20 liveable cities / Global
At a time when so much has been turned on its head, we’ve tweaked our annual urban Quality of Life Survey to consider the cities that are best placed to prosper post-pandemic. So here’s how metropolises from Vancouver to Vienna are faring as liveable locations.
What makes for a liveable city? That question has been particularly pertinent since March 2020, as many people have found themselves largely unable to leave their home cities. But while quality of life everywhere was affected by the pandemic, the urban centres that were already doing many things right – offering robust, dependable services, plenty of green space and strong leadership – have managed to fare better than most. There’s a lesson here, of course: get the basics right and it’s easier to weather catastrophe.
Every year we have assessed the quality of life in cities around the world and this year we’re doing it again – but with a twist. We’ve stripped back our usual survey, shedding metrics that don’t feel right for 2021. It is disingenuous, for example, to count the new business openings or number of museums when so much is or has been closed. So, instead, we have taken stock of which cities have got through the past 18 months with some skill and ambition when it comes to preserving quality of life – and which of them are poised to bounce back.
For example, there’s the mayor who took a pay cut to help ease the economic crunch that his municipality faced. Or the city hall that threw its weight behind supporting local businesses and as a result is well placed to prosper in the coming months. Then there are the councils that spotted an opportunity and seized the moment to pursue ambitious urban fixes – from tackling homelessness to neighbourhood overhauls – and implementing them in record time while their cities were locked down.
And though it looms large in everyday life, we don’t just focus on the pandemic. We also gauge how cities are preparing for the future by investing in grand projects that will shape their quality of life for years to come; designing programmes to attract foreign talent when borders are open again; or rethinking how to balance the needs of residents with making space for tourists when they return.
After all, as we have learnt time and again, the best cities in the world square the needs of today with a vision for a better tomorrow.
Taking pride of place.
This year the global media picked up on the Danish word samfundssind, which roughly translates as “society-minded” and conveys a sense of pride in social cohesion. Copenhageners demonstrate their samfundssind in the way that they ensure their city is a place where children can roam free, is accessible to those on lower incomes and has efficient public transport, better air quality and a harbour that’s clean enough to swim in.
So when Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen decreed a lockdown in March 2020, the locals pretty much complied. City residents quarantined and isolated – and brought the infection rate down. The state was quick to provide economic support for most businesses and the testing system is a triumph: tests are free on demand and the result takes 15 minutes to come through on your phone. As a result, restaurants are back in business, theatres are open and life, if not tourism, is getting back to normal.
Yet without the tourists, it seems that Copenhageners are falling in love with their city once again. With its well-preserved cobbled squares, copper-spired beauty, green spaces, ample waterfronts, independent retail scene and a still-expanding choice of restaurants, the Danish capital excels. The new Metro ring has made it easier to access all parts of the city, and the Refshaleøen district is particularly appealing these days due to the presence of the Copenhagen Contemporary art museum and an eclectic range of dining options.
Population: 800,000 in the city; 1,350,000 in the metropolitan area
Unemployment rate: 6.7%
Number of public parks: 78
New infrastructure projects: A Metro extension to Sydhavn should open in 2024.
What needs fixing: Segments of the retail trade have been hit hard. Can the city inspire a new generation of shopkeepers? We thinks so. Top of the agenda could be putting manufacturing on shop floors.
Ever striving for perfection.
Zürich does most things excellently yet it refuses to rest on its laurels. The city’s parliament is finalising its first-ever municipal structure plan for settlement, landscape and public buildings, which is dedicated to preserving the quality of life for residents for the next 20 years. The main goal of the plan is to achieve high-quality densification and, in true Swiss style, the plan will be put to a public vote. Early signs indicate broad support.
Another one of the city’s projects – adding more greenery – will be pursued over the next 20 years as the number of existing parks will be more than doubled with the addition of another 104. As in many cities, the pandemic led to a boom in bike sales and Zürich will add 100km of cycling highways by 2030 thanks, in part, to the repurposing of an unused tunnel beneath the city’s main train station.
After two decades of planning and construction, the David Chipperfield extension of the Kunsthaus Zürich has also opened. Its arrival coincides with the completion of the new Europaallee district near the city’s main station.
Mayor Corine Mauch and her colleagues were nimble and responsive when helping residents and businesses facing financial hardship due to coronavirus. As an unexpected pandemic bonus, Zürich at last loosened up a little in terms of its unnecessary bureaucracy, realising that it shouldn’t be the norm to ask people to hand in about 100 documents to get quick financial support.
Population: 430,000 in the city; 1,600,000 in the metropolitan area
Public parks: 72
Infrastructure projects: Zürich will soon have its first electric buses. Building applications indicate more new housing.
What needs fixing: The city council needs to embrace more liberal opening hours for retail. Four Sundays a year is not enough, especially after a difficult 2020.
Showing an open-minded approach.
Life in Helsinki over the past year has felt much the same as it always has: great. People enjoyed art in excellent galleries such as Amos Rex; dined out in the capital’s enticing restaurants; went swimming at the Allas Sea Pool and met friends for drinks in public.
Outgoing mayor Jan Vapaavuori deserves credit. From the outset, city hall took a business-minded approach to the pandemic, supporting companies with rent exemptions and setting up a centre to provide financial help, training and advice to firms of all sizes. While Finland introduced social distancing rules and travel restrictions, Helsinki took a proactive stance to make sure that its citizens could still enjoy a high quality of life. This included building a 500-seater outdoor terrace for restaurants and bars in a central location and loosening restrictions on other alfresco spaces serving food and drink. A marketing campaign was launched to raise awareness of these hospitality sites in order to boost businesses suffering from the drop in international visitors.
All of this has translated into a thriving entrepreneurial scene. Restaurants have launched and design shops, independent bookshops and art galleries have opened. Popular events such as Helsinki Design Week and the Helsinki art and design biennial (see page 102) were given the go-ahead, proving that the city understands the importance of arts and culture. Helsinki’s proactive and business-friendly approach means that it’s poised for a quick bounce-back.
Population: 657,000 in the city; 1,500,000 in the metropolitan area
Public parks: 907
Infrastructure projects: Trams now run to Hernesaari on the coast. Construction of the Kruunuvuorensilta bridge, Finland’s longest, will start in November.
What needs fixing: Big outdoor areas for restaurants are popular, so why not build some for theatre, cinema and concerts?
Keeping calm and carrying on.
For those watching from abroad, it must have looked as though life in the Swedish capital went on pretty much as normal during the past 18 months. With schools and many businesses staying open and people out and about, it has rarely felt like a city ravaged by a virus.
However, this open approach didn’t prevent a spike of coronavirus cases. Nevertheless, the public has been broadly supportive of the handling of the crisis at home, and Sweden’s economy is faring better than many of its European counterparts. Indeed, business in Stockholm seems to be booming. City leadership has stayed the course thanks to a very Swedish level-headedness and calm, and on the whole the population seems to be behind it.
That might be in part because the government was quick to pump money into helping businesses, large and small, to stay afloat by setting up an easy-to-use application system for financial support throughout the crisis. New hotels, restaurants and bars have opened in the city recently, including Omaka in Östermalm and Jacqueline’s, which have added to Stockholm’s already plentiful offerings. And although restaurant and bar staff have to usher their patrons out by 22.30 to prevent late-night mingling, they seem to be doing good business.
Now that vaccines are reaching more of the population, everything suggests that Stockholm could soon be back to its pre-pandemic self.
Population: 975,500 in the city; 2,400,000 in the metropolitan area
Public parks: 455
Infrastructure projects: The remake of Slussen, a transit hub connecting the old town and Södermalm, is underway, as are extensions of the subway networks.
What needs fixing: Overhaul how the elderly are cared for by improving working conditions and pay among staff.
Passing with flying colours.
Tokyoites are never short on gaman (perseverance) but in the past year they’ve had to dig deep. The Japanese capital has gone through a number of low-level lockdowns and the very features that make it so special – the rush of people, small bars and cosy izakayas – have also been its Achilles’ heel.
Although Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, hasn’t always seen eye to eye with Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, over the handling of the pandemic or the Olympics, the population has just got on with things. Restaurateurs and retailers worked hard to adapt to new rules, while grants from the government have been boosted by subsidies from the city.
Encouraged not to stray outside the city borders, residents have flocked to its outdoor spaces. Neighbourhoods have been busier than usual as people stay close to home, shop on their high streets and steer clear of crowd magnets such as Shinjuku and Shibuya. Places like Bonus Track – a leafy, low-rise cluster of small shops and cafés on old railway land in Shimokitazawa – have come into their own.
Looking ahead to post-coronavirus, post-Olympic life, there are new projects on the horizon and a slew of buildings have been green-lit in neighbourhoods targeted for renovation, such as Nihonbashi. Art Fair Tokyo went ahead this spring and was welcomed with open arms – a good sign for the future. Tokyo is raring to go and will bounce back quickly. When it does, credit should go to the capital’s resilient citizens.
Population: 9,600,000 (central 23 wards)
Public parks: 9,646
Infrastructure projects: Property giant Mitsui Fudosan is embarking on a radical transformation of Nihonbashi that will take up to 20 years and ¥1trn (€7.5bn).
What needs fixing: Public consultation.Closing off much of the vital green space of Yoyogi Park until October proved to be a very unpopular decision.
The view from London
By Megan Gibson
It’s perhaps a cliché but it’s true nonetheless: no other city comes alive in the sunshine in quite the way that London does. Even in Canada – where I grew up with long, dark winters – cities don’t transform themselves in the summer like the UK capital.
It’s like clockwork. At the first hint of a heatwave, parks heave with sunbathers; merry revellers, drinks in hand, spill out of bars to bask on the pavement; people smile at one another on the street. You’re far more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger in July than you would be in February. This summer is no exception; London has once again transformed – and then some. In addition to the thrill of the warm weather after a particularly dreary spring, the city is now infused with something that it hasn’t experienced in a long time: optimism.
Thanks to an exceptional vaccine roll-out and increasingly loosened restrictions that mean gatherings and even parties are back on the agenda, many Londoners are grateful to call the city home. The last time I saw this much palpable civic pride and camaraderie surging through the capital was in 2012 during the London Olympic Games. Much has changed in the intervening nine years but at last we’re falling in love with our city all over again.
Stronger for the experience.
After a series of lockdowns, Vienna has emerged into summer full of hope and confidence. Its vaccination drive has gathered steam and its theatres, restaurants, cinemas and shops are now open for business. Last October, municipal elections resulted in the neoliberal neos party forming a coalition with the long-serving Social Democrats. Following public anger at a perceived lack of support for artists, the federal and city governments extended generous handouts to the Kulturbereich (“cultural sphere”) as well as business owners and freelancers. That support led to several new openings, including plant shop Calienna and the Kunstverein Gartenhaus gallery.
Aside from the pandemic, a pivotal event took place in November, when an Islamist terrorist killed four people and wounded more than 20. The first such attack in the city since 1985 prompted an outpouring of solidarity, reopening the debate over the need for more tolerance and inclusiveness in schools. Encouragingly, the Austrian far-right, which was in government just over two years ago, is now polling at its lowest level for decades.
Throughout the turmoil of the past 18 months, officials stayed committed to improving the city. Work continued on the new U5 U-Bahn line and the pedestrianisation of streets around its stations; while more cycle paths were opened. Vienna also continued to build subsidised housing, determined to meet its target of creating some 1,000 flats every year.
Population: 1,900,000 in the city; 2,600,000 in the metropolitan area
Public parks: 991
Infrastructure projects: As well as 21 new cycle lanes, work continues on the U5 U-Bahn line, which will become Austria’s first automatic line when it opens in 2026.
What needs fixing: After months of tight controls, city hall should begin listening to its citizens’ demands once again.
Displaying unity of purpose.
Lisbon breathed a sigh of relief when tourists were allowed back into Portugal in May, just in time for the summer season. Much of city hall’s efforts during the past 18 months had been about mitigating the impact of the more than 80 per cent drop in visitor numbers. With the hospitality and restaurant sectors badly hit, the Lisboa Protege programme was launched in November 2020 with the aim of protecting jobs and wages via €90m of funds and tax exemptions. It was a critical lifeline to many families and businesses.
The past year has also inspired some longer-term fixes for the city. A “safe rent” programme, in which city hall leases properties from private landlords on five-year contracts, then sublets them at accessible prices to residents, found some momentum. Given the dramatic decline in Airbnb bookings, the programme kills two birds with one stone: it offers property owners some financial security and helps to address the city’s lack of affordable housing.
There has also been a fresh opportunity for Lisbon residents to appreciate what the city gets right. Without the crowds of tourists and tuk-tuks, Lisbon’s good looks, proximity to nature, agreeable weather and social cohesion became ever more apparent. Citizens have come together in endearing ways to help one another, such as the welcome revival of farmers markets as a means of helping to offset the losses suffered by producers due to closed restaurants.
Population: 505,000 in the city; 2,000,000 in the metropolitan area
Public parks: 113
Infrastructure projects: Lisbon plans to have 200km of cycle paths by the end of the year; a further 80 bike-sharing stations should be in place by then.
What needs fixing: The city has to reconsider how the tourism industry can safeguard residents’ interests.
The view from Paris
By Annabelle Chapman
When the wave of lockdowns began in March 2020, life in Paris became about the small pleasures. Gone were the lively café terraces, theatre outings and even – due to an early 18.00 curfew – evening strolls. During the winter, when most other indoor spaces were closed, Paris’s bookshops became a refuge. The sight of other book lovers browsing L’Écume des Pages or Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank reminded us that we were not alone.
French food offered solace too. For some people that meant ordering delivery from a Michelin-starred restaurant. For others, including me, it meant seeking out the best produce at the local street market, in my case Rue de Lévis in the 17th arrondissement. To make it home before the curfew, I shopped strategically, standing in line for a baguette at my favourite bakery, Léonie, while my boyfriend queued outside the fromagerie or wine shop. Back at the flat, we shared our bounty as the sun set over empty streets.
As Paris springs back to life, I won’t miss those empty streets. Yet the past year has highlighted that city dwellers need space to live, move and breathe too. Without the crowds and traffic, pedestrians and cyclists at last had some space. This is a lesson that will carry on post-pandemic: mayor Anne Hidalgo’s plan to ban most vehicle traffic crossing the city centre in 2022 will mean less pollution and noise, and a better quality of life going forwards.
Flourishing out of the spotlight.
Auckland’s events calendar during the past year has been busier than most. It has hosted international sporting events such as the America’s Cup yacht race, while crowds are returning to theatres and stadiums to see touring artists. For the most part, the city has barely had to think about the trials that the rest of the world has faced, aside from the fact that New Zealand has been almost entirely closed to visitors. But for the residents, Auckland remains a charming harbourside hub.
Te Komititanga – a new public square by the harbour, which opened in December 2020 – has shown the benefit of pedestrianisation, although Auckland’s reliance on the automobile is proving hard to shake. New Zealand has the world’s fourth-highest number of cars per capita and though the long-awaited City Rail Link should help to wean Aucklanders off the motor, completion of the project is some way off. The city set a new record in median house prices this year, cracking the nz$1m (€590,000) mark, making it even tougher for those looking to get on the property ladder.
A glut of galleries and music venues has allowed local culture to flourish, while the dining scene has continued to grow. The upmarket Onemata restaurant has arrived alongside the Park Hyatt Auckland, while relaxed Bar Céleste is a great option on busy Karangahape Road. The challenge now is to figure out how to ease regulations and make it possible for the rest of the world to see all the changes.
Public parks: About 4,000
Infrastructure projects: Auckland’s underground City Rail Link project rolls on towards a rescheduled 2024 opening but costs are rising quickly.
What needs fixing: Better transport links in the southern suburbs could make them more attractive to home buyers and thus ease the centre’s skyrocketing house prices.
Standing up for itself.
With its low cost of living, walkable neighbourhoods and one of the best healthcare systems in the world, Taipei is a hidden Asian gem. The city takes itself extremely seriously, mostly because the rest of the world often overlooks it. As the capital of a diplomatically isolated island, Taipei has learned how to fend for itself through a feisty sense of self-reliance.
Taipei has one of the world’s highest recycling rates at 67 per cent, while offering easy access to fresh Taiwanese produce via a market in every district. It’s easy to get around thanks to a robust public-transport network, a growing number of cycle lanes and a popular electric-scooter rental programme subsidised by the government. With thriving cafés, impressive independent retail offerings and an ever-growing art scene, there’s also plenty of creative buzz in Taipei. Yet despite being a metropolitan hub, there’s a folksy quaintness to the city.
Taipei, situated on the edge of many hiking trails, is in the subtropics and it shows. It’s common to find trails of vines climbing up the side of apartments, potted papaya trees alongside the roads and cascading bird’s nest ferns dangling from balconies.
For much of 2020, Taipei was a glittering exception in a world ravaged by the pandemic. It had few domestic coronavirus cases thanks to contact tracing and strict home quarantine. Although it experienced partial lockdowns this May, following a spike in cases, quality of life in Taipei has remained good.
Public parks: 1,075
Infrastructure projects: A new metro link, the Circular Line, is currently under construction and will further connect Taipei and New Taipei City.
What needs fixing: Street vendors have been hit hard by the pandemic. Helping them to diversify their sales channels is key to preserving the traditional foodscape.
Somewhere to sing about.
Perhaps Sydney’s success in navigating the pandemic can be summed up in one word: Hamilton. When the stage musical drew back the curtains on its first Australian performance in March 2021 it was the only place in the world it was showing. The moment affirmed a couple of truisms about Sydney: one, that it is now a truly global city; and two, that its state leaders have done an exemplary job in staunching the spread of the virus.
No doubt the Australian government’s swift decision to close its borders played a part but local authorities must be praised too. After the initial two-month quarantine, Sydney has only had short, often localised lockdowns. That is largely due to the New South Wales state government’s investment in its public-health infrastructure over the past 20 years. Thanks to this prescience, life in Sydney is back to normal; few people wear masks and events are returning.
One way that businesses are being supported is via nsw’s “dine and discover” vouchers, a government scheme subsidising people’s entertainment as a way to drive spending and get them back out into the community.
There are of course downsides to Sydney: unaffordable housing and rents; excessive development rendering some suburbs unrecognisable; and unreliable public transport. Yet the city – cosmopolitan and coronavirus- free – serves as an example of how good governance and foresight can pay off, even in the most unexpected circumstances.
Public parks: More than 400
Infrastructure projects: The WestConnex motorway, Western Sydney Airport and extensions to the metro rail.
What needs fixing: Sydney’s beauty can mask its problems, such as its ever-deepening economic divide and rising cost of housing. Clever policy-making around welfare and housing are needed.
Still a big friendly giant.
Walk through the many beautiful parks along Seoul’s Han river and the immensity of this city of nearly 10 million soon hits you. The skyline seems to form man-made mountains, mirroring the actual ones that surround the South Korean capital.
Yet Seoul’s scale doesn’t stop it from being accessible. Public transportation is inexpensive and user-friendly (free wi-fi!), with metro and bus lines spreading beyond the city limits. Housing is also affordable when compared with other major cities such as London or New York. And there seems to be a neighbourhood in which you can indulge every sort of pursuit: Hongdae for music; Hyehwa for theatre; Itaewon for diverse and excellent f&b options. Yet to be fair, every neighbourhood offers a bit of everything else too – this is a city where old palace walls stand stoically by the newest electric cars.
Although the past year has been tough on business, the government has been lauded internationally for its prevention and tracking schemes, thereby limiting coronavirus from spreading too widely in this densely packed city. Seoulites have generally been respectful of public safety, wearing masks and keeping their distance. Yet they have also been determined to savour all the accessible attractions of their beloved city: the mountains are full of hikers, popular barbecue joints are bustling and the artificially revived Cheonggyecheon stream is blooming with greenery and people enjoying picnics.
Public parks: 2,868
Infrastructure projects: Yongsan Park, which will reappropriate the former US military base in the heart of Seoul into a huge public park, due to open in 2027.
What needs fixing: The key to Seoul’s recovery is vaccination. As of May, about 10 per cent of the South Korean population had received their first shot.
Always a natural-born winner.
One of Vancouver’s greatest assets – its natural setting on British Columbia’s breathtaking coast – has played a key role during a difficult year. The city’s response to the pandemic has been nimble and its network of public spaces and proximity to the great outdoors have been invaluable resources.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart has been a frank voice during the pandemic: in April 2020 he took a 10 per cent pay cut to reflect the pandemic’s toll on the city’s economy. And in response to Vancouver’s anti-racism protests last summer, he spearheaded moves to outlaw police spot-checks. He’s also worked to tackle discrimination against the large Asian population, which has risen since the pandemic began.
Although Vancouver’s major sectors of tourism, manufacturing and shipping have been disrupted, financial packages for the hotel sector and independent businesses have been thoughtful and targeted. There have been bright spots in other parts of the economy too. The city’s television and film-making sectors have continued to attract major productions to the city, fuelled by lockdown-induced surges in streaming services.
Buildings by architects including Bjarke Ingels and Kengo Kuma are under construction; work on a ca$2.8bn (€1.9bn) underground-rail extension has begun and a new e-bike cargo hub launched in May. Coupled with an ongoing public consultation on the city’s future, there is an opportunity to ensure that Vancouver’s recovery caters for everyone.
Population: 600,000 in the city; 2,900,000 in the metropolitan area
Public parks: 240
Infrastructure projects: Senákw, a landmark residential and commercial development led by the Squamish First Nation, is scheduled to start later this year.
What needs fixing: The construction of good, affordable housing has slowed. This needs to be rectified.
Viewing a brave new world.
Munich has long enjoyed the golden mix of a sunny climate, stunning natural surroundings and sufficient wealth to finance top-class entertainment ranging from museums, theatres and orchestras to one of Europe’s most successful football clubs.
Two recent developments have injected dynamism. First, the city’s rise as a start-up and technology cluster. Corporate giants such as bmw, Siemens and Allianz are paired with excellent universities. This boom is flanked by Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, which have all increased their presence. The change has created attractive jobs and improved the economy’s resilience.
There has also been a political rejuvenation: elections in 2020 replaced the feuding grand coalition with an alliance led by the emergent Greens. The new, youthful city council singled-out two goals: reaching carbon-neutrality by 2035 and reallocating public space from cars to pedestrians and cyclists. To help, it designed bonds to raise €100m a year to finance green initiatives while steadfastly implementing the Radentscheid, a petition passed in 2019 to upgrade cycling infrastructure by measures such as building a 2.8m-wide cycle lane along the inner ring road.
Coronavirus gave such initiatives a push. The city converted 10 streets into temporary pedestrian zones; tested pop-up bike lanes and made four of them permanent; and installed almost 1,000 open-air seating areas for restaurants and cafés.
Population: 1,600,000 in the city; 2,900,000 in the metropolitan area.
Public parks: More than 1,200
Infrastructure projects: Radentscheid, the expansion and improvement of cycling facilities, continues to be implemented.
What needs fixing: The city must further drive sustainability, affordable housing and digital services, as well as easing conflicts between night-time crowds and residents.
Made of stern stuff.
One of Berlin’s worn-out clichés is that it’s a city that’s always becoming, never just being. True, but the past 18 months have shown that a certain resilience comes with having practice at rolling with the punches. Mayor Michael Müller’s social-democratic city government responded quickly to the pandemic’s challenges by offering freelancers and small companies €5,000 to €19,000 in late March 2020. Other forms of aid have bridged business shortfalls in the months since. New multi-month grants for artists began rolling out in autumn 2020. And innovative solutions for tourism and culture, two of Berlin’s calling cards, are still being implemented, such as turning the legendary Berghain club into a museum.
Berlin saw a lot of change over the past year: after a nearly decade-long delay, the new airport opened on 31 October; the long-awaited Humboldt Forum cultural centre partially opened in late 2020; and the U5 subway-line extension went into operation in December. Meanwhile, the New National Gallery opens its doors again after a six-year David Chipperfield-led renovation in August and, just outside the city, a new mega-factory for Tesla is set to open in 2022.
Not every attempt at improving the quality of life here has been successful: the city introduced a rent cap in December but the federal court system had reversed it by the spring. Disappointing, yes, but Berliners can take heart that officials are looking for sensible solutions in their city.
Population: 3,600,000 in the city; 6,000,000 in the metropolitan area.
Public parks: More than 2,500
Infrastructure projects: These include the Tesla factory; another museum-island stop on the U5; and Herzog & de Meuron’s Museum of the 20th Century.
What needs fixing: It’s unclear how core attractions – nightclubs, museums, bars, theatres and restaurants – will bounce back.
The view from Hong Kong
By James Chambers
In Hong Kong we talk a lot about freedoms – particularly speech, press and assembly – as being under threat. These are all fundamental rights that will determine the long-term liveability of this city. But in the past 12 months many other freedoms have come to the fore and had a more immediate bearing on our everyday quality of life. These include such things as eating in a restaurant, working at the office, visiting a shop, going to an art gallery, meeting people and standing shoulder to shoulder on the subway.
In Hong Kong we have been able to enjoy these basic freedoms almost uninterrupted. Yes, this came with certain restrictions and adjustments (wear a mask and avoid large groups) but the crowds never went away and no one was telling us how we could mix or behave in the privacy of our own homes. Lockdown was simply a word that we picked up during video calls with overseas friends and family, who were confined to their apartments, while asking us how we were coping with Beijing’s encroachment on our individual liberties.
As we get back to talking about these loftier ideals, we should not forget the basics. Cities can be safe and relatively enjoyable spaces during a global pandemic, provided that governments take decisive action and citizens behave responsibly. And if I have to be stuck anywhere in the world right now, I’m actually really glad that it’s Hong Kong.
Ready to make changes.
The low-cost-carrier-causing “over-tourism” that has been the bugbear of Amsterdam’s chattering classes for a decade – a record 20 million foreign visitors came to the city in 2019 – disappeared more or less overnight in 2020. Mayor Femke Halsema has since tabled a post-pandemic “reset” that seeks to retain something of the newfound serenity while getting the vital hospitality sector back on its feet. Things are already looking up in Leidseplein. This previously unlovely “entertainment district” near the Vondelpark has had a major makeover, incorporating underground parking for 2,000 bikes and good street furniture.
More controversial is Halsema’s plan to relocate sex workers from De Wallen, the city’s foremost red-light district, into a German-style out-of-town erotic entertainment complex. And the jury is still out on proposals to ban tourists from weed-selling “coffee shops”. For some, such measures represent yet more intolerable gentrification for a city that, post-Brexit, has ousted London as Europe’s share-trading capital.
But creativity and commerce have always been symbiotic here and a €21.4m rehabilitation fund for the arts is being supplemented by a scheme pairing cultural institutions with experienced mentors from the business community. As the city shoots for the sweet spot between a return to the Hogarthian scenes of yesteryear and a future of pinstriped luxury, one thing seems assured – exciting times are ahead for Amsterdam.
Population: 863,000 in the city; 1,200,000 in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 5.6%
Public parks: 33
Infrastructure projects: A water buffer system will be trialled on De Ruyterkade to protect drinking water.
What needs fixing: After the implosion of the De School venue following a string of scandals, the city should invest in cultural spaces that actually serve the community.
No room for complacency.
Madrileños have a certain swagger of late, emboldened by their newfound identity as Europe’s cradle of “liberty”. Or is that libertarianism? With recently re-elected right-wing regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso promising to let people get on with their lives, businesses have remained open, terraces are full and restrictions on daily life have been kept to a minimum. The dividend is a population liberated from the political squabbles that normally overwhelm the city’s soundscape – a rare feat for a capital that lives and breathes politics.
But even as they sate life’s simple pleasures, Madrileños are being let down by their leadership. The Spanish capital breathes some of Europe’s most contaminated air. While strides were made to remedy this during the previous administration, mayor José Luis Almeida has undermined attempts to curtail traffic and done little to imagine efficient solutions. A freak February snowstorm damaged or destroyed about 700,000 of Madrid’s trees, making moves to improve air quality even more urgent.
Leadership, both in city hall and the regional government, can’t hide behind pithy slogans and claims of leaving the city to its own devices, especially when they are actively reversing previous urban interventions and challenging pollution-reduction laws in the courts. Thriving gastronomy, a vibrant culture and beautiful plazas aren’t worth much if the atmosphere sustaining them is suffocated by rising toxicity.
Population: 3,300,000 in the city; 6,600,000 in the metropolitan area.
Public parks: 205
Infrastructure projects: The Gran Vía metro station reopens this July.
What needs fixing: Madrid must improve its air quality. Why not transform more of the streets into alfresco dining areas? This could reduce fumes and be a boon for businesses.
Building on strong foundations.
Sunny Melbourne can acclaim its independent shops along bluestone lanes, an array of sporting and cultural events, the waters of Phillip Bay and myriad lush parks. It’s little wonder that people flock here. The metropolitan area’s population has just nudged five million and planners are scrambling to keep the town liveable while accommodating growth.
It’s not all easy living, of course. Between a brutal bushfire season, which curtailed international tourism, and an extended and repeated lockdown, Melbourne is expected to lose au$110bn (€70bn) over the next five years – a disproportionate economic impact compared with other big Australian cities. Yet thanks to the deft civic leadership under the helm of mayor Sally Capp, who was re-elected at the end of last year, brighter days will return to the southern capital.
When not locked down, street life is vibrant thanks to council initiatives such as free cultural programming, as well as relaxed laws around late-night hospitality and alcohol licensing. Melbourne already has the world’s largest tram network, with 250km of double tracks, and investments are being made in the rail network. Further green efforts are also notable: au$60m (€38m) has been earmarked for public space and garden projects. In the past year, several streets have been converted to pedestrian zones, while cyclists have 40km of new bike lanes. In addition, more than 100,000 trees have been planted to bolster an already leafy urban canopy.
Population: 201,000 in the city; 5,000,000 in the metropolitan area.
Green space: Parks and gardens make up almost 15 per cent of the city’s total area.
Infrastructure projects: The Southbank arts precinct redevelopment project will shore up Melbourne’s cultural clout.
What needs fixing: The cost of housing, especially if Melbourne wants to retain its young talent.
Home is where the heart is.
The layout of Kyoto has proved a boon for quality of life in the city this year. The Kamo river, which bisects the metropolis, provides a central oasis along which residents can picnic, jog or gather in small groups in order to rewind and recharge. Meanwhile, a hike in the mountains that surround the city is only a quick drive or train ride away.
But city hall also took an active role in improving life for residents this year as officials responded to the pandemic with concerted efforts to ensure that Kyoto’s cultural output remained buoyant. As early as July 2020, the city launched a series of bold rescue programmes and funds for the industry. A grant of up to ¥2m (€15,000) was provided to 11 art projects, while payments of up to ¥300,000 (€2,250) were given to more than 1,000 artists and cultural organisations that were in need of help. Kyoto also co-ordinated a citywide art project and funded the costs of participation for seven groups to play music, perform traditional Japanese Noh dance-drama and make films.
In recent years, Kyoto’s economy has been dominated by tourism: the number of establishments that offer accommodation jumped from 1,002 in 2014 to 3,783 in 2020. City hall has tried to make up for the pandemic-related hospitality hit where it can; following guidelines from central government, Kyoto will allow food and drink businesses in designated areas to set up outdoor seats on the pavement adjacent to their premises.
Unemployment 2.6% (Kyoto prefecture)
Public parks: 939
Infrastructure projects: The city is working with Higashi Hongan-ji temple to create a vast green square where people can relax. It’s due to open in March 202
Keeping a good thing going.
Brisbane has long offered its residents affordable living, exciting f&b options and plenty of sunshine. But the pandemic allowed Brisbanites to look inwards and take stock of how good they have it. Throughout, the city’s residents enjoyed a relatively limited range of restrictions. The city’s low case numbers were thanks in part to a state government that quickly closed borders to other states. This meant that residents enjoyed a fairly normal existence but many of them couldn’t see family and friends across state lines. It also had a more dramatic effect on the city as there was a decrease in the brain drain of young talent to southern cities or abroad. Instead, young people have been buying properties and settling here. And when borders did reopen, 30,000 southern Australians, the largest number in 16 years, moved to the city to enjoy the lower cost of living.
Even long-term residents are finding a renewed appreciation of often-overlooked natural assets such as Mt Coot-tha, the Brisbane river, and Moreton Bay and its islands. The city’s dining scene continues to impress and long-term investors such as Aria are pouring money into smart, city-building projects, such as the Richards & Spence-designed Fish Lane and the Urban Forest high rise.
What’s more, Brisbane and its neighbours seem likely to win the bid to host the 2032 summer Olympic Games, so there is plenty of optimism – and new infrastructure – on the horizon too.
Population: 1,300,000 in the city; 2,700,000 in the metropolitan area.
Public parks: 2,173
Infrastructure projects: A new international airport terminal is set to open in 2032, while Victoria Park is to be converted into a vast green space.
What needs fixing: Housing is too often built to satisfy developer spreadsheets. More smart homes are needed.
Momentum for lasting change.
With its natural beauty, sun-drenched streets, beaches and rolling hills, Los Angeles has long been an attractive place to live. And due to its dynamic culinary scene, thriving nightlife and plenty of cultural offerings, Angelenos are never short on things to do.
Even some of the city’s more entrenched problems have been somewhat eased over the past 18 months. Homelessness has long been Los Angeles’s most intractable challenge but the pandemic presented an opportunity to address it. With the city’s tourism business stopped in its tracks, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (in collaboration with the state) began renting vacant hotels, putting rough sleepers into their own rooms as part of what was called Project Roomkey. At its peak, more than 38 properties were used across Los Angeles county, getting thousands of people off the streets. The urgent need to keep vulnerable people out of dense shelter settings has subsided but there has been talk about extending the programme. Project Roomkey is a useful model for what a permanent anti-homelessness policy could look like, even though something needs to be done to address the underlying problem: caps on residential density that limit new housing and make the region unaffordable.
Los Angeles is well-positioned to benefit from a strong US economy, and the resumption of tourism and business travel from Asia will give the country’s premier transpacific gateway a particular boost.
Population: 4,000,000 in the city; 13,200,000 in the metropolitan area.
Public parks: 446 (Los Angeles city)
Infrastructure projects: The Airport Metro Connector should deliver passengers to lax by rail from 2024; the Purple Line extension will bring the metro to Westside.
What needs fixing: Mayor Eric Garcetti’s exit creates a void. The city now lacks a leader to fight its cause in Washington.
Photographer: Jan Søndergaard, Felix Odell, Saskia Wilson, Juho Kuva, Véronique Hoegger, Fuminari Yoshitsugu, Matilde Viegas