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In 2003 Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit famously described his city as “poor but sexy”. It was a phrase that many of the German capital’s residents rather liked and it soon began appearing on T-shirts and even in tourism campaigns. Being strapped for cash it seemed was no barrier to creating a city that people wanted to flock to whether as tourists or young entrepreneurs hoping to kick-start a fledgling company. Indeed the city’s lacklustre property sector meant that rents for offices and apartments were so cheap it seemed silly not to move there.

So how come so many other cities that are poor lack that urban sex appeal? Tirana is certainly impoverished but nobody is rushing there for its quality of life. What about Minsk? Or Bucharest? Or too many places in Africa? What Herr Wowereit missed out from his quality of life equation was the very fabric of his city and its deep well of culture. Berlin may have been bombed, carved up by Cold War rivals and again by commercial property players, but it still had some great architecture, amazing parks, good housing, a transport infrastructure that worked. In short, the city was able to live off the fat from when it was both sexy and rich. Berliners are like those grand aristocrats who claim to be impoverished because they can no longer afford to heat all of their castle.

It’s the same with many of the cities that have become Monocle favourites over the years: they may be having more testing times now but once they were properly wealthy. Rio de Janeiro is able to make the most of its current renaissance because when you head into the old faded commercial heart around the port there are acres of amazing buildings ripe for reviving and hotels that once rivalled the Copacabana Palace just waiting for some TLC (and, luckily for Rio, the industrialist Eike Batista is among those willing to do just that). In Genoa, Beirut and Buenos Aires the story is the same. Here are cities that are not just poor and sexy, but poor and smoking hot.

Yet the things that allow them to retain greatness even when the money has gone are the fundamental basics of good urban living: desirable architecture, well thought-out neighbourhoods, easy access to the sea or countryside. What does not save them is the 1930s equivalent of starchitecture or the 19th-century version of the London Eye.

So while you may not need to be rich to have a good life, you do need a relative in your family tree with deep pockets and a clear vision. That’s why looking at our top 25 cities this year, you are impressed by the civic leaders who have a plan and are determined to push through their vision. Look at our winning city, Helsinki: it is redeveloping 250 hectares at the heart of the capital and always with an eye on sustainability and creating a legacy for future generations. There is none of the showmanship of Dubai or Baku; it’s about making a city that even if times did get tough would continue to add to people’s lives. It’s a similar story in wealthy Copenhagen, where people are used to high tax rates to create a society and a city where you can clearly see that you have a better quality of life than many of your civic rivals.

However, even some financially challenged cities are using what money is available in a way that creates improvements that will change people’s lives for generations. The progress that Madrid has made with the landscaping of the Manzanares river, new Conde Duque cultural centre and remodelling of its museums is simply impressive. Anyone who has visited the city recently has seen a place where unemployment may be high but so too is the quality of life, even for people just walking out on the street.

And this is not just a European experience. Witness what Newark’s mayor Cory Booker (see page 51) has achieved in a city that many had given up on. Its rebirth is clearly in part due to his talents and ability to cajole capital from Manhattan back into his domain, and his sheer determination. But he has also benefited from taking on a city that was rich until after the Second World War and still has some of the fabric (Art Deco skyscrapers and Beaux-Arts municipal buildings) and plenty of the heart that made it great in the first place. Perhaps that’s why so many people still have faith in the ability of Detroit to turn around its fortunes – well, one day.

Yet what will be intriguing to watch in our survey – and also for those cities that don’t make the cut – is how they cope with slashed budgets in the coming years as austerity takes precedence over planning. Will Lisbon, Athens or Dublin stumble, or will they be able to pull on their past successes to see themselves through?

Again it’s worth turning to page 226 to see how when the money ran out in the Argentine capital, the city did not die. The opposite happened – many now believe it to be one of the world’s greatest cities, a place where creativity is always to the fore, where people know how to live.

You can imagine that in the end the Athenians will have an easier time of it because the city has so many touches of greatness and retains a built-in quality of life that is not dependent on easy money (ferry to the islands anyone)? Anyone else for a “poor but sexy” T-shirt this summer?

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