bentley’s rival Bentayga model, meanwhile, was responsible for 42 per cent of the British car-maker’s entire annual sales.

Only a rendering of the Century exists for now, alongside an estimated price tag of ¥15m (€105,000). Will it lure new customers who wouldn’t have bought a Toyota otherwise? Will it maintain the DNA of the saloon? We’ll have to wait for our test drive.

To receive the latest issue of Monocle, a special on the future of the car, subscribe today.


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