Thursday 22 June 2023 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Thursday. 22/6/2023

The Monocle Minute

Image: Julius Hirtzberger


On top of the world

The Monocle Quality of Life survey, which arrives on newsstands today in its 16th iteration, isn’t merely an exercise in number crunching. It does, however, involve plenty of that. The survey is an appraisal, both objective and subjective, of which cities have done particularly well over the past 12 months.

In common with all major crises, the pandemic threw society’s faults and follies into sharp relief: the housing, health and security sectors were put under serious pressure. North American metropolises, lacking the robust social safety nets of many of their counterparts in Europe and Asia, were more exposed to the vicissitudes of locking down and opening back up again. As a result of the effects that they have had on citizens’ quality of life, no North American cities feature in our ranking for the first time since the survey began.

As well as security metrics such as violent crime per capita and trust in the police, we found that the rising cost of living had a greater bearing on the survey than ever before. When deciding the top 20, we took into account the year-on-year increase in the average rent of a one-bedroom apartment, as well as the price of basics such as energy and a cappuccino. This is why Athens, Greece’s cheap, cheerful and, at times, chaotic capital made its debut in this year’s ranking. Other reasons include its exciting food and arts scenes, new infrastructure projects and intelligent attempts to ameliorate the effects of climate change.

It’s these qualitative and quantitative factors that have informed this survey – from Amsterdam’s clean-air strategy to Zürich’s free-school-meals initiative. When it came to a convergence of the two, Vienna (pictured) was the city that emerged on top. Pick up a copy of Monocle’s July/August issue to find out why.

Alexis Self is Monocle’s foreign editor. For the full rundown of our top 20 cities, pick up the latest issue of Monocle or subscribe today.

Image: David Payr

Urbanism / Bratislava

Finding a groove

Matus Vallo, Bratislava’s architect mayor, has been hard at work delivering a renaissance for the capital of Slovakia since 2018. Brandishing a manifesto for improving public spaces, restoring neglected buildings and renewing pride in a city with a turbulent past, Vallo – who is also the bass player and lyricist of popular Slovak band Para – has been a hit with voters. He was re-elected for a second four-year term in October 2022 with an increased majority. During his first term, he faced the challenges of coronavirus and an influx of refugees from the war in Ukraine but his manifesto helped him to stay the course.

He began a tree-planting drive, bought 149 new buses, persuaded Prague to share its attractive street-furniture designs, removed ugly outdoor advertising hoardings and created a city lighting company. Originally trained as an architect, he became fascinated with how physical spaces could transform people’s lives. “If you want real change,” he says during Monocle’s visit, “you need to run for office.”

For more on Bratislava’s ambitious rejuvenation, read our July/August issue and tune in to the latest episode of ‘The Urbanist’ on Monocle Radio at 20.00 London time.

Image: Benjamin Rasmussen

Architecture / Alabama

Setting foundations

Since its inception in 1993, Rural Studio, an off-campus architecture programme run by Alabama’s Auburn University, has helped to regenerate the long-neglected towns of the state’s suburbs while teaching students how to build from the ground up. Over the past 30 years, its students have delivered more than 200 projects aimed at enhancing the area’s civic infrastructure. Working in teams, they raise funds and source materials, providing their services to the community free of charge.

When the time comes to realise their designs, they rig up the electrics, install the plumbing and oversee the pouring of foundations. “No one comes here with construction experience,” says Adam Davis, who is hard at work on “Patriece’s Home” (pictured) when Monocle visits. “What we’re doing is teaching architecture and how to build buildings,” says Emily McGlohn, an associate professor at Rural Studio. “As a by-product, someone gets a house.” The programme might not have entirely reversed the outflow of people from Alabama’s smaller towns – but it is giving some of them a reason to stay.

To read the full report by our US editor, Christopher Lord, order a copy of our July/August issue today.

Image: Asuka Ito

Organic farming / Tokyo

Growth potential

In a corner of Tokyo’s densely populated Itabashi ward, organic crops and beehives are the last thing that you would expect to find. Yet it’s here that Hasune Farm – founded by Mayumi Kawaguchi and her partner, Yu Tominaga – grows more than 50 herbs and vegetables. Itabashi was once full of farms supplying produce to the city but the rural spot was transformed by rapid urbanisation after the Second World War.

When Kawaguchi’s father passed away, she had to decide what to do with her family’s fields. “One idea was to sell the farm and develop it,” she tells Monocle. “But we felt that land like this in the middle of Tokyo was very precious.” As well as supplying restaurants, the farm also sells fresh produce directly to customers through its culinary venture, Hasune Plant. “Urban farming has huge potential,” says Tominaga. “It adds so much to the local community and there’s no distance between us and our customers.”

To read more about the urban heroes making a meaningful impact on their communities, pick up Monocle’s July/August issue today.

Image: Ian Patterson

Business / Toronto

Market values

From shops and restaurants to bars and hotels, great neighbourhood businesses don’t just make our high streets livelier and more interesting – they also build a sense of connection and pride of place. A reliable grocery often functions as the cornerstone of a community. Family-owned Summerhill Market opened in Toronto’s leafy Rosedale in 1954 and has since expanded to four more locations while building a reputation for selling quality produce.

But it’s not just the branded meals, desserts, freshly baked bread and condiments prepared at Summerhill Market’s own commissary that make this venture thrive. Its success is also anchored on the intimacy of the service that it offers, a characteristic that is often more difficult to maintain at national, big-box supermarket chains.

For Monocle’s full report on the place-making businesses that enhance communities across the world – from a historic menswear outfitter in Madrid to an independent hardware shop in Hong Kong – pick up a copy of our July/August issue today.

Image: Iwan Baan

Monocle Radio / Monocle on Design

Maker’s mark

We meet Lina Ghotmeh, the architect behind this year’s pavilion (pictured) at London’s Serpentine Gallery, and visit a digital fabrication studio and research lab in Beirut. Plus: we catch up with Hanna Dís Whitehead in Iceland, a maker committed to working with local materials, wool and oat straw.

Monocle Films / Culture & Design

Design Tours: Vienna’s public housing

The world is urbanising fast. But how do you accommodate people in cities in a way that offers dignity, affordability and a sense of community? Vienna might have a solution. Explore the enduring legacy of the city’s Gemeindebau apartment blocks in the latest episode of our Design Tours series.


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