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As a wave of populism has risen in western liberal democracies, the idea of the city has come under attack. In the UK, the populists sneer at the “metropolitan elite”; in the US it’s the “coastal elites”; and in France, Marine Le Pen rails against Paris’s “arrogant elite”. Those living in cities, they argue, are “out of touch” with the needs of “real” Britons, Americans and French people.

There is something peculiar about this argument. It is made by people who tend to live in homogenous communities and where difference is often denigrated, not celebrated. It is made by people who want their country to turn back the clock to a mythical “golden age”. And it is no coincidence that it is often made by people who live in economically struggling regions. Perhaps those areas would be doing better if they looked a bit more like cities.

The divide between those who live in cities and the rest of a country’s population appears to be widening, not just economically but socially and politically too. The UK’s great cities, particularly London, voted in favour of the country remaining in the EU. The US’s big urban centres voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton and have set themselves the task of becoming sanctuary cities able to defend their residents from the anti-immigrant policies emanating from Washington. In Austria, it was the votes of the Viennese that prevented the far-right from winning the presidency; in France those voting in major metropolises helped give Emmanuel Macron a landslide victory.

But as anyone who lives in a city is all too aware, they need a constant supply of newcomers in order to thrive. They need the 18-year-old who wants to work in a bar for a year and learn the language. They need the artist who wants to rent a studio, the lawyer who wants to push their career or the doctor after new experiences. They need the families who want to settle, send their kids to schools and get involved with the community.

As this year’s Quality of Life Survey shows, cost of living in the world’s best cities is becoming problematic. So too, for some cities, is the threat of terrorism – and the restrictions on openness that this, in some cases, has led to. The cities to thrive in the coming years will be those that remain open and liberal, safe and affordable.

How the survey works

There are more than 60 metrics in this year’s Quality of Life Survey, covering everything from the average response time for an ambulance to the price of a decent cup of coffee.

This year we’ve added a handful of new ones including the number of design schools, homes built in the past year and new businesses set up. We have also, given the spate of terrorist attacks, added a new metric that assesses the threat of terrorism and the way in which it impinges on a city’s quality of life. All research has been carried out by monocle’s team of editors, correspondents and researchers, using a combination of publicly available information and requests to city officials. The more subjective metrics, from the quality of restaurants to a city’s tolerance levels, have been assessed by our team of editors and correspondents.

01. Tokyo: This year’s winning city

Living in Japan can sometimes feel like inhabiting a very safe, impossibly polite bubble, detached from the strife, intolerance and ugly rhetoric that seem to be so prevalent in many parts of the world. Of course, other places are not always so bad and Japan is not perfect but, as far as large-scale cities go, Tokyo has got urban living down to a fine art. Primary school children walk to school unaccompanied as a matter of course and the streets are safe, even at night. Good service is expected and received in every situation. In fact, the level of civility is so universal, and everyone so attuned to it, that any deviation from acceptable standards – a mildly sullen waiter or inattentive shop staff – causes disproportionate outrage.

The overwhelming sense is that people go out of their way not to bother others. Disturbing fellow subway passengers with a booming conversation just wouldn’t be on and you can almost feel the collective horror should someone start eating a pungent burger or put their shoes on a seat. If it sounds exhausting, it really isn’t. The awareness of not imposing one’s presence on others is absorbed from childhood and internalised to the point where it becomes instinctive. There’s an unspoken agreement among Tokyo’s citizens that whatever the situation – a crowded train, a busy bus or an airport security queue – it will all be much easier if everyone thinks of others and not just themselves.

The “manners” posters that proliferate on the Tokyo subway, reminding passengers not to sit selfishly or shake their wet umbrellas in the direction of others, show just how different Tokyo is from every other megalopolis. Most major cities are grappling with serious crime and the threat of terrorism. Not that Japan is a stranger to external danger: North Korea has been lobbing missiles in Japan’s direction with varying degrees of success and Donald Trump has blown hot and cold on a relationship that was once a cornerstone of regional security. The laissez-faire attitude to smoking also needs more attention from officials, particularly with the 2020 Olympics fast approaching.

Tokyo’s charm is sometimes hard to pin down. It’s about a combination of tight neighbourhoods, superlative food, trains that leave when they’re supposed to and a general ease of moving around what should be an unbearably crowded city. Maybe it’s also the density of cultural offerings and the pockets of greenery. Or the fact that people cling doggedly to the rhythms of the natural world regardless of their urban surroundings, eating ginkgo nuts in the autumn and picnicking under cherry trees in spring. While we’d welcome other challengers, we’re still in thrall to Tokyo’s unique blend of small-town warmth and big-city excitement.

What’s changed this year
Tourism has exploded: the number of visitors to Japan reached 24 million in 2016; the government wants to hit 40 million by 2020.

What should change next year
There has been much discussion – and even more resistance – but it’s high time for Japan to put an end to smoking in bars and restaurants.

Population: 9.4 million.
Murders: 75 (in 2015).
Unemployment rate: 3.2 per cent.
Public parks: 6,062.
Homes built in the past year: 148,275.
Culture: 260 museums, 224 libraries, 575 art galleries.
Design schools: 23.
Cycle lanes: 155.4km.
New infrastructure projects: Stations on the Yamanote and Kibiya lines are due to be completed in 2020.
International connections: 108 from Narita International Airport and 34 from Haneda Airport.

02. Vienna: Time to think

When it comes to quality-of-life lists, Vienna is a veteran, consistently scoring well. It’s easy to see why: the Austrian capital’s inner city is walkable, human-scaled and packed with wedding-cake baroque architecture. Green space comprises about 50 per cent of the urban area. The mighty Danube with its canals and tributaries is a calming presence. There’s home-grown food and wine, a long tradition of craftsmanship that, miraculously, hasn’t disappeared in a sea of mass production and tonnes of generously funded high-culture.

These are the obvious things that make it nice to live here. But Vienna has plenty of less-visible advantages as well. The social-democratic city government, for one, which has been in place since the Second World War and is responsible for fair housing prices, low public-transport costs, clever urban planning and updated infrastructure. Consistency clearly counts: mayor Michael Häupl has been in his post for nearly 24 years.

Vienna is also smart. Close to 100,000 students attend Vienna University; in everyday conversation intellectual references spiced with dark humour are practically mandatory (along with some neurotic tics that make clear Sigmund Freud could only have grown up here). Even the most basic stuff of life is exceptional: Vienna’s tap water, for example, is crystal clear, coming through two pipelines from mountain springs 330km away and generating hydroelectric power along the way.

But the most invisible quality-of-life signifier of all might be the way that the Viennese use time. While the rest of the world races around with coffees to go, the Viennese linger in 19th-century coffeehouses over their Kaffee Mélange. Business meetings that would take 45 minutes elsewhere will likely run up to three hours but your Austrian contacts will never forget your name. The city’s innovators embody a mix of idleness and productivity that seems paradoxical but isn’t. Whether in the burgeoning start-up scene, diplomacy or the arts, the Viennese innately know that a leisurely meal can lead to creative breakthroughs, just like it did for composer Gustav Mahler and painter Gustav Klimt a century ago.

Speaking of time, the Viennese are bringing back a temporal icon that graced the city’s streets in 1907: the Normalzeit (normal time) clock, shaped like a cube and showing hours and minutes on a numberless clockface. In 1910 the Austro-Hungarian monarchy’s many time zones were standardised to Central European Time. The clocks disappeared with the advent of smartphones but lately the timeless clocks have been reintroduced to Vienna’s streets. They’re a symbol of an abstract luxury that the Viennese refuse to relinquish – time to work properly, to think, to spend with friends and family and enjoy the other things that make the city great to live in. Without time, what good is the rest?

What’s changed this year
The sizable refugee population in Vienna has been relatively well absorbed and, with the seemingly endless presidential election out of the way, the migration debate has finally quietened down.

What should change next year
Vienna should continue building low-income housing and expanding its infrastructure but it should also consider at least some Sundays when shopping is allowed.

Population: 1.8 million in the city; 3.8 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 16.
Unemployment rate: 15 per cent.
New businesses: 8,982.
Culture: more than 100 museums, 41 libraries, 150 art galleries.
Independent bookshops: 149.
Restaurants opened in past year: 76.
Cycle lanes: 1,346km.
New infrastructure projects: New houses, schools and offices in the Sonnwendviertel neighbourhood.
International connections: 176 locations from Vienna International Airport.

03. Berlin: Truly public spaces

Until just a few years ago, Berlin’s quality of life was measured mostly by its cost of living. Thanks to an overabundance of residential buildings, rents were laughably cheap, attracting creative types from all over the world seeking freedom from financial pressures. The boon has since ended and the hype has passed but the city has maintained its position in our rankings. Why?

Maybe the most important factor is that there isn’t one Berlin. Each district has such a distinct flavour that travelling from leafy Zehlendorf to glossy Mitte and on to rugged Neukölln feels like visiting completely different cities. (Thanks to good public transport and bike and car-sharing options, this is easy.) The variety has led to intense loyalties around neighbourhoods and, for a city of 3.5 million people, it can feel surprisingly village-like.

Berlin is also one of Europe’s most multicultural cities: more than half of its residents aren’t native to the city. Not only is English spoken nearly everywhere but in many cafés in Mitte, Kreuzberg and Neukölln it is the official language, as the requirement for staff to know German is increasingly redundant. The reason may be that their bosses don’t speak it either: despite Germany’s reputation for bureaucracy, opening a business in Berlin usually requires just one visit to a public office and paperwork is available in many languages.

Berlin’s defining feature used to be the presence of world history on every corner; today the ubiquity of great restaurants seems like a more important characteristic. From a city that used to dance, Berlin has become a city that eats. Food now attracts more creative energy than the many technology start-ups that dominated Berlin a few years ago.

Lacking the legacy industries of other German urban centres, Berlin has done much to support entrepreneurialism and subsidise culture. The result is that it’s the world’s only city with three opera houses, many of Germany’s most cutting-edge theatres and a museum that houses everything from ancient artifacts to quirky industrial objects.
Still, Berlin is at its best when the government keeps its distance. A legacy of the post-reunification anarchy is the strong sense of ownership residents have over their city. Most parks don’t close at night, the curfew for bars still seems to depend on what they negotiate with their neighbours and residents regularly turn the spaces around trees in the street into miniature gardens. This understanding that public space truly belongs to everybody has given Berlin a strong sense of freedom. And it survives in an age when many other cities are experiencing security clampdowns. The British embassy continues to be more heavily guarded than Angela Merkel’s private residence, which is recognisable only by two police officers strolling the vicinity.

What’s changed this year
The debate on traffic infrastructure, and especially bicycle safety, has finally become a serious conversation – if not exactly conclusive.

What should change next year
Since the chances of the ber opening next year are so slim as to be non-existent (and it’s only five years late so far), Tegel Airport should be allowed to remain open forever.

Population: 3.5 million in the city; 6 milion in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 37.
Police response time: 8 minutes 18 secs.
Unemployment rate: 8.9 per cent.
Homes built in the past year: 22,365.
Culture: About 180 museums, 91 cinemas, more than 440 art galleries.
Independent bookshops: 219.
New restaurants: 279.
Cycle lanes: 590km.
New infrastructure projects: Humboldt Forum, a cultural centre, will open in 2019.
International connections: 167 from Berlin-Tegel and Berlin-Schönefeld.

03. Munich: When opposites attract

Munich manages to combine three seeming opposites. First, it feels at once relaxed and dynamic. This stems not only from a mix between Italian dolce vita and Bavarian Effizienz but is also thanks to its 18 universities, including two of the country’s best, that attract 120,000 students – more than any other German city except Berlin.

Plus, Munich is cosmopolitan yet traditional. In fact it is often newly arrived internationals, attracted by jobs at Munich’s industrial giants, who most proudly sport their Lederhosen and Dirndl – not only for Oktorberfest but also for revelries such as Nockherberg Starkbierfest and Kocherlball.

Finally, Munich is both a cultural centre and has plenty of green space. Take your surfboard, kayak or dinghy to the river Isar, gaze at the sheep roaming in English Garden or cycle through Perlacher Forst and the city will suddenly feel like it’s 1,000 miles away.

What’s changed this year
Entrepreneurs are bringing Berlinesque pop-up clubs to Munich: The Lovelace in a former bank, Blitz in Munich’s biggest museum and MS Utting, an old ship lifted onto a disused railway bridge.

What should change next year
To cope with its population growth of 20,000 people per year, the city needs faster public transport, better bicycle infrastructure and more affordable housing. A proper non-stop rail link to the airport would also be a vote-winner.

Population: 1.5 million in the city; 2.9 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 58.
Police response time: 5 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 4.6 per cent.
Independent bookshops: Around 100.
Homes built in the past year: 7,800.
Culture: 61 museums, 29 cinemas, 77 art galleries.
Design schools: 10.
Cycle lanes: 1,200km.
New infrastructure projects: The city’s main train station is getting an expensive revamp, conceived by architecture firm Auer Weber.

05. Melbourne

Melbourne is growing faster than at any other time in its history and is on track to become the largest metropolis in Australia by 2050. Such a surge in population has presented officials with a challenge: how to accommodate new residents while protecting Melbourne’s laidback lifestyle. So far they’ve handled the task expertly: the city’s cultural institutions remain world class, its parks are pristine and the smell of freshly poured flat whites continues to permeate the CBD.

Economically Melbourne is also in good shape. Cheap office rent, reliable infrastructure and creative talent has made the city a magnet for young entrepreneurs. There is still room for improvement though. Housing affordability and crime are ongoing concerns, and congestion has also reached a critical point. Thankfully, work has begun on an au$11bn (€7.3bn) underground rail tunnel that should improve accessibility.

What’s changed this year
Melbourne’s housing affordability crisis means that homelessness has become increasingly visible in the city. Victoria’s state government is trying to address the problem by investing heavily in social housing.

What should change next year
Victoria’s state government would be wise to prioritise its investigation into building a rail link between Tullamarine airport and central Melbourne.

Population: 140,000 in the city; 4.6 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 37.
Unemployment rate: 6.4 per cent.
Homes built in the past year: 25,825.
Culture: 26 museums, 62 cinemas, 166 art galleries.
Independent bookshops: 119.
Restaurants opened in past year: 426.
Cycle lanes: 135km.
New infrastructure projects: The state government is building a new tennis arena in the Melbourne Park sports precinct.
International connections: 33 destinations from Melbourne Airport.

06. Copenhagen

Copenhagen is a perennial favourite in our top 10 – it has taken the top spot a record three times – and the Danish capital is riding high again this year. What’s its secret? A great deal of the credit must go to Rådhuset (city hall), which famously prioritises bicycles over cars and is implementing a thorough upgrade of public transport.

This is not without its side-effects: the metro expansion continues to make a building site out of large chunks of the centre while on Amager, around the old naval docks of Refshaleøen and in the northern and southern harbour areas, development continues apace. These days cranes outnumber spires on the city’s skyline but you can’t make an omelette… More happily, travel restrictions between the Danish capital and Sweden’s Malmö have finally been lifted following the exigencies of the refugee crisis. A sense of equilibrium seems to have been restored.

What’s changed this year

The Inner Harbour Bridge from Nyhavn to Christianshavn has been completed, transforming pedestrian and two-wheeled traffic flow. The bridge now brings thousands each day to what was the doorstep of restaurant Noma. Coincidence that the famous restaurant chose this year to move?

What should change next year

Removing the 25 per cent moms tax (vat) on restaurant meals would make dining out more affordable.

Population: 600,000 in the city; 2 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 5.
Police response time: 12 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 3.4 per cent.
New businesses: 6,006.
Homes built in the past year: 4,300.
Culture: 50 museums, 17 cinemas, 40 art galleries.
Design schools: 17.
Cycle lanes: 454km.
New infrastructure projects: A 15km metro line called Cityringen.
International connections: 159 destinations from Copenhagen Airport.

07. Sydney

Bright and breezy Sydney is gaining more than 80,000 residents a year and the rapid growth looks set to continue. The features that have long drawn newcomers – cultural vibrancy, a strong economy, stunning beaches and green space – are as compelling as ever. What’s more, there’s a newfound sense of connectedness with the Asia-Pacific region, borne out by new air-travel routes to China and increasing dialogue between the Beijing and Sydney arts communities. Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement in May that the federal government would fund a second airport for the city augurs well for the future.

But population growth is beginning to put a strain on infrastructure and there is concern that road and public-transport projects have not been properly thought through. Residents old and new are hoping that the sun will continue to shine on the Harbour City.

What’s changed this year

Regulations and rising commercial rent have caused the closure of several vibrant entertainment venues. But enterprising artists have responded by seeking out performance opportunities in unorthodox spaces that are further from the city centre.

What should change next year

Smarter thinking on public transport and cycling, plus a commitment to liveable high-density precincts, are needed if Sydney is to keep prospering.

Population: 210,000 in the city; 5 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 42.
Police response time: 12 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 4.4 per cent.
New businesses: 11,195 in 2015.
Homes built in the past year: 31,000.
Culture: 39 museums, 9 libraries, 55 art galleries.
Cycle lanes: 72km.
Independent bookshops: 143.
Restaurants opened in past year: 449.
New infrastructure projects: Another airport but it won’t open for a decade.
International connections: 27.

08. Zürich

If you’ve only ever been to Zürich in the winter you might look askance at our choice – Switzerland’s largest city can be difficult to warm to in the chillier months. Yet few places undergo the dramatic transformation that Zürich does from May: swimmers descend on the Bade that line the Limmat River and Lake Zürich; tables and chairs spill out of cafés onto the wide pavements; and parks and gardens become chock-full of sunbathers.

Aside from the great outdoors, Zürich also has its proactive city hall going for it. The municipal government, which has been dominated by the left for a generation, continues to ensure that the trams operate smoothly, cycling is encouraged and sustainability remains a priority.

However, in spite of a private-sector house-building boom and a number of innovative co-operatively funded developments that have popped up, housing could be much more affordable.

What’s changed this year

The heart of the city has continued to drift westwards towards Districts 4 and 5 and the Wiedikon neighbourhood. Today most of the city’s most exciting new restaurants and shops are found in these boroughs.

What should change next year

Zürich has so far refused to imitate Geneva’s Operation Papyrus pilot, which gives people without legal papers the right to live and work in the city. It should consider it this year.

Population: 380,000 in the city; 1.9 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 10.
Police response time: 5 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 3.9 per cent.
New businesses: 3,122.
Homes built in the past year: 2,995.
Culture: 84 museums, 15 cinemas, more than 100 art galleries.
Design schools: 4.
Cycle lanes: 340km.
New infrastructure projects: All train stations will have disabled access by 2023.
International connections: 178 destinations from Zürich Airport.

09. Hamburg

Not only is Hamburg Germany’s media capital (Gruner + Jahr, Die Zeit, public television and radio broadcaster ndr and the Spiegel-Verlag are all based here), it’s also home to one of the world’s most important sea ports. The city has an undeniably high quality of life and it’s not resting on its laurels: its HafenCity project – Europe’s largest inner-city development – is transforming the area along the Elbe and creating more office, residential, retail and cultural spaces.

The new offices will surely fill up swiftly, seeing as the city has the second highest start-up rate in Germany; its economic strength and flourishing creative industry make it a good base for entrepreneurs. What’s more, according to the Happiness Atlas, the nation’s most content people live here: it can’t be the weather so perhaps it’s the city’s prosperity and proximity to the wide beaches of the North Sea.

What’s changed this year

The opening of the Elbphilharmonie – Hamburg’s latest landmark designed by Herzog & de Meuron – as part of the city’s HafenCity development, has brought a lot of global attention to the city and enhanced its cultural offerings.

What should change next year

Hamburg isn’t as well connected as it should be: to boost business opportunities and enhance its cosmopolitan vibe, it should introduce more international flights.

Population: 1.8 million in the city; 5.1 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 15.
Police response time: 5 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 7 per cent.
New businesses: 17,374.
Homes built: 8,521 in 2015.
Culture: 84 museums, 24 cinemas and 43 art galleries.
Cycle lanes: 80km.
New infrastructure projects: Hamburg is investing €300m in public transport, which will fund 25 new subway trains, 120 buses and the renovation of stations.
International connections: 120.

10. Madrid

What happens when you give residents an active role in shaping their city? This seems to be the question driving Madrid city hall, which is delegating power to neighbourhood groups and inspired residents who are itching to make their barrios better. Some €100m has been assigned to a “participative budget” programme, allowing people to propose, vote on and then watch their projects become a reality.

Disused land has been converted into parks, narrow pavements widened and a decision to release the dams on the Manzanares River has seen the waterway flourish with aquatic and plant life in a matter of months. More civic engagement is cultivating a sense of empowerment and has coincided with a sharp drop in unemployment. As a result, Madrileños are feeling rather good about themselves: a recent survey revealed that 81.6 per cent are satisfied or very satisfied with their own suburb.

What’s changed this year

Madrid is rapidly embracing alternative transport: there are now 1,000 electric car-sharing vehicles and an electric-scooter service debuted in May. Mayor Manuela Carmena is pushing ahead with a pledge to improve air quality.

What should change next year

Cleaner streets. A rubbish-collection service for businesses is helping but a more radical overhaul (which should include Madrileños acknowledging the purpose of a bin) is needed.

Population: 3.3 million in the city; 6.5 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 38.
Police response time: 8 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 13.4 per cent.
New businesses: 13,189.
Homes built in the past year: 700.
Culture: 74 museums, 17 cinemas and at least 60 art galleries.
Design schools: 13.
Cycle lanes: 488km.
New infrastructure projects: Remodelling Plaza de Esapña, which will turn the once-ugly square into a park.
International connections: 180.

11. Stockholm

Stockholm has had a challenging year with a terrorist attack and tensions in certain predomin-antly immigrant suburbs. But on the other hand, residents have responded to the attack with grace and solidarity, covering police cars with flowers and showing what makes this city so lovable and liveable: tolerance, kindness and mutual trust in one another.

Even though Stockholm is a major city, it has a certain small-town feel. Getting from A to B rarely takes very long, cycling and public transport work well and you can swim and fish in the centre of town The vast majority of people feel safe where they live and enjoy the benefits of the Nordic model: universal childcare, free education and nearly free healthcare. But that’s not to say that there aren’t problems. Some of the biggest ones have to do with housing: the lack of it and the fact that the city is severely segregated.

What’s changed this year

Stockholm has improved many cycle paths and introduced one fare for public transport, making long trips across the city much cheaper than before. But the increasing violence in the suburbs is discouraging.

What should change next year

The housing crisis needs innovative solutions. Also, Stockholm could make much better use of its waters: make the quays more people-friendly and increase public-boat traffic.

Population: 940,000 in the city; 2.2 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 6 per cent.
New businesses: 23,082.
Homes built in the past year: 19,400.
Culture: At least 100 museums, 20 cinemas and more than 50 art galleries.
Independent bookshops: 42.
Restaurants opened in past year: 78.
Design schools: 6.
Cycle lanes: 800km
New infrastructure projects: A commuter train tunnel will be built through the heart of the city.
International connections: 138.

12. Kyoto

Kyoto’s historic buildings and national treasures have long been a source of pride for its citizens. But the city is now straddling two realities: its population is declining as tourist numbers surge. Under a three-term mayor, Daisaku Kadokawa, city hall has removed neon signs and is burying unsightly overhead utility lines, while also launching a programme for an elite corps of multilingual tour guides who know Kyoto inside-out.

City officials are considering reviving the canals that were built more than a century ago to carry water from Lake Biwa. New bars and shops are now popping up in Kyoto’s traditional machiya townhouses, while young chefs are re-establishing the city’s connection to the region’s farms. Neglected landmarks are also being reborn, with the 1960s Kyoto Tower having just reopened its retail and restaurant floors after its first major overhaul in decades.

What’s changed this year

Kyoto has ambitious environmental goals that get residents to use public transport, drive less-polluting cars, use solar power and reduce their rubbish.

What should change next year

With its hotel occupancy rates above 90 per cent, Kyoto should encourage more developers and design firms to open hotels and inns in old townhouses that cater to visitors who are looking for more personalised services and cosier quarters.

Population: 1.5 million.
Murders: 9.
Police response time: 5 minutes
13 seconds.
Unemployment rate: 2.5 per cent.
New businesses between 2012 and 2014: 11,356
Homes built in the past year: 10,462.
Culture: About 200 museums, 18 cinemas, 140 art galleries.
Design schools: 14.
Cycle lanes: 38km.
International connections: 82 destinations from Kansai International Airport, a 90-minute transfer from Kyoto.

13. Helsinki

In Helsinki you’ll find all the things you’d expect from a modern Nordic capital: free healthcare and education, great public transport, functioning city services and ample nature all around. In recent years Helsinki has become more entrepreneurial and edgy and there is a tangible creative energy in the city. The start-up scene is vibrant due to the ease with which entrepreneurs can set up companies get a lot of help from the state.

There are new restaurants, bars and cafés opening all the time in the city. Once considered rather quiet and reserved, the Finns are now embracing communal living. They open their kitchens to visitors during the famous Restaurant Day and bathe together in the city’s new public saunas.

The city is fixing its housing problem too. It has commissioned leading architects to build homes for more than 60,000 people in former industrial areas.

What’s changed this year

People have started to embrace the sea. New public saunas and spas have opened by the shore and have become popular hangouts for young people and families alike. Former military islands have been opened for public use too.

What should change next year

Helsinki needs to build more pedestrian areas and divert car traffic. Central areas being used as carparks or warehouses should be put to better use.

Population: 640,000 in the city; 1.1 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 10.
Police response time: 5 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 12.4 per cent.
New businesses: 5,588.
Homes built in the past year: 4,395.
Culture: 80 museums, 14 cinemas, 70 art galleries.
Cycle lanes: 1,200km.
New infrastructure projects: Former industrial locations are being turned into new urban neighbourhoods. International connections: 124 destinations from Helsinki Airport.

14. Fukuoka

Fukuoka is proud of its achievements and – unusually for Japan – isn’t afraid to shout about them: the Japanese city with the fastest-growing population, it has the most beaches with good quality water within 30km, the highest number of protected trees and a vast new fresh-produce market that shifted more than 300,000 tonnes of fruit and vegetables last year. Helped by its location in the centre of East Asia and a substantial number of students, Fukuoka is the start-up centre of Japan. The city works hard to attract young entrepreneurs, offering financial incentives and practical assistance to fledgling businesses. Ranked as the top city for sport in Japan, the average commute is only 30 minutes.

Perhaps the enduring image of Fukuoka in the past year was the spectacular 30m-wide sinkhole that suddenly appeared on a busy street in November; it was filled and repaired in under a week.

What changed this year

The number of passengers coming into Fukuoka on cruise ships has rocketed (1.6 million in 2015 to 2.1 million in 2016); the Port of Hakata has just announced that new privately funded facilities will open, including a convenience store and bicycle rental.

What should change next year

The city should reassure citizens that in spite of the sinkhole saga, the extension of the Fukuoka subway – due to open in 2020 – won’t be held up.

Population: 1.6 million.
Murders: 20.
Police response time: 5 minutes 49 seconds.
Unemployment rate: 3.5 per cent.
New businesses: 2,970 in 2015.
Homes built in the past year: 16,929.
Culture: 11 museums, 31 libraries, 43 art galleries.
Cycle lanes: 84.1km.
New infrastructure projects: The number of runways at Fukuoka Airport will be increased by 2024.
International connections: 26 destinations from the airport.

15. Hong Kong

Winds of change are blowing in Hong Kong with the appointment of a new chief executive to lead the city for the next five years. It is too early to call time on recent political problems but both sides of the divide seem willing to give Carrie Lam a chance as she looks to tackle major issues, from affordable housing and economic diversification to universal suffrage.

The city’s first female leader made enhancing liveability a pillar of her election manifesto and has taken over at an opportune time. The economy is picking up steam, crime is at record lows and air pollution is showing signs of improvement following a shift to cleaner shipping fuel and an initiative to take diesel cars off the roads.

It famously rained on the night in 1997 when Hong Kong returned to China. Twenty years later, organisers will hope for clear skies as an augur for a brighter end to the decade.

What’s changed this year

Hong Kong Magazine closed after 25 years and Singapore’s Page One book chain shuttered its last outlet but the city’s bookworms did chip in to save a much-loved secondhand bookshop.

What should change next year

Hong Kong finds out later this year if it will become the first Asian city to host the Gay Games in 2022. Yet angry reactions to hsbc painting its iconic lions with rainbows suggest that not everyone in society is backing the bid.

Population: 7.4 million.
Murders: 28.
Police response time: 9 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 3.2 per cent.
New businesses: 874.
Homes built in the past year: 18,200.
Culture: 19 museums, 47 cinemas, 56 art galleries.
New infrastructure projects: A bridge linking Hong Kong with Macau. The Hong Kong portion is due to be completed by the end of the year.
International connections: Around 143 destinations available from Hong Kong Airport.

16. Lisbon

A temperate climate, picturesque historic centre and proximity to world-class beaches give Lisbon a head start in the quality-of-life stakes: it is a very pleasant place to live. In terms of size it’s just about right too: it’s not so small that it feels provincial yet not so large that meeting friends on the other side of town becomes a logistical mission. Crime rates are low and to date there’s been no terrorist threat.

An influx of young creatives and entrepreneurs, combined with the city’s welcoming population, creates a multicultural, cosmopolitan feel and gives Lisbon the air of an island of tolerance in an increasingly xenophobic world.

The employment situation is improving and the economy is on the up, while Portuguese victories on the world stage – including last month’s Eurovision Song Contest and football’s 2016 European Championships – have lifted confidence, adding to the vim of the city.

What’s changed this year

The city is more sophisticated, with bars, shops and restaurants that could hold their own in any European capital. There’s growing confidence and a much-needed discovery of local pride.

What should change next year

The council must find a balance between attracting international investors and visitors and the needs of the local population. Low wages and rising living costs mean long-time residents can feel marginalised.

Population: 550,000 in the city; 2.8 million in the metropolitan area.
Independent bookshops: 62.
Culture: 31 museums, 18 libraries and 29 art galleries.
Design schools: 2.
Number of public parks: 132.
Cycle lanes: 20km.
Electric car charging points: 140.
New infrastructure projects: There is a plan to expand the metro network by 2020 with work due to begin on the project next year.
International connections: 105 destinations from Lisbon Airport.

17. Barcelona

The people of Barcelona have a penchant for paradox; proclaiming theirs the best city in the world while bemoaning the influx of visitors in the very next breath.

A quarter of a century of such spirited self-promotion has been a mixed blessing; nine million tourists emptied their wallets in the city last year but the spurt in short-term tourist apartments is driving up property prices – alongside rent and noise complaints.

Activist turned mayor Ada Colau has had two years to reclaim the city for residents, putting platforms such as Airbnb in the firing line by implementing strict new licensing regulations. The recent formation of a grassroots “union of home-renters” also heralds a new battlefront in this protracted war. However, Barcelona must be careful: the perception of hostility to outsiders is a bad look for any city, especially one with such long-held global aspirations.

What’s changed this year

After a six-month trial in the Poblenou district, the superilla (super-block) plan to repurpose roads into parks and even running tracks was deemed a success.

What should change next year

Barcelona has finally implemented mandatory card-payments in taxis but a more unflinching vision would help. A city that hosts so many international events should encourage more shared electric vehicles and let in the taxi-sharing apps – if they follow the rules.

Population: 1.6 million in the city; 5.4 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 11.
Unemployment rate: 11.8 per cent.
New businesses: 8,755.
Homes built in the past year: 1,291.
Culture: 56 museums, 28 cinemas, 52 art galleries.
New infrastructure projects: Busy Avenida Meridiana is set to be transformed into a greener, more resident-friendly road with extra trees and wider pavements.
International connections: 172 destinations from Barcelona-El Prat.

18. Vancouver

If you are looking for easy access to well-maintained outdoor spaces Vancouver has it in droves, with its pretty, verdant parks and rugged stretches of beach set against the backdrop of nearby mountains. But when it comes to easy access to affordable housing, the city has fallen short: house prices here are the highest in Canada. That and a lack of diverse career options for young people have led to a brain drain that the city needs to properly get to grips with.

City officials are trying: a new tax on foreign property investors has been introduced – with mixed results – and there is a concerted campaign under way to persuade Asian businesses to set up their North American headquarters here. These fixes might take time to bring about real change in the city but Vancouver has plenty to offer in the meantime, from its exciting culinary options to well-run transport links.

What’s changed this year

Metro Vancouver is set to improve even further thanks to a ca$2.2bn (€1.5bn) funding injection from the federal government; the money will go towards two more major transport projects.

What should change next year

Like all coastal cities in the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver desperately needs to devote resources to earthquake and tsunami defences; failure to do so puts hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.

Population: 630,000 in the city; 2.5 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 11.
Police response time: 9 minutes, 15 seconds.
Unemployment rate: 4.7 per cent.
New businesses: 1,696.
Homes built in the past year: 9,759.
Culture: 18 museums, 13 cinemas, 85 art galleries.
Design schools: 6.
Cycle lanes: 60km.
International connections: 66 destinations from Vancouver International Airport.

19. Düsseldorf

A city by a river is always special – especially one that has it all: global businesses, good infrastructure, high-profile universities, leafy parks and a sprinkling of culture. One of Düsseldorf’s best assets is its airport, which connects to nearly 200 destinations around the world and makes international trade shows particularly viable. Another is the Rhine River promenade, which is ideal for cyclists and leads to the picturesque MedienHafen, where the city’s TV Tower shoots skyward and creative businesses thrive. The new Kö-Bogen, designed by Daniel Libeskind, has enriched the city’s retail and leisure offerings, while the Old Town’s side streets make up the “longest bar in the world”. Even though property prices here are on the rise, the city remains affordable and the ease of escaping to Köln or Bonn – or even the Netherlands and Belgium – within a couple of hours makes it even more desirable.

What’s changed this year

The completion of the Wehrhahn-Linie metro and the Kö-Bogen development have regenerated the city centre. With Kö-Bogen 2 due in 2019, Düsseldorf’s new town square will combine shops, offices, residences, the Schauspielhaus Theatre and the Hofgarten.

What should change next year

The city needs to invest in start-ups and small businesses while addressing rising property prices – an obstacle for entrepreneurs and independent shops.

Population: 640,000 in the city; 1.4 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 6.
Police response time: 5 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 7.6 per cent.
Homes built in the past year: 1,000.
Culture: 26 museums, 10 cinemas, more than 100 art galleries.
Design schools: 5.
Independent bookshops: 73.
Cycle lanes: More than 300km.
New infrastructure projects: €2.5m for new cycle lanes, including cycle highways.
International connections: 170 destinations from Düsseldorf Airport.

20. Amsterdam

Amsterdam may have a reputation as a party town for weekend trips but the city of canals is also a great place for living, full stop. From a booming gastronomic scene to an explosion of independent shops, especially in the east and west, the city is on a high. Excellent cycling infrastructure makes commuting not just a breeze but genuinely pleasant, particularly with views of the city’s UN World Heritage-status waterways.

Amsterdam’s small size and the proximity of international hub Schipol Airport minimises travelling time. Yet the city still manages to feel spacious, with plenty of parks and squares for an impromptu picnic or terrace borrel drinking session the moment the sun appears – chances the Dutch seize with both hands. Friendly people with an entrepreneurial, can-do attitude and a truly international outlook combine to make this an easy place in which to settle.

What’s changed this year

The centre of the city has become almost unliveable, largely because of the number of tourists who visit with the sole purpose of taking advantage of liberal Dutch laws.

What should change next year

The municipality should ban scooters from cycle lanes and invest in creating more bicycle-parking spaces to declutter Amsterdam’s streets.

Population: 853,000 in the city; 1.4 million in the metropolitan area.
Murders: 22.
Police response time: 8 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 5.9 per cent.
New businesses: 11,996 in 2015.
Homes built in the past year: 5,540.
Culture: 44 museums, 15 cinemas, 165 art galleries.
Design schools: 7.
Cycle lanes: 500km.
New infrastructure projects: A London Eurostar connection is due in late 2017.
International connections: 322 from Schipol Airport.

21. Singapore

Singapore does the basics of a liveable city well: an affordable housing policy that shelters more than 80 per cent of its residents, an efficient business environment making it easy to build new and exciting ventures, low crime rates, well-planned health coverage for citizens and an enviable transport network. So now the city-state is working on the cherries on top.

While retail lacks variety, there’s plenty to do outside the malls. The city’s cultural landscape has matured adding smaller independent-music and art events to fill up the evenings. Greenery is integral to the built landscape: roads, public spaces and even skyscrapers shrouded in foliage encourage an active outdoor lifestyle, especially within the expansive park network. Then when the average 28c days get too much, a café or bar is never far away thanks to a buzzing drinking and dining scene.

22. Auckland

It’s impossible not to discuss houses when talking about Auckland: the city has a housing shortage and over-inflated prices. It’s a situation fuelled by the appeal of living in the City of Sails. About 56,000 people a year move to this cultural melting pot with its temperate climate, pretty beaches, thriving arts and food sectors, and business opportunities. Now the restaurants, parks and art along the redeveloped waterfront have given Auckland the physical heart it once lacked.

However, the housing crisis must be addressed properly for the positives to outweigh the negatives. Last July the Auckland Unitary Plan was revised to allow for higher-density housing. In May the government announced that 34,000 homes will be built on Crown land over the next decade. Watch this space.

23. Brisbane

For years Brisbane pitched itself as quintessentially Australian, with an image that hinged largely on warm weather and a proximity to nature. Over the past decade, however, a lot has changed; mayor Graham Quirk and Queensland’s state government have successfully realigned it as a globally minded metropolis.

Part of their strategy has been upgrading the city’s infrastructure – a au$1.4bn (€930m) runway will double Brisbane Airport’s flight capacity – and encouraging a slew of cultural events, such as the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Quirk’s council has also played an important role in transforming Fortitude Valley, a suburb once renowned for its red-light district, into a hotbed of cafés and shops. There’s still more to be done to complete Brisbane’s reinvention though, particularly in the areas of homelessness and public transport.

24. Portland

Smaller, calmer and less money-obsessed than rivals Seattle and San Francisco, this west-coast outpost has long thrived in our rankings on carefree charm alone. Indeed Portland boasts nature, excellent food, lively neighbourhoods and legions of artisan businesses. However, since the election of Donald Trump, it has shown a steelier side. Portland vowed to remain a “sanctuary city” for immigrants and protests against the president’s inauguration and travel ban were well attended. The liberal metropolitan area orchestrates politics in Oregon, a rural state at odds with the new administration on climate change and other issues.

Through it all the city’s cultural and economic strengths keep winning converts – about 80 new arrivals a day, the US Census estimates. New builds define the skyline and given Portland’s role in US life right now, one could see each crane as a beacon of hope.

25. Oslo

Sandwiched between fjord and forest, few capitals can compete with Oslo’s outdoor offerings – easily enjoyed by a workforce protected by a state-sanctioned 37.5-hour working week. A new green city council has been busy making the centre more pedal friendly, while exciting restaurants keep popping up to feed a growing appetite for organic produce.

After economic uncertainty caused by falling oil revenues, things are picking up and unemployment in Oslo has fallen to about 3 per cent. It’s still one of the world’s most expensive cities but wages are generous and international workers are eased into the labour market by the Service Centre for Foreign Workers.

Innovative architecture is defining new neighbourhoods being built to accommodate the fact that Oslo remains one of Europe’s fastest- growing capitals.

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