Paradise cities - part 1 - Issue 165 - Magazine | Monocle
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When Monocle’s Quality of Life survey was first published – in 2007, the year of the magazine’s foundation – the rise of a particular type of city seemed inexorable: large, highly diverse places, open to talent and views from around the world, and tethered to the global financial markets. Those criteria were made manifest most successfully, or so it appeared, by three cities: New York, London and Hong Kong. Much has changed since then. Today these three places are suffering from social, economic and political turmoil, much of it self-inflicted. 

In the case of New York, its problems – wealth inequality, violent crime and poor mental-health provision – are emblematic of a wider urban malaise in North America since the pandemic. For many cities in the US and Canada, lockdown restrictions turbocharged a fraying of the social fabric and what lies ahead remains uncertain. But what is clear is that issues of security are now central to discussions about quality of life – and where and how people want to live. That’s why we have included new metrics to quantify the effect that this is having on citizens. For the first time, this survey takes into account factors such as violent crime per capita and trust in police.

To help assess the effect of inflation on city living, we have also included metrics on the year-on-year rise in rent, as well as child poverty rates. All of this has meant that the cost of living has had more of a bearing on which cities have made the top 20 than ever before. It is why, for example, Athens – a cheap, cheerful, at times chaotic place – has made it into this year’s ranking.

Though, for those reasons mentioned above, no North American cities are included in our list, the ranking is not a closed shop and we are optimistic that places such as Los Angeles and Vancouver can turn things around. Our optimism is based on the conviction that cities are still the engines of human progress and the more open, equal and diverse they are, the better – and also, of course, the evidence supplied by those places around the world doing things well.

The cities that have scored highly include Singapore, where civic leaders are working hard to make one of the world’s greenest large urban centres even greener. Then there’s Vienna, a place that scores highly on public transport but is not resting on its laurels in this regard. And there’s Tokyo, which has finally awoken from its long pandemic-induced slumber with a zeal for building inventive and exciting new developments. And Amsterdam, where a clean-air strategy is getting even more people onto bikes and boats. We could go on, and we do – on the following pages.

Key metrics explainer

Adopt: Initiatives and policies that would benefit the city.

Drop: Problem areas that are holding the city back.

Crime rate: number of reported crimes per 100,000 people.


1. Vienna

The forward-looking historic city.

Adopt: Extended trading hours during evenings and on Sundays. This simple measure would be a huge economic boon for the city.

Drop: Overly fussy regulations that prohibit things such as plant pots in the street.

Population: 1,980,000 (metro: 3.7 million).

Crime rate: 0.72 per 100,000 people.

Average working week: 35.9 hours.

Number of homes built in the past year: 17,000.

With Vienna’s stunning baroque architecture and refurbished parliament building, it’s easy to forget its natural beauty. But there are hills, lakes and rivers within the city limits. As the sun returns, so do the Viennese – to the water. Danube Island is a popular spot, as are public swimming areas such as the Gänsehäufel on the Alte Donau.

Meanwhile, museums have been celebrating the 150th anniversary of the event that turned the city into a global metropolis: the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair. Though it was a financial disaster, it rekindled European interest in Japanese and Middle Eastern arts and crafts, which in turn inspired Viennese artists such as Gustav Klimt.

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City authorities have pressed on with their plan to build more social housing, while crime is at its lowest rate in 20 years. A network of community-run parklets known as Grätzloasen, set up by former deputy mayor Maria Vassilakou (see page 37), has continued to expand into neighbourhoods devoid of public space. Vienna’s excellent transport system is seeing two more additions, both produced by Siemens, whose factory is located within the city: driverless X-Wagen trains for the Vienna U-Bahn and new Nightjet sleeper trains for Austria’s national railway operator, öbb. Construction has continued on the new U5 U-Bahn line, though the planned reopening of a section of the U2 line has been delayed until next year. But even without it, Vienna has an embarrassment of transport riches.

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2. Copenhagen

The well-balanced Nordic capital.

Adopt: Later opening times. It’s not the easiest place to get a decent meal after 22.00.

Drop: Gas-guzzlers. While good by European standards, Denmark has the worst air in the Nordics, with Copenhagen the country’s most polluted city.

Population: 644,431 (metro: 1.4 million).

Unemployment: 3.3 per cent.

Ambulance response times: 97.2 per cent arrive within 15 minutes.

Percentage of commuters who cycle to work: 62 per cent.

One year on from its triumph in our last Quality of Life Survey, things are going swimmingly in Denmark’s capital. Local authorities have greenlit a plan to make its waterfront accessible to swimmers after years of restricting the number of bathing areas. As well as freeing up crowded hot spots in the warmer months, this will make the most of the city’s geographical advantages.

Meanwhile, its extensive public-transport network is receiving a boost. Multiple new metro lines are under way, with a link between Copenhagen and Malmö looking likely – though the two cities are still quibbling over who will pay. The 20-minute connection would make them Scandinavia’s largest urban area and a mighty economic, social and cultural hub.

The city’s housing market has dipped slightly over the past year, with prices falling by a few percentage points. Following the implementation of the “ghetto law”, which has led to families being relocated from social-housing estates, the city has announced that 40 per cent of new builds must go to public housing to encourage a better balance.

Crime rates have fallen for the fifth year in a row. What worries Copenhageners most today is bike theft. The war in Ukraine has led to the Danes sacrificing a bank holiday for the first time in more than 250 years as the cabinet of the country’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, seeks to boost the defence budget. That’s one more day a year when locals will need to cycle to work.


3. Munich

Where technology meets tradition.

Adopt: More ambitious renewable-energy policies, such as harnessing solar and geothermal power. Munich has a lot of potential but often falls short.

Drop: Political in-fighting. The city’s governing coalition too often struggles to implement its programme effectively.

Population: 1,574,110 (metro: 6.2 million).

Average monthly cost of renting a one-bedroom flat: €1,800.

Cost of a monthly travel card: €59.10.

Number of public parks: 1,200.

Germany’s former president Roman Herzog once praised Bavaria for its “symbiosis between laptops and lederhosen” – and in Munich both are flourishing. The leather shorts were on last year as Oktoberfest reopened after two years of pandemic-related restrictions. Munich’s technology companies, concentrated in the “Isar Valley”, also thrived. The area’s mix of top universities, visionary investors and local champions such as Siemens, Allianz and bmw is increasingly being supplemented by US titans. In step with Amazon, ibm, Microsoft and Google, Apple will boost its presence with a €1bn investment. Critics warn of gentrification but it will bring jobs, know-how and new charging stations.

Mobility has benefited from a dedicated municipal department that has built cycle tracks, pedestrian zones and the first metres of long-planned bike highways connecting the suburbs to the centre. Planners have been further emboldened by successful experiments, including transforming car lanes into cycle lanes and parking spaces into restaurant terraces. Such measures have helped to raise the number of bike trips by 70 per cent over 10 years and cut nitrogen-dioxide levels by about 30 per cent over five years. Munich’s brightest experiment is the interim use of vacant buildings, which is currently reviving two titans: a 70-year-old department store and the Gasteig culture centre. These will host concerts, bars, restaurants and arts studios – a typical Münchner mix of tradition and modernity.

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4. Zürich

The flourishing city on the lake.

Adopt: A more concerted plan to clean up graffiti.

Drop: Restrictive Sunday trading hours.

Population: 443,000 (metro: 1.6 million).

Unemployment: 1.7 per cent.

Proportion of workforce in the creative sector: 11 per cent (about 80,800 jobs in the city).

Average price of a glass of wine: €14.

Number of public parks: 72.

Number of hotel rooms in the city: More than 9,100.

Zürich has never been more populous, with 443,000 people calling the city home at the end of 2022, surpassing the previous record from 1962. The downside of this is the low number of flats available to rent: in June there were just 161 in the whole city. This has led to rising house prices and rents in a place already infamous for its high cost of living. To ease the burden on young families, citizens voted to make every school responsible for looking after children all day and feeding them at lunch but, in typical Swiss fashion, the transition period is long and the measure won’t come into effect until 2030. That year, Zürich also hopes to finish installing 100km of cycle lanes, an initiative that sounds good on paper but has so far seen little tangible success.

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The financial hub is still recovering from the downfall of Credit Suisse, a huge part of local life since 1856 (ubs’s takeover of the ailing bank has not yet officially gone through). With its iconic Paradeplatz headquarters, Credit Suisse was a major employer and the sponsor of many cultural events. But the city will hopefully bounce back quickly and concentrate on the many things that it does well, such as organising big events. The Züri Fäscht, Switzerland’s largest folk festival, takes place in July for the first time since the pandemic began. The last edition attracted about two million visitors; organisers hope that this year’s will exceed that number and show the world how clean and efficient this Swiss city can be.

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Rising again

Ukraine

It might seem odd to talk about rebuilding Ukraine’s cities while continuing to pledge weapons and military support but at the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum in May it was clear that these conversations must happen simultaneously. During the two-day summit, the war in Ukraine and what its reconstruction might look like took centre stage.

“The time to plan our rebuilding is now,” Oleksandr Syenkevych, the mayor of Mykolaiv, told monocle in Brussels. “We can’t wait until the war is over.” Syenkevych’s city was one of the first that Russia tried to capture. They eventually withdrew but the city’s population has fallen from 500,000 to 350,000. Rebuilding, says Syenkevych, is the best way to ensure that people return. “We need to make our city safe and create the infrastructure for regular life even as the war continues.”

Financing for the rebuild has mostly come from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (ebrd), which has granted Ukraine €1.7bn since the war began. “We are the largest institutional investor in Ukraine at the moment,” Odile Renaud-Basso, the ebrd’s president, tells monocle. “But the type of investments that we make has changed. We are now more focused on supporting key infrastructure, such as electricity, heating and railways.”

The rebuilding of Ukraine has been described as the world’s largest infrastructure project. The World Bank estimates the cost at $350bn (€329bn). If the country is to attract the best foreign investors and donors, there needs to be guarantees when it comes to the risk of potential future destruction.


5. Stockholm

A city of Nordic beauty and charm.

Adopt: Measures to get commuters out of their cars and onto bicycles. Though the city has an extensive network of bike lanes, few residents currently cycle to work.

Drop: Spending cutbacks that have led to threats of strike action. 

Population: 986,340 (metro: 1.7 million).

Chain test – how many Starbucks in the city? 2.

Cycle lanes: More than 1,126km.

Percentage of commuters who cycle to work: 6 per cent.

After a long winter, Stockholm’s citizens are back celebrating a city that truly comes alive in the sun. Indeed, in recent months, it is unlikely that you will have heard talk of a gloomy economic outlook or a spike in gang-related violence. These topics, however, are always simmering under the surface. Stockholm was rocked by a number of deadly shootings in early 2023 and there is a big question mark over how the new right-wing national government is planning to deal with these developments.

But setting aside the politics of a city that has long struggled with issues such as integration and housing, Sweden’s capital is opening its arms to larger numbers of visitors this summer. The final touches are now being added to a new area of Arlanda airport that will ease passenger flow through a hyper-modern security check. The design by Swedish practice Tengbom epitomises the Nordic sensibility and elegance, with limestone flooring and blond-ash-tree panelling.

This is why people still come here: to get a taste of those appealing attributes and to stroll through a city that is as beautiful as it is sophisticated. Stockholm has so much to offer, from wild nature in the middle of the city to a rich cultural scene and eating-out options that are becoming better and more varied with every summer season. It’s a city that serves up a balanced mix of open-mindedness and forward-thinking optimism. And for these qualities it will always attract newcomers.


6. Tokyo

The dynamic Japanese capital.

Adopt: More projects like SasaHataHatsu, a grass-roots effort to regreen a section of a historic freshwater canal in Shibuya.

Drop: Inconsiderate developers. Innovation is good but more thought is needed on existing buildings. Tokyo’s 1960s and 1970s heritage could disappear.

Population: 9,660,461 (metro: 37 million).

Crime rate: 0.25 per 100,000 people.

Percentage change in rent since last year: 3.2 per cent.

Cost of monthly travel card (Metro): ¥17,700 (€118)

The borders are fully open, masks are off and Tokyo is back in business. Japan’s capital is a restless city and change is a constant. Neighbourhoods are being reconfigured and reinvented through ambitious redevelopment projects. Just this year, two huge projects by the same developer will open in central Tokyo: Toranomon Hills Station Tower, a 49-storey office and retail development, and the even bigger Azabudai Hills.

Covering eight hectares, with three towers and a low-rise area designed by the London-based Heatherwick Studios, the development will feature residences, offices, shops, a hotel, a school and space for a workforce of 20,000 people. Another giant skyscraper, Yaesu Midtown, recently opened close to Tokyo Station. One of the biggest infrastructure projects looming on the horizon is the railway line that will connect Haneda Airport, now Tokyo’s preferred international terminal, and its main station. Initially planned for 2029, the opening date has been pushed back to 2031.

Once it launches, the new line, expected to cost €2bn, will allow passengers to reach Tokyo Station in 18 minutes without changing trains. With pandemic restrictions gone, Tokyo is looking to attract those residents who might, at one time, have considered moving to China. The city is back on its feet but there’s a sense that the pace is slower. Restaurants are busy again but they are closing earlier these days. Night owls might have to wait for normal service to resume.


7. Helsinki

Safe, green - but also plenty of fun.

Adopt: More pedestrian-only zones. The city has too much car traffic downtown.

Drop: Overly powerful developers. Citizens’ views are too often neglected when it comes to major developments.

Population: 658,457 (metro: 1.5 million).

Number of restaurants opened in the past year: 270.

Chain test – how many Starbucks in the city? 2.

Cycle lanes: 1,500km.

Proportion of rubbish recycled: 50 per cent.

Wherever you are in Helsinki, nature is always just minutes away. It’s not in every European capital that you can pop out to pick berries or mushrooms, spend an afternoon fishing or even spot deer. Helsinki knows that its citizens cherish their close connection with nature, which is why it is opening up previously inaccessible islands for public use and adopting ambitious climate policies (the city is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030).

And city hall isn’t resting on its laurels when it comes to infrastructure either. It is busily expanding pedestrian zones downtown, building new light rail links and urban ferry connections, and putting forward a €8.8m budget for citizen-led initiatives to make the city a nicer place to live in. Added to all of this is a tolerant attitude to things such as turning car parks into popular summer terraces and, dare we say, a progressive way of tackling the scourge of e-scooters: by designating (and enforcing) exclusive docking areas.

Helsinki does an excellent job of marketing itself as a functional and safe city. However, it should also talk a lot more about how much fun it is. With events such as the city’s biennial, museums such as Amos Rex and festivals such as Flow and Slush, there is plenty to do all year round.

As with other Scandi­navian cities, it has suffered from high levels of inflation, with already-expensive rents becoming too much for some residents and businesses: retail occupancy fell to 87 per cent last year.


8. Madrid

The easygoing Spainish capital.

Adopt: A major public housebuilding project. Affordability is beginning to become a problem.

Drop: Uninspiring leadership. Madrid needs leaders who are able to present a positive vision of the future.

Population: 3,300,000 (metro: 6.7 million).

Average cost of buying a three-bedroom house: €289,000.

Newspapers just for the city: 19.

Number of independent bookshops: 584.

The end of a four-year electoral cycle is a good time to take stock. In the past term, Madrid’s mayor, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, led a minority coalition impeded by the far-right’s hold on the balance of power. The city’s scope in terms of its voice and vision – its diversity, its chutzpah – has narrowed, which is unfortunate for a place that was growing more comfortable as a global capital. But, no strangers to hardship, its citizens’ default mode has always been to focus on life’s simple pleasures. Despite the political impasse, the mood on the streets remains plucky and puckish.

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Over the past year there have been several seismic changes to the map. The new Santander Park is the result of a 17-year legal battle by residents to reclaim a private inner-city golf course, returning 55,000 sq m of green space back to public use. Meanwhile, after its long-overdue face-lift, Puerta del Sol plaza looks clean and uncluttered (though it is conspicuously lacking in trees). Finally, the much-delayed Gallery of Royal Collections opens this June. This spectacularly designed space promises to invigorate dialogue about the Spanish monarchy’s role in shaping the city and its cultural luminaries.

Madrid’s quality-of-life credentials are unquestionable, swapping out the struggles of unaffordable housing, tiresome commutes and crime for a general sense of ease, affordability and charm. It’s a reminder to other big capitals that daily life doesn’t need to involve so much sacrifice.

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Taking office

Sydney

Since the pandemic began, many city centres have been grappling with the problem of vacant commercial buildings. It’s a situation that is resulting in desolate downtown areas in places that once teemed with life. In Australia, for instance, 13 per cent of office stock is currently sitting empty, the highest rate since the 1990s. 

In Sydney, however, the New South Wales state government is attempting to use one urban predicament (empty buildings) to solve another (the housing crisis). “We have to make choices about how we deliver new housing stock,” Rose Jackson, the state’s planning minister, told local media in May. “Office conversions present a good opportunity.”

While that might be true and seem, on the surface, to be a simple way to bring people into the city, it’s not an easy task. Many of the buildings have been designed to pack in cubicles and workers, with large floor plates that result in interiors being located away from windows. Such a layout makes incorporating the necessary natural light and plumbing needs of residential buildings a challenge.

For Sydney to be successful, savvy architects must find ways of configuring apartments to meet these needs. Support from the government – beyond identifying the opportunity – would be welcome too; grants to facilitate the addition of balconies and the installation of internal light wells would further the cause. Doing so will not only allow Sydney to tackle its housing crisis but ensure that the city centre maintains its status as a vibrant destination, bustling with people and street life


9. Lisbon

The welcoming international city.

Adopt: More and safer bike lanes, and smarter connections between the city’s outskirts and city centre.

Drop: Property speculation. An enhanced public-housing policy would stop private developers from exploiting rising rents.

Population: 544,851 (metro: three million).

Average price of a cappuccino: €1.81.

Annual hours of sunshine: 2,799.

Number of international destinations served by the main airport: 121.

Lisbon emerged from two years of restrictions as a place that gets the fundamental things right: safety, community, hospitality and nature. The city’s renaissance as a truly cosmopolitan European capital has continued to draw in newcomers, who in turn play a significant part in making parts of the city that were previously sleepy dynamic.

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The influx of relatively wealthy residents also presents challenges and there is still some way to go in terms of turning this new energy (and money) into long-term success. In the past 12 months, there have been large protests and a growing concern over the city’s soaring house prices and cost of living. While Lisbon might be affordable for digital nomads, salaries in Portugal remain among the lowest in western Europe, with the situation particularly hard among the young. Policymakers will need to show leadership and pragmatism in ensuring that the city doesn’t become a victim of its own success.

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One thing is certain: residents seem to be more engaged than ever in debates about the city’s future and it’s heartening to see public conversations resulting in creative solutions, such as has happened with a recent attempt to stop Airbnb getting out of control. If Lisbon can find a way to turn its best assets – of which there are many – into attractive opportunities not just for foreigners but longtime residents too, talented young people will feel more optimistic about staying here.

Capital fight

Washington

Though it has a larger population than Wyoming or Vermont, the 700,000 residents of the District of Columbia have no representatives in the Senate and no substantial voting rights in Congress. Local passions run high about what is perceived to be a democratic deficit; “Taxation without representation” is written on car licence plates, a reference to the Boston Tea Party that triggered the American Revolution.

“In the US, there is equality for everyone except the residents of their own capital,” says Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s delegate to the House of Representatives (a congressional post without a vote), who has campaigned for statehood for decades. Opponents say that it was stipulated in the constitution that the capital must remain under the rule of Congress, while Republicans observe that as the 51st state it would almost certainly be a Democrat-led one.

The debate has reignited lately because the people of Washington want a greater say in how their city is run. Since November, when a crime bill put forward by the city council was quashed in the Senate, there has been a tussle between politicians on both sides of the house over a set of police reforms. Some elements of these bills were contentious but urbanists have long argued that it doesn’t make sense for lawmakers from, say, rural Mississippi to have a direct say on the workings of a vast urban centre such as Washington.

“If Congress could no longer interfere with our affairs, it would change everything about the way we approach government here,” says Norton. At the very least, the people of Washington must not be left feeling that their city is being run as a suburb of Capitol Hill.


10. Melbourne

The well-rounded livable city.

Adopt: Better suburban rail infrastructure.

Drop: Cold shoulders. Newcomers often complain about the difficulties of penetrating social circles.

Population: 160,000 (metro: 5.2 million).

Average ambulance response time: 10 minutes.

Average price of a cappuccino: €3.32.

Average commute time: 65 minutes.

Residents born overseas: 55 per cent.

Australia’s second city is always in the mix when it comes to debates about world-class liveability. It is multicultural and liberal; it offers high-quality schools, healthcare, sport and entertainment; it has excellent nightlife and plenty of sunshine, beaches and green space. The stringent lockdowns are beginning to fade into memory and Melbourne overtook Sydney as Australia’s most populous city, largely due to a technicality (the incorporation of the district of Melton). These are all reasons why Melbourne has climbed this ranking.

There is still work to be done. In one crucial area the city has long fallen short: rail travel, specifically a link between its international airport and downtown. As Melbourne grows in size and desirability, this has increasingly become a problem. The state’s Labor government proposed an ambitious au$13bn (€7.9bn) Airport Rail Line, alongside a number of other grand infrastructure projects, and campaigned heavily on them at the election late last year. It won but has since backtracked spectacularly, announcing that some of these, including the rail link, will be shelved.

The city is also suffering from housing shortages. Rents are shooting up alongside other cost-of-living measurements. Now the median weekly cost of renting in Melbourne is au$480 (€293), a figure that, while not especially high by European standards, represents an increase of almost 7 per cent on 2022 – and further eats into that airport taxi fare.


11. Berlin

A mecca for start-ups and creatives.

Adopt: Improved signage at the Hauptbahnhof and smoother security control at the airport. Travelling into and out of Berlin can be a drag.

Drop: Excessive red tape. Basic roadworks can take several years as a result of endless permit applications. 

Population: 3,700,000 (metro: six million).

Percentage of population that rents: 85 per cent.

Number of museums: 170.

Average price of a glass of wine: €5.

Thanks to its freewheeling lifestyle and relative affordability, Berlin has edged up on London and New York as a global magnet for talented young people and start-up businesses. The city’s population of about 3.7 million increased by an estimated 70,000 in 2022 – not as much as years gone by but still a significant number. Though Berlin was once considered to be somewhat grungey, the effects of an influx of foreign capital over a period of nearly 20 years are beginning to show. It is now possible to book a hotel suite here with a Damien Hirst artwork on the wall or head to a rooftop restaurant for a 10-course yakitori dinner.

There are, of course, fears that rising rents will push out all of the artists and any European town with some buzz will quickly be proclaimed “the new Berlin” (take Athens, for example). But not many of the pretenders to its throne are able to compete with the cultural pull of Berlin’s many world-class museums and theatres, two opera houses and more than 300 art galleries.

But the city’s success comes despite, not because of, the local government. Over the past year, policymaking has largely been subsumed in the aftermath of botched elections in 2021, when polling stations ran out of paper ballots. Many consider the German capital’s new airport to be an epitome of its dysfunctional politics: it opened after an almost 10-year delay. This, at least, gave Berliners of all stripes something to complain about.


12. Paris

Europe's cultural hot spot.

Adopt: Better airport connections. The Métro will reach Paris Orly in 2024 but trains to Charles de Gaulle, the city’s principal airport, remain unreliable.

Drop: Restrictive trading hours. It can be difficult to even buy basics on Sundays, public holidays or evenings.

Population: 2,200,000 (metro: 11.2 million).

Murder rate: 1.2 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Number of alfresco restaurants: 4,000.

Average price of a glass of wine: €6.

France’s storied capital is still the place to be when it comes to all things culture, from fashion to the arts. Last year, there was a wave of new openings and important events, such as Paris1 by Art Basel. Despite heated protests over the pension reforms that were pushed through by the country’s president, Emmanuel Macron, life in the city has continued pretty much as usual for most people (except, perhaps, for the mountains of rubbish in the street when the rubbish collectors were on strike).

With the 2024 Olympic Games rapidly approaching, Parisians are bracing themselves for the biggest event ever organised in France. The Games will change the urban landscape for the better, from a green facelift for the Champs-Élysées, which will turn the avenue into a huge garden in the middle of the city, to the extension of the speedy Métro Line 14 south to Paris Orly, one of the city’s two main airports. With the Paris Tourist Office expecting more than 15 million people to visit for the Olympics, it will be a tight squeeze but that figure is also another cause for celebration.

Apartments in Paris are generally small and expensive. While this encourages residents to spend time together outside, things can get a little claustrophobic in winter. Come summer, however, the parks are buzzing. At the leafy Parc des Buttes Chaumont, residents of all ages picnic in the grass while others enjoy a game of pétanque.


13. Amsterdam

A pioneer in sustainable living.

Adopt: A better welcome. Arriving at Amsterdam Centraal can feel chaotic and confusing.

Drop: The focus on road infrastructure. More can be done to make the most of the city’s canals.

Population: 921,000 (metro: 2.5 million).

Electric-vehicle charging points in the city: 1,917.

Proportion of commuters who cycle to work: 68 per cent.

Number of international destinations served by the main airport: 327.

The capital of the Netherlands doesn’t lack ambition when it comes to its residents’ quality of life. It is halfway through implementing its bold circular-economy and clean-air strategies, both of which aim to create a healthier, more sustainable city. These initiatives grab headlines, encouraging investment and innovation, and help to keep Amsterdam at the top of the list of dynamic cities where residents are proud to be forging a better future.

The clean-air strategy is reducing the number of carbon-emitting cars on the streets; meanwhile, the greater incentivisation for bikes, canal transport and mobility-sharing is welcome in a city with a perennial parking problem. But a lack of space isn’t just an issue for cars here. There is a housing shortage across the Netherlands and in Amsterdam it is acute. Soaring rents are pricing young creatives out of the city. In response to a recent poll showing that young Dutch families were abandoning the capital and being replaced by wealthy expats, the mayor suggested that international residents should learn Dutch and integrate better.

Instead of looking for scapegoats, the municipality needs to prioritise investment and innovation in the housing market. But for those who can afford to live here, Amsterdam offers a rich restaurant scene, access to beautifully maintained green spaces and a cultural scene that reflects the great diversity of the city, where at least 170 nationalities rub shoulders every day.


14. Sydney

Australlia's maturing cultural hub.

Adopt: More ambitious and effective measures to support the city’s crucial independent arts, culture and hospitality ventures, especially amid rising costs.

Drop: Sprawl. City Hall should focus on building more affordable public housing closer to – or even at the heart of – the central business district (see page 57).

Population: 217,748 (metro: 5.4 million).

Annual hours of sunshine: 2,628.

Public parks: More than 400.

Average price of a cappuccino: €3.07.

Life in Sydney has always been shaped by nature’s whims. Good days (and there are usually many) can be spent on the beach, in the pool or hiking around one of the national parks that ring the city. Last year’s 196-day deluge changed life here tremendously. That the record wet weather came hot (or, rather, wet) on the heels of Australia’s two-year pandemic-related border closure only made the experience harder. As the weather dries out – and with borders reopened – the city feels once again connected to the rest of the world, abuzz with visitors, festivals and exciting openings.

A standout attraction is the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s sprawling new contemporary gallery designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architects Sanaa. Though not without controversy, the project is an ambitious addition to Sydney’s art scene, which has too long languished in Melbourne’s shadow. Similarly, the reopening of the iconic Sydney Opera House after two years of extensive renovations has been a boon to the city’s cultural offering.

But here, as in so many cities around the world, the cost-of-living crisis has started to sting in earnest. Inflation in Sydney has topped 7 per cent and the city’s housing problem has only become more acute, with rents jumping by nearly 5 per cent and soaring interest rates doing little to cool the overheated housing market. In the first quarter of this year, the median house price rose to au$1.49m (€906,000).


15. Singapore

The outward looking city-state.

Adopt: Legal protections on natural areas and historic buildings to ensure that eager developers don’t overbuild.

Drop: The city-state’s draconian freedom-of-speech laws.

Population: 5,640,000.

Retail-occupancy rate: 92.9 per cent

Crime rate: 0.17 per 100,000 people.

Forest area as proportion of land area: 21.7 per cent.

Average monthly cost of renting a one-bedroom flat: €1,928.

Now that pandemic-related restrictions have been lifted and all of Asia is open again, Singapore’s residents can make the most of the well-connected Changi Airport and the fact that the city-state is in a prime location for easy weekend hops around the region. Meanwhile, numerous new restaurants, bars and hotels have popped up all over the island. Ambitious commercial redevelopment projects, such as the Golden Mile Complex, promise new large-scale retail and dining opportunities in the near future.

Singapore is one of the world’s greenest cities but the government continues to expand its efforts to protect nature and enhance access to it. Two trails in the Clementi Forest, scheduled to open in 2023, will give hikers new routes to explore one of Singapore’s only remaining patches of primary rainforest. The cultural scene is flourishing too, from world-class art fairs such as Art SG, which debuted in January, and a regular inflow of chart-topping music acts on tour to independent screenings and festivals at cinemas such as The Projector.

Tourists are back in full force and retail occupancy rates are rising again. The property market is booming but that has resulted in skyrocketing rents, in some cases prompting residents to leave Singapore because they can no longer afford to live there. But with an increasing number of global companies relocating their Asia headquarters to Singapore (often to the detriment of Hong Kong), the influx of new residents is unlikely to slow down.


16. Kyoto

Japan's bustling cultural jewel.

Adopt: More of the stepping stones that cross the city’s broad Kamo river, which have proved their worth as a quick foot crossing and a place to read, chat or sit.

Drop: The area around Kyoto station doesn’t create a good first impression. The ancient capital deserves better.

Population: 1,450,000 (metro: 3.8 million).

Average monthly cost of renting a one-bedroom flat: €505.

Average ambulance response time: Nine minutes.

Kyoto’s impressive heritage is a crucial part of the city’s charm but it can present its own challenges in the form of tourism. After three quiet years, when the bamboo forests of Arashiyama and the celebrated sloping walk to the Buddhist temple of Kiyomizudera were emptied of visitors, tourism is now back with a vengeance and residents of the city are once again learning to coexist with its transient population. The economic benefits are clear: the restaurants are full and shops are doing brisk trade. However, residents are also keen to enjoy the greenery that surrounds Kyoto and the waters of the Kamo river that flow through it.

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The city’s working parents will welcome Nalba, a new community facility with a focus on agriculture for children who need a place to go after school. Kyoto has a track record of playing fast and loose with its historic townhouses so it’s good to see that tourism has pushed preservation up the agenda.

The pandemic encouraged people from other areas of Japan to live out their dream of moving here. Greater numbers of young creatives who might find Tokyo too expensive are now basing themselves in the old city; the cost of living is lower and the capital is less than three hours away. Kansai Airport, which serves a host of international destinations, is just 90 minutes away from the centre. Japan’s Cultural Affairs Agency also relocated from Tokyo this year, a vote of confidence for the ancient capital.

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