Where is the best place in the world to live? That’s the question Monocle has been answering for 15 years. Every year, it ranks the most liveable cities, with Copenhagen and Zurich often topping the list. The magazine’s team also organises conferences and, most importantly, reports on the stories that are changing architecture and city planning for the better. The magazine’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Tuck, was a moderator at the Summit of European Cities and shared with CAMP what he believes is important in a city, what advice he would give to the mayor of Prague (and others), and how the covid and energy crises might stand us in better stead.
What can cities learn from recent crises such as the covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, inflation, and the energy crisis? How will they change?
I hope they will be different in many ways. There were actually some plus sides to covid, in that we recognised the importance of physical and mental health, and that we need greenery and fresh air. This relates, for example, to the issue of adding balconies to old residential buildings, which we wrote about in Monocle. People’s lives change completely when they have the opportunity to go outside. During the pandemic, we came to understand the significance of our home environment and the impact it has on our health. We learnt that we need to build our homes differently.
Are there any upsides to the current energy crisis?
It is going to get more complicated and challenging. But I hope it will force people to make changes faster. In the UK, for example, poor insulation is an issue. A lot of homes leak heat and are not pleasant to live in. It is difficult to find the positives in a crisis. Many people have died as a result of covid, and perhaps many will die due to the energy crisis. But we have an opportunity to use it as an impetus for change so that cities can be improved to make them more energy efficient. When faced with difficulties, people realise that they share a common goal and come together. I would say that’s a positive thing.
You have published a guide to building cities better under the Monocle umbrella. In it, you outline the successful changes that have been made in various metropolises around the world. City planners in Zurich, for example, are focusing on waterfront redevelopment, and Tokyo is working on making the city more walkable. Why are improvements more tangible in some places than others?
Cities have varying social rules. Those in the Nordic countries, for example, tend to have a social democratic mindset, so it is very easy for them to provide services to their residents. They are also smaller when compared to, say, New York or Los Angeles. And on top of that, they’re rich. So we shouldn’t use them as a universal benchmark. We can take inspiration from them, but we can’t be like them in everything.
So do you think that when cities are trying to become more liveable, the biggest obstacle is money?
A lot of things that make cities better do seem expensive – infrastructure, for example. But when you walk around a city, you find that it’s the little things that make life more pleasant. Plenty of seating, outdoor benches, tables, and bowls for dogs to drink from; these are small acts of human kindness, but they make a big difference. We shouldn’t feel helpless when we’re on the streets. If you look at the models of many cities, you see the visions of individual personalities. A single person can accomplish a great deal. You don’t always have to wait for the city assembly to pass new measures. But if you want to come up with a big change, it should be incremental. And it is crucial to engage with the people that live there and give them a say.
In one interview, you said that a mayor can have a much greater influence than the prime minister or the president on the lives of residents. We are having this conversation during the Summit of European Cities – is there any advice you would like to pass on to European mayors?
All the mayors at this conference are rolling out measures that are really practical. Prime ministers can be thrown out of office if the economy collapses or the currency becomes volatile. But mayors oversee tangible matters: is the education system functioning? Is our waste being disposed of? I would imagine that this is advice they are familiar with. They should focus on essential services, be open to discussion, and shape cities that work for everyone who lives there. You don’t want to create a fast-paced city that only suits one section of society.
At Monocle, you are opening up discussions on numerous fundamental issues. Is this proving successful even though you don't have social media, which is a primary source of information and engagement for most of society today?
We took a specific decision regarding social media. We didn’t say we would never move into that space. But we want to ignite a discourse that is not based on people shouting at each other. We don’t think we can convey our values in a limited number of characters. Monocle, by its very nature, requires a commitment of your time. You need to sit down and read it. Our radio station gives people more space to tell their stories than they would get in a traditional news medium. We try to slow the conversation down and listen carefully to what our audience is saying.
How do you connect with an audience that can’t afford the luxury of a printed magazine?
That’s precisely why we have a free radio station. It may not seem like it, but even without social media, we offer a lot of content for free, maybe too much. Besides our all-day radio, we also publish a high-quality newsletter every week, run the top three articles from each issue of the magazine on our website, and host a series of events. Some are more expensive, others you can attend for 15 to 20 euros. The magazine does cost more, sure, but this allows us to deliver quality reporting. Take Ukraine, for example. We sent a team of two correspondents and a photographer there. They travelled around the country for two weeks, and we had to make sure they were safe. The only way we can fund this is with profits from the sale of the magazine. It’s all about balance – about how we can engage as many people as possible and at the same time be able to give our staff fair compensation and, when the situation requires, even send them abroad.
Do you see Monocle as a platform for the exchange of views on urban reform in the future?
We produce a weekly podcast, The Urbanist, where we have covered topics such as accessibility for people with disabilities or for the blind. That’s quite a challenging topic. We want to show a wider audience that, yes, cities can be designed differently. We’ve also written about what cities would look like if they were more child-friendly, why there aren’t many women at the helm of city planning institutions, and how cities should handle the implications of the Black Lives Matter movement. These are all issues that need to be included in the debate. And then there’s the Quality of Life Conference, an annual event we organise to explore the future of cities.
How do you envision a liveable city?
We should want cities to provide us with the basics – ease of navigation, walkability between districts and the option of travelling by bike or metro. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have cars. What is most important is movement. And not just in a physical sense, but also socially. Cities should offer a wealth of options. We move here to make our dreams come true, to live a better life, to educate ourselves, to work. We want to meet new people and have access to sports or culture. So the cities that are trouble-free are the ones where you can find a mix of interesting activities that allow you to take part and are not too expensive.
What makes you, personally, happy in a city?
It’s the special things. I want to feel utter bliss there. Sometimes you don’t get that even in the best-planned cities, which can be cold and uninviting. I like it when a city has that ability to surprise. When I turn a corner and find something I wasn’t expecting, like some great art in a public space. In our Quality of Life Survey, we promote the idea that cities should function around the clock and take care of their residents.
You mentioned movement, how do you yourself get around a city?
For me, it varies. I cycle a lot, and I have a dog, so I also walk, or I might use the underground. When I drive, it tends to be outside the city. Most of the time, I can’t imagine getting around without my bike because that’s often the quickest option nowadays.
When you’re planning a journey, it’s nice to have options. Some people can’t ride a bike because of their age, physical condition or where they live, for example. Everyone would like cities with fewer cars and great public transportation. But sometimes, mayors impose unnecessarily strict measures on motorists, and this can cause complications. For example, if a labourer needs to get to work at night and it’s not easy for him to get around without a car, he’s not going to want to cycle across town. We should be more forgiving and open to the needs of different people.
Andrew Tuck has been the editor-in-chief of the global lifestyle magazine Monocle since its inception in 2007. The magazine conducts an annual Quality of Life Survey to determine which cities are most committed to the lives of their residents. Monocle also hosts conferences that bring together city planners, architects and other experts to discuss how urban life can be improved. Andrew Tuck is the editor of The Monocle Book Collection series and hosts The Urbanist podcast. He lives in London.
Tuck partnered with CAMP to moderate the Summit of European Cities, organised as part of the Czech Presidency of the Commission of the European Union. It brought city mayors together to address the future of Ukraine and discuss city life.
Watch footage from the second day of the summit of European cities, where Andrew Tuck gave a presentation on Monocle and the magazine’s approach to city planning: