August 8, 2014 5:46 pm

The Fast Lane: In the heat of the city

Imagine a sparkling Thames or East River with floating swimming platforms. Why not?

This week’s column is dedicated to all those readers who have returned home from a delightful holiday, only to find themselves trapped in a city that’s not fit for warm weather. Many urban environments somehow don’t connect with the concept of indulging in the delights of summer. After a holiday by the sea, where the breezes whip across terraces and life is lived on a bicycle in a small town, it’s difficult to sit in an office that is either too cold or suffers from a lack of air flow and offers little in the way of terrace space to enjoy lunch under sunny skies.

For those people left holding the fort, it seems inhuman that many of the elements are there for a holiday in the city but somehow a few essential basics have been neglected. Cities, for example, that don’t open up their lakes and waterfronts to swimmers; that shut down their pavements to drinkers and diners before midnight; or that have bizarre laws that forbid windows from opening properly.

In late June, Monocle magazine released its annual quality-of-life ranking of the world’s most liveable cities. It’s little surprise that many of the cities that score highest are those that do an excellent job of keeping things cool and comfortable for residents and visitors alike.

Copenhagen, at number one, has done an outstanding job of cleaning up its harbour and it’s possible to strip off and dive into the sea in and around the city centre; to linger on the street late into the evening and to pull open the windows in modern, well designed offices.

In Zürich (seventh), the city’s liberal licensing laws (it’s far easier to drink way into the late hours in Switzerland’s biggest city than in London) and bathing club culture make it one of the best places in the world to work for a leading bank and be able to grab a towel in your lunch hour and wander down to the lake or river for a midday dip.

And in Stockholm (fourth), where I am writing this column, shady boulevards and bathing facilities around the harbour make it easy to go for an early morning splash or late evening swim in the unseasonably high temperatures.

As working habits shift, a globalised workplace demands different holiday planning (see my column from two weeks ago) and cities also need to be better at retaining summer tourist traffic. Smart mayors and urban planners who have inherited cities that lack green space or swimmable reservoirs or seafronts and have ridiculous restrictions governing food and beverage operations should set to work on making their cities places that people want to flock to, rather than flee from.

While Stockholm, Copenhagen and Zürich get many things right, there’s also plenty to learn. These are a few pointers for cities to make the most of their warmer months:

1. Helmet-free cycling: Nothing beats riding along a well-maintained bike lane or, better yet, a crunchy, well-groomed gravel trail on a good bike with the wind blowing through your hair on a balmy summer’s evening. Getting the first bit right means riders should have the choice to don helmets or not.

2. Air superiority: Developers should construct balconies that can be used for entertaining and soaking up the sun and not just hanging out laundry. Local governments should offer greenery grants to residents to encourage more foliage to spill over railings.

3. Create shade: This column has frequently argued that there’s a global war against trees and that cities aren’t doing enough to add greenery and shade to their streets. Rather than simply stipulating that new projects “add trees” – so allowing developers to plant saplings that will take a century to mature – there should be proper guidelines to ensure that adult oaks and maples are planted, not just wispy baby trees that stand little chance of survival in many cities.

4. Sunny swimming spots: Imagine a sparkling Thames or East River with floating swimming platforms along the banks. Why not? Great cities know the value of letting people cool down naturally and the attraction of good bathing facilities. Many Swiss cities get it right by leasing out public space to private operators. The Italians also know how to run a clean and well-stocked bathing facility. Chicago, Toronto, Montreal and other cities could rethink their waterfronts to create desirable (and potentially profitable) places to cool down.

5. Let the music play: In cities with cold winters it might be an idea to let the evenings run a little longer in summer, with fewer restrictions on large gatherings and street life. Penning people in behind ropes is not terribly nice to look at and, if 320 days of the year are blustery and chilly, a bit of buzz at street level is good for social capital.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

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