How do you judge a city? When you arrive fresh in a place that you’ve never visited before, what signs reveal to you whether this is a safe or edgy place to be, a place that people cherish or despise? Would you look at the robust grilles on the windows of the houses and think this is a city where you need to be cautious? Would you look at the litter on the pavements and wonder if people feel proud of their home town? Would you scan the unsmiling faces and think, eek, you should get out of here?
Perhaps one of the quickest and most reliable ways of judging a city is to look at how people lock their bikes. The chunkier the lock, the more likely it is that you are in a place where people don’t trust each other – and for a good reason.
Last week we were in Tokyo for the launch of the new Monocle bureau and shop. Just a couple of doors down I noticed a beautiful black bicycle perched on its stand outside a small office. It was unlocked. I kept seeing it there over the coming days – and nights, even – and never once was it chained up. Even when bike locks do get used in Tokyo they seem to be about as insubstantial as a piece of string. People trust each other so why would they drag around a heavy metal U-lock?
A few days later we were in Taipei in a cosy neighbourhood centred on Fujin Street. Here the owners of shops had put plant pots on the pavement, greening the concrete. The pots were not bolted to the ground because people clearly trusted their neighbours and knew that come morning their plants would still be there and thriving. But if you were in London you’d know that plants might soon vanish or that their pots could get kicked and smashed by some drunken oaf. And so you’d most likely concrete them into position or secure them with a fierce chain. Trust levels are just lower.
It’s funny how these seemingly small things: the unlocked bike, the plant pot on the street, help you evaluate and decipher a city. They let you know that you’ll be safe here – or not. You can wander and explore without fear of being robbed – or not. It’s a bike-lock index of wellbeing and urban cohesion. Perhaps we’ll add it as a metric to the Monocle Quality of Life index next summer.
Andrew Tuck is editor of Monocle.