On the up - Issue 165 - Magazine | Monocle

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Some 34 years since the fall of communism, Warsaw is a thriving European capital with an increasingly international population. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the city welcomed 300,000 Ukrainian refugees with open arms, boosting Warsaw’s population by about 17 per cent. It is something of a domestic political haven too: while the country is governed by the socially conservative Law and Justice party, the city has a liberal mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski.

Beyond the concrete-heavy centre, Warsaw has lots of green space and neighbourhoods such as Mokotow, Zoliborz and Saska Kepa draw young families with their leafy streets and sought-after pre-war apartments (much of the city was destroyed during the Second World War). Once the weather warms, the embankment along the Vistula, which splits the city, comes alive with joggers, cyclists and people making the most of the outdoor seating. Between the hearty Georgian bakeries, the endless vegetarian options and the traditional Polish fare, the city’s food scene is increasingly diverse too. Decent coffee is no longer hard to find either.

However, problems do remain, including air pollution, with Warsaw recording some of the worst for a capital city in Europe. Plans announced by Trzaskowski this year will ban old petrol and diesel cars from the city centre from July 2024. And while life in Warsaw has continued much as usual despite the war in neighbouring Ukraine, inflation in Poland has surged, reaching more than 18 per cent in early 2023. Housing has become more expensive and, exacerbated by the influx of refugees, hard to find. But you won’t catch many Poles complaining about this: support for the Ukrainian struggle is one of the few things that unites people in this increasingly polarised country.



Kuala Lumpur

For years, the Malaysian capital has quietly been one of Southeast Asia’s most pleasant places to live, with high living standards and a less hectic street life than some of its regional counterparts. Affordable retail rents have allowed independent shops and creative spaces to flourish, including APW, an old printing-press site converted into a semi-outdoor complex to comprise wine bars, coffee shops and fashion labels, and the Zhongshan Building, a former commercial block that now houses artist studios, booksellers, bakeries and stationery shops. Cultural events such as the KL Art Book Fair, launched in 2021, are giving residents more to explore and drawing regional artists and publishers to the city.

Kuala Lumpur has always had an outsized culinary influence but the restaurant and bar scene is booming, with new openings led by young Malaysian chefs and mixologists, from envelope-pushing fine-dining restaurant Eat and Cook to experimental bistro Small Shifting Space and cocktail bar Sanctuary 38. Though Kuala Lumpur is not widely known for its natural attractions, the city is one of Asia’s greenest. The verdant Perdana Botanical Garden is a tranquil green lung right in the centre with jogging and cycling paths, a large lake and a rich living collection of tropical flora. More adventurous trekkers can easily explore the many slivers of rainforested greenery that dot downtown.

Traffic is an ongoing issue in this sprawling metropolis, however, and recent improvements in public transport have not proved sufficient to wean residents off their cars. Train delays and a lack of last-mile connectivity at stations have hindered the effectiveness of commuter rail lines. Solving these issues would mean more passengers and less traffic and pollution. A long-anticipated high-speed rail that was set to link Kuala Lumpur and Singapore was terminated in 2021 after a long impasse; reviving this project would be a coup for the current government and a huge quality-of-life boost for the city’s residents.



With its streets fringed with colonial-era, pastel-hued buildings and haciendas built during the boom of the henequen industry, Mérida has one of the prettiest historic centres in Mexico. While the beauty is one of the more obvious reasons creatives have been lured here, the city’s affordability is also part of its attraction. When renowned curator and gallerist José García relocated to Mérida from Mexico City in 2016, he was able to buy a gallery space rather than rent. “It’s easy to be creative because it’s more affordable,” says García, who now owns five businesses across the city, including Salón Gallos, an exhibition space that also comprises a restaurant, cinema and bar.

More affordable housing and studio spaces have been a major draw for artists and creatives from elsewhere in Mexico, as well as the US and beyond, inviting a wave of new businesses, including China Arts Objects, a gallery that was previously based in Los Angeles.

The population growth in Mérida has been steady, with an increase of 19.08 per cent between 2010 and 2020, yet it still doesn’t feel like a sprawling metropolis. “Even though it has the commodities of a city, you still feel like you’re in a small town,” says García. The downside of this is that business can be sluggish. “It’s not as profitable as Mexico City and it takes longer to do good business,” says García. However, considering it’s also one of the safest cities in the country, with easy access to nearby beaches, for many, the slow growth is certainly worth it. 



In Morocco, there is a friendly rivalry between those who reside in the industrial hub of Casablanca and those who call the capital Rabat home. Speak to inhabitants of the former and they might tell you that the latter is too pristine, shiny and lacking in soul. 

This is true to some degree – and in keeping with what you might expect from the city dubbed “the Washington of North Africa”. But it’s also a key part of what attracts people to this coastal metropolis. Morocco’s bureaucratic centre and “royal city” is remarkably clean, immaculately well kept and, according to the 2023 edition of Numbeo’s global safety index, the safest city in Africa. From its tidy tree-lined streets and neat residential enclaves to the good conditions of its roads (particularly when compared to neighbouring cities), Rabat is a place that always feels looked after, wherever you venture. Framed by the Atlantic to the west and the lush rolling scenery of surrounding fields, you don’t have to travel too far to find natural beauty either. 

Those seeking a little more in terms of culture might instead gravitate towards Tangier, Marrakech or the aforementioned Casablanca. Locals, however, would point to a growing number of restaurants that are helping to reinforce Rabat’s culinary offering. As the city emerges as a regional business hub, more hotels and smoother airport experiences would be welcome as international visitors begin arriving in greater numbers.



It might seem odd to describe Dubai as a city to watch, when many feel that it has most definitely already arrived, particularly coming into its own during the pandemic. The success of its balanced approach with regards to public health, enabling trade and commerce while preparing for the recovery, can be seen in the swift return of millions of tourists. Plenty of people, those from the Russian-speaking world included, have also chosen to make Dubai home in the past two years, drawn to the emirate by its high levels of safety, access to quality health care, education and the vibrant lifestyle it offers. 

Of course, the flipside to any population spike is the upward pressure it puts on prices, particularly housing costs. Dubai’s growth has also triggered an inevitable increase in grumbling about traffic that affects everyone living in the city, regardless of wealth or status. While congestion on the roads seems to be a common problem for many cities around the region, Dubai is tackling the issue in typically dazzling fashion. From testing autonomous vehicles for transporting goods to preparing infrastructure and regulations for flying taxis to carry people across the city’s skyline, no solution is apparently too fantastical. 

It is highly likely, however, given the ever-evolving nature of Dubai, that the tension between the benefits and drawbacks provided by the rapid diversification of an economy and growth in population will remain a fixture – the true figure now feels far higher than the 2018 data point of approximately three million people. But it will be a fixture that ebbs and flows over time, just like the cars travelling along the Sheikh Zayed Road. 

PHOTOGRAPHER: Rose Marie Cromwell, Krzysztof Pacholak, Paulius Staniuna

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