As I left the streets of Zurich after attending a conference about the quality of life in urban environments, I came across a living example of the lecture I had just attended. I turned the corner and felt that I was inside an architectural rendering: the trees were pruned and green, there were no hanging electrical wires, cyclists drove elegantly along bike lanes, the tram moved quietly and punctually while bathers enjoyed their summer in rivers and lakes. To my surprise, I walked under an overpass and realized that even urban cities could be skilled and safe. After my stroll, I stopped for a cup of coffee and knew that the person that attended me received a fair salary and did not have to work three jobs to pay the bills (of course the coffee did not come cheap). However, these small, almost mundane observations for some, do provide a well-being and quality of life that may be difficult to measure.
The Swiss city was chosen by Monocle Magazine to host this year’s edition of the Quality of Life Conference. The conference is held annually in different cities around the world to discuss what affects the quality of life in urban environments. The panels brought together economists, entrepreneurs, architects, journalists, designers, among others. But talking about ‘quality of life’ isn’t simple. In addition to security, green spaces, and infrastructure, there are many other variables that contribute to the final result – such as housing prices, opportunities for entrepreneurs, and cultural spaces. While many people live in adverse environments and consider their quality of life high, and vice versa, it was clear that urban environments have a determining factor on the happiness of its inhabitants. Along with ‘quality of life,’ the conference also discussed action against terrorism, the future of modern work, innovations in urban mobility, trends for retail, and tips for starting an art collection.
I attended the conference as a representative of ArchDaily, and despite living in a developed region of Brazil, the contrast in Zurich and my hometown were quite jarring. In Monocle Magazine’s annual ranking of the world’s best cities, Zurich is in fourth place behind Munich, Tokyo, and Vienna. Although it is almost irresponsible to compare the economic context – and the historical past – between Switzerland and Latin America, some issues lead me to believe that Brazil’s quality of life is far from adequate. And worse, we, as a country, are moving in the opposite direction. While we strive to highlight the importance of public transportation, the Swiss are committed to improving the quality of their (amazing) trams. While in Brazil there are laws seeking to lax agricultural pesticide control, a conference speaker highlighted a company focused on delivering healthy and quality food to Zurichoffices. While democracy here is often threatened, the Swiss vote dozens of times a year to determine different issues, such as working hours and other topics relevant to the country.
It is also interesting to note that the European country could also learn from Brazil. Minhocão, in São Paulo, was cited more than once during the conference, among other examples of urban transformation. In fact, it presents an interesting experiment: a fast-track elevated route, hostile to the pedestrian, that from one hour to another, becomes a place of intense conviviality, adopted and adored by Paulistas. Or even the renovation that enabled Sesc 24 de Maio to build a public swimming pool on its roof in the harsh urban landscape of São Paulo. This restoration of two old buildings created an urban landmark and meeting place in the city. Both examples demonstrate how it is possible to seek suitable solutions even without ample resources, and how urban creatures, from the simplest to the most elaborate, have the power to transform. In Switzerland, such niceties seem more the rule than the exception. As clichéd as it may seem, and as theorists Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl argue, when cities are thought of on the scale of people, they become more human, pleasant, friendly, and tend to create a higher quality of life. In a world where more than half of the population lives in cities, with this number increasing, this seems a rather pertinent debate.
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