What do you really want out of a city? And what can you do without? With the environment top of the agenda in mayors’ offices around the world, Monocle looks beyond the recycling bins and congestion charges to see what makes for a liveable city. Tolerance, punctual transit, plenty of sunshine and the ability to get a drink in the wee hours all count for something.
Our mission for this issue is a simple one – we want to improve the urban experience. It’s a tricky enough task for forward-thinking local governments to tackle, let alone a media brand, but we’ve been thinking about this theme since our launch and decided the best time to engage politicians, developers, architects, financiers and anyone else who has influence or an opinion about city-life was while they were stretched out, relaxed, taking the sun and fully focused on their own quality of life. By the time you’ve finished reading this issue we hope you’ll be suitably moved to join our sun-lounger revolution and become an active player in raising the bar in whatever port you call home.
Before we go any further, however, we should start by defining a few terms. For avoidance of doubt, this is a quality of life survey and should not be confused with a ranking of the world’s best financial centres, a listing of the top cities to be an expat or a rating of the leading centres of innovation. Our focus is firmly fixed on identifying the components and forces that make a city not simply attractive or wealthy but truly liveable.
Researched over a three-month period, our quality of life survey is 50 per cent scientific (we’ll come to our metrics shortly) and 50 per cent subjective (sometimes a place just rubs you the wrong way and you’re not quite sure why). We feel the combination of raw data mixed with opinion offers a more accurate picture of urban environments than just relying on numbers. Indeed, the whole concept of liveability couldn’t be more subjective territory.
For some a truly liveable city is one that offers endless opportunity. Baghdad is a city full of opportunity at the moment but not exactly offering superior quality of life. Even if someone liked being cloistered inside the green zone and enjoyed spending their days staring online at their bank balance, there’s a good chance they’d also devote many hours to daydreaming about where they’d eventually like to live.
Of course you don’t have to reside in Mogadishu or Basra or Kabul to have fantasies about living in a city that’s cleaner, safer, friendlier or better connected. In fact, most of us spend our entire lives trying to imagine what life must be like in that special place just beyond the snow-capped peaks. Surely it’s a lush, green valley where the sun always shines, the locals are both polite and attractive, the youth well-behaved and respectful, the trains run on time, the streets are immaculate, the Wi-Fi coverage complete and the coffee made by baristas from Trieste. Which brings us to the metrics of our survey.
Conscious of the fact that there are other quality of life indexes out there, we asked ourselves what matters most in an urban environment. We also questioned whether it’s really fair that a “city” like Berne has the right to come in the top 10 of so many indexes.
To level out the playing field and reflect that this is a Monocle quality of life survey, the first metric a city had to meet was that it boasted international, long-haul connections combined with a well-managed, thoughtfully designed airport. This took care of Berne.
We then looked at both murder rates and domestic burglaries and this kicked most US cities out of the running. After that we measured two key civic components: state education and health care. These proved a challenge for London. This was followed by two of the most important metrics for better living: hours of sunshine and average temperatures. There was a major reshuffling of our deck. Next up we looked at communications, connectivity, tolerance and the ease of getting a drink after 01.00. This is where we lost London.
To round off our criteria our writers and researchers also looked at the cost/quality of public transport and taxis, the strength of local media, the availability and range of international print media, access to nature, amount of green space and, finally, key environmental initiatives.
In the end we were left with roughly 30 finalists, which were cut to 25 and then reduced to 20. While Portland, Oregon; Antwerp, Minneapolis, Lisbon, Rome and Wiesbaden offer great quality of life, they didn’t quite make it.
This left us with 20 cities: Paris, Hamburg, Stockholm, Auckland, Kyoto, Honolulu, Vancouver, Helsinki, Madrid, Zürich, Melbourne, Tokyo, Geneva, Singapore, Montréal, Munich, Copenhagen, Sydney, Vienna and Barcelona.
Before we took another look at the finalists we stood back and asked if there were any anomalies in the mix. Did we miss one? Was it fair that there was no South American or African city? Yes. Were we missing one of the Gulf boomtowns? No. Could we happily live in any of the remaining cities for the rest of our days? Yes.
What follows is the first Monocle Quality of Life Index and in an ideal world our model city would incorporate a little bit of all of these. For international flight connections it would be Paris but for an airport it would have to be Munich. On crime it would be a Japanese city – either Tokyo or Kyoto would do. Zürich and Helsinki would be our key contributors for hospitals and schools while Sydney and Honolulu offer the best weather.
That said, we still like four seasons so we’d have to include Zürich again. For communications Tokyo’s major Wi-Fi plans seem to be the most ambitious; residents of both Stockholm and Copenhagen are a pretty tolerant lot though they both admit to integration issues for immigrants. For a good night out we’d want to be resident in Madrid, Tokyo or Barcelona and for getting home we’d opt for Munich’s public transport and Copenhagen’s bike network if we were sober enough to pedal home ourselves.
To stay in touch locally and internationally we would rank Hamburg for having the best newsstands and electronic media outlets. This all makes sense because the weather is so shocking that residents need something to do indoors. When it comes to proximity to nature Geneva, Stockholm and Zürich all do well. For green space within the city it’s an area where at least 10 cities have made parks and trees a priority in their urban planning.
Finally there’s the issue of sustainability initiatives and while no one city has figured it out completely, we’d have to say that Stockholm comes closest to having created a formula for other cities to adapt or adopt.
In between developing this quality of life index we decided to continue the liveability theme and identified the 25 urban elements that make a city, engineered an ideal neighbourhood, interviewed Copenagen’s fiery mayor, asked five leading thinkers to weave their own tales about urbanism, made a mini documentary with the world’s most influential mayors and devised a list of things that make life that little bit better – just in case you never take up residency in that perfect valley below the snow-capped peaks.
If you’re sitting in a somewhat egg-shaped Sir Norman Foster-designed building on the Thames and wondering why your city didn’t make the Top 20 there are some very sound and simple reasons. While London did very well in some areas (tolerance, local media, international flight connections), it scored very low across too many categories (public transport, health, drinking hours, airport, sustainability initiatives, crime). The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way.
As London is currently riding on a very high economic wave and enjoying an influx of cash and talent from around the world, it needs to start putting these resources to good use. It will be one of the biggest lost opportunities in the history of urban civilisation if London fails to capitalise on its current good fortune and start making the necessary investments in infrastructure, the built environment and essential services.
At the moment a bread and circuses mentality that flows from the top down has created a culture where there’s an ongoing hunt for the big idea and little focus on the smaller, more relevant things that make a city work. It could be argued that the Olympics is the latest example in a catalogue of festival-style adventures used to divert the public’s attention from the crumbling infrastructure while government comes up with an encore.
It can’t all be laid at the government’s door however. Some of the biggest offenders hail from the private sector. Surely the poor quality of new housing can’t be blamed on the government. Ditto, the sad state of the privately owned main airports.
Raise the quality threshold
The public and private sector need to create a new culture of quality that flows through all aspects of the city – hospitals, hotels, transport hubs, architecture, construction. At the moment the bar’s set far too low.
Bolster your defences
There’s a quick remedy to London’s appalling break-in rate – install proper doors! Try kicking in a door in Stockholm or Hamburg and you’d be there for months. Do the same in many London apartments and you’d have your mitts on the family jewels in minutes. At the same time, put real police back on the street rather than powerless community support officers.
Clean up your act
There’s considerable effort given to keeping the centre of the city clean but it seems to get dirtier the further out you go. First impressions are everything - particularly if you want to keep on attracting foreign investment.
Ease up on the planning restrictions
London is home to some of the best architectural talent in the world. Let them be partners in developing a better city and let go of the past.
It’s called public transport for a reason
Bite the bullet, take the whole thing back and build a model public transport system. The basics are there but it needs to pull into this century.
Do any of these complaints sound familiar? “Big cities are all starting to look the same.” “It’s become unaffordable to live in the centre.” “I’m afraid to go out after dark.” “It takes forever to get from A to B.” As we toured the globe for our survey there was a core of complaints that were common – even among the top cities. Having had the opportunity to benchmark the best, here’s what Monocle would do as a mayor.
Bring light industry back to the centre
Creative economies are all fine and good but they have to make things too. Cities that depend on big brands to keep their economies humming should create conditions that encourage more ateliers and workshops in the city centre. Stockholm might want to think about this to keep H&M competitive.
Engineer a round-the-clock culture
We’re convinced a city as big as Tokyo keeps its streets safe because it never sleeps. Yes, well-behaved residents have a lot to do with it but life on the streets also keeps more deviant forces in check.
Appoint a creative director
All strong brands have a creative director with a strong vision. Cities need them too. And no, they’re not called mayors.
Make outdoor space a right
All new residential buildings should offer outdoor space for residents. Where possible, older buildings should be retro-fitted with balconies or roof terraces.
Focus on building urban villages
Urban villages not only keep people out of cars but they also create a sense of community and in many cases encourage small businesses to flourish. — see our ‘Good Hood’