Published on October 2, 2015

Cities aren’t all crowds and hustle. Often, critical mass leads to ideas, actions and workarounds that make city living memorable, mesmerising or just plain heart melting.

Urban swimming scene

For both volume and vibe, it’s hard to compete with Sydney’s beaches and ocean pools. However, it appears that artists and architects don’t need a harbour view to create memorable water-bound experiences; at least, if this new project in London’s Kings Cross is anything to go by.

“Of Soil and Water” is a manmade bathing pond that serves an art installation you can swim in. With naturally filtered water, the 40m, chemical-free pond encourages swimmers (who book tickets – because numbers are limited to protect the natural ecological balance) to consider their swim much akin to visiting a contemporary art gallery – it’s experiential art.

Across the English Channel, Paris is also not short of memorable urban swimming spots. The architect designed (publicly owned) Piscine Josephine Baker is a 25m-long pool floating in the Seine. A spot to see and be seen, the queues in summer prove how keen locals are for a dip. So keen, in fact, they’ll even go to a beach without swimming options: at the “Paris Plages” project, sand is bumped in by the city to create an urban beach experience by the Seine.

When it comes to urban swimming, it’s going to be hard to compete with the (approved) plans for a residential redevelopment near London’s Battersea Power Station. By 2018, the 25m Sky Pool will hang suspended between two apartment blocks, ten storeys up.

Seriously smart roads

As urban dwellers, we’re often told new roads are here to help us, but in this case it may actually be true. This road – well, to be fair, it’s a cycle path, in the cyclist’s utopia of The Netherlands, is actually a solar panelled pathway. Known as the SolaRoad, the 70m stretch embeds solar panels between glass, silicon rubber and concrete. After 150,000 cyclists used the SolaRoad in a trial period, the project will be extended to other areas across the country – and not just for purely practical purposes. A recent project, created by Netherland’s based artist and innovator Daan Rossegarde, used solar power captured by day to power a Vincent Van Gogh-inspired art exhibition by night, guiding cyclists along an LED-lit path. Part of the artist’s “Smart Highway” project, the exhibition is just one example of how the roads of the future could actually be beautiful and practical.

It’s not just the ever-pragmatic Dutch who think so. American electrical engineer Scott Brusaw had the internet in a flurry with a crowd funding campaign for his Solar Roadways concept. The viral video accompanying it was both widely admired and much-maligned, but it worked: Brusaw raised $2.2 million for the project, and is now working with various universities and organisations in the US on solar solutions which include a solar parking lot.

Architecture for the everyman

Wouldn’t it be a shame if the layperson’s experience of great design were limited to airports, public buildings or the private homes of the rich and famous? Philosopher Alain de Botton thinks so: he’s teamed up with a group of some of the UK’s top architects to create properties where guests take a holiday in modern architecture.

A peek at the project’s churchlike ‘House for Essex’ shows just how good design can captivate: the property is so popular that potential guests have enter a ballot to stay. Londoners keen on a ‘living architecture’ staycation are in the same boat: the tiny but perfect “A Room for London” perched high above London’s Southbank is assigned by lottery. No wonder: with Big Ben out one window, St Pauls out the other, and the Thames only metres below, the design has a lot to compete with.

Urban chill zones

When they can’t escape to the country for a spot of relaxation, what’s an urban dweller to do? Rent a rest pad for an hour or two, of course. While the co-working movement has well and truly taken off worldwide, we’re also hoping to see the expansion of this concept, promoted by the company Breather.

Currently only found in North American cities, rooms owned by Breather allow harried commuters, tourists or students to rent a rest pad by the hour or the day. Billed as a space to work, meet or relax, there’s apparently no funny business going on inside: according to this interview in the New Yorker, Breather sites don’t allow porn, prostitution or pets.

Of course, offering spots for city folk and commuters to chill isn’t a unique idea in itself. Sleep pods have trended in airports for years now (check out the latest versions at Abu Dhabi international); they’re also catching on in spaces like university libraries.

Naturally, a nana nap doesn’t have to be high tech: in Paris’s Les Berge precinct by the Seine, the Zzz pods are essentially open shipping containers boasting a small garden. Zzz pods are available for free (bookings essential) to harried residents and tourists keen on relaxing, playing cards or yes, napping.

People paying it forward

Even if we’re not rested, it seems the world’s urban dwellers still have a heart. Today’s pay it forward movement is alive and kicking, most prominently in the suspended coffee movement. While the tradition of paying for an ‘extra’ coffee at your local cafe (it’s later given to a homeless person) burst into the public’s awareness around the 2008 global financial crisis, it’s actually an old tradition which started in Naples. While the hype has died down a little since the original media flurry around the practice, Facebook groups like this one from Sydney keep keen coffee donors abreast of local cafes offering the program.

But kindness doesn’t need to be limited to coffee, or even to the homeless. Australia’s Wake Up Project has had huge success with its Kindness Cards, giving out over 250,000 of them since the project began. These free cards formalise the pay it forward idea: whether you pay for the groceries of the person behind you in the supermarket queue or leave flowers on a neighbour’s doorstep, simply leave a card too asking them to do an anonymous act of kindness for someone else in return. Cards are available here.


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