Top 25 liveable cities - Issue 95 - Magazine | Monocle

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This is the 10th year that monocle has conducted its Quality of Life Survey. We add to the metrics each year and this time we’ve measured cities’ nocturnal qualities too, from closing times to the places that still serve a good meal after 22.00. Despite these new metrics, when looking back over the previous surveys it’s striking to see how the fundamentals of what makes a liveable city have remained the same.

Among the metrics we still count the number of murders and break-ins, and the average response times of emergency services – because if your city isn’t safe it doesn’t matter how many art galleries there are. We still grade cities on their transport network too, from infrastructure to cost. Cities that encourage cycling and make it cheap and easy to use public transport continue to score well. So too do those that make it easy to get away; the best cities are connected to the rest of the world. And we still judge our cities on their food, drink and retail – the quality, not just the quantity. Those with a high number of independent bookshops prosper; those with a high number of Starbucks less so.

The most liveable cities are safe, affordable and exciting. And that will probably still be the case in another decade’s time.

Watch on Monocle Films: Top 25 cities, 2016


2015 ranking: 01 | 2014 ranking: 02

To justify Tokyo’s number one position in our quality of life index we need to start with a question: when was the last time you did STP? Not familiar with the term? Neither were we when we started spending a considerable amount of time in the city a decade ago but over the years it has become one of the defining features that makes Tokyo so attractive.

For the record, STP is not a recreational drug that has somehow bypassed Japanese regulators. Though it must be said that it is a lot of fun and can get you into a lot of trouble, mostly with your conscience (and occasionally your employer and perhaps your partner too).

I have my colleague Noriko to thank for introducing me to STP in 2006. After what had already been an action-packed evening of eating, drinking, shopping and drinking we jumped in a cab and made our way to Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ni-chome district. We pulled up on a busy, overlit street some time after midnight and all around people were popping out of bars, ducking into restaurants, sleeping in doorways or strolling into convenience stores. The mood was friendly and lively. Leading the way, Noriko descended a grotty set of stairs, turned a sharp corner and went through a heavy door. Inside we were greeted by posters of female Japanese wrestlers, two alcoves packed with guests, an equally jammed bar (everyone seated), a backlit wall of whiskys and shochus and a host belting out a duet with a teetering salaryman – all in a space not larger than 30 sq m.

Noriko was greeted with a cheer from the bar’s mama-san (the lovely Masaya) and in a flash a group of guests had made space for us to cosy up in the corner. Two male hosts pulled up stools to join us, oshibori were distributed and drink orders were taken. The table filled with bowls of assorted snacks and a very advanced karaoke control unit was handed to Noriko.

I believe Noriko and Masaya started with a rendition of “A Whole New World” and those in our group who vowed they wouldn’t be singing were soon fighting for the microphone. Before long we had a queue of about 15 songs to get through. Many drinks, songs and nibbles later and I glanced at my watch: 06.00? What happened? Where had the night gone and how had the morning snuck up so quickly? “I have a driver coming to take me to Narita in two hours,” I told Noriko. “Looks like it’s going to be straight to plane for you my dear,” she said. Ten years later and straight to plane (STP) is a term that’s almost exclusively linked to Monocle staff visits to Tokyo.

Where other cities talk a good game about being 24/7, Tokyo delivers – and not just on the singing and drinking front. As city mayors plot ways to entice talent and investment while also offering up strategies for a superior quality of life, the city’s round-the-clock economy is a key feature that makes it one of the most attractive places to live and visit. With a conveniently located international airport open 24 hours a day, bookshops that open at 07.00 and close at 04.00, and restaurants and shops that never close, Tokyo recognises the pull of being open all hours. Other hubs should take note. As we often say on our editorial floor, if you don’t like bright lights and buzz there’s a lovely place to move to called the countryside.

International Routes: 135
Monthly travelcard: €141
Clubs close: 05.00
Indie bookshops: 1,300
Population: 9.3 million in the city.
Ambulance response time: 7.45 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 4.8 per cent (youth), 3.6 per cent (total) for Tokyo prefecture.
Monthly rent for one-bed apartment: €789.
Daily newspapers: 7.
Culture: 162 museums, 358 cinema screens and 688 galleries.
Restaurants opened in past year: 4,700.
Starbucks: 298.
Can you get a good meal after 22.00? Absolutely.
Are dogs welcome? Yes. Dogs are allowed off their leads in certain parks.
Commuters who cycle to work: 19.5 per cent.
New infrastructure: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to be up and running in 2019.
Three things to improve the city: Tokyo is working hard to prepare for 2020 but we’d like to see more plans that go beyond Olympics; the city also needs to provide clear guidelines for the unregulated lodging sector. It should take the lead in supporting the move towards renewable-energy sources too.


2015 ranking: 03 | 2014 ranking: 14

Low living costs have long been a Berlin trademark and the city is taking measures to ensure that things stay that way. Following concerns about too much tourism and rapidly rising rents – coupled with an influx of newcomers (refugees and expats alike) – the city’s administration has restricted Airbnb, instituted a rent cap and promised to build 30,000 new council apartments. The Humboldtforum City Palace cultural centre is nearly complete, with Neil MacGregor, formerly of the British Museum, as director. Ambitious plans are on the cards (or underway) around Museum Island, the main train station and Alexanderplatz. But the city’s eternally stalled BER Airport still languishes; some are crying “tear down that hall” in an echo of the past. Post-wall Berlin is still an exciting place to be.

International Routes: 166
Monthly travelcard: €81
Clubs close: 24 hours
Indie bookshops: 222
Population: 3.5 million in the city; 6 million in the metropolitan area.
Ambulance response time: 9 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 10.5 per cent (youth); 10.2 per cent (total).
Monthly rent for one-bed apartment: €555.
Hours of sunshine: 1,625.
Daily newspapers: 17.
Culture: 180 museums, 130 cinemas and 440 art galleries.
Average cost of an artist’s studio: City-subsidised studios go for €4 to €5 per sq m.
Starbucks: 23.
Can you get a good meal after 22.00? Yes.
Are dogs welcome? Not especially.
New infrastructure: The Humboldt Forum cultural centre is set to open this summer.
Integration: Berlin is international and fairly integrated, though some neighbourhoods are more mixed than others.
Three things to improve the city: Continue with the rent caps and Airbnb regulations to maintain neighbourhood integrity, as well as addressing long delays in processing refugees. Then there’s the beleaguered construction of the new airport – it needs to be sorted.


2015 ranking: 02 | 2014 ranking: 06

Vienna’s historical role as a cultural crossroads took a new turn this past year: the Austrian capital became an important node on the refugee trail, handling the crisis with a commendably humanitarian approach. The flow has abated but evergreen advantages remain: the city’s cultural institutions are world renowned and well funded; its infrastructure is efficient, and natural beauty is close by. Vienna is also growing fast and new neighbourhoods are underway to accommodate newcomers. It often moves slowly but along with its comfort are contradictions – the mix of posh and popular, historical and contemporary – that both individuals and enterprises find inspiring and profitable. As recent elections show, Vienna remains a liberal oasis in a conservative nation.

International Routes: 166
Monthly travelcard: €48.20
Language schools: 111
Indie bookshops: 235
Population: 1.8 million in the city; 3.7 million in the metropolitan area.
Ambulance response time: 12 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 13.5 per cent (total).
Monthly rent for one-bed apartment: €840.
Hours of sunshine: 1,930.
Daily newspapers: 9.
Culture: More than 100 museums, 150 cinemas and 149 art galleries.
Starbucks: 14.
Can you get a good meal after 22.00? Not really.
Are dogs welcome? Dogs must be on a lead and wear muzzles on public transport.
New infrastructure: The city is in the process of updating its water and energy provision, which should be completed by 2021.
Integration: A history of accepting refugees has made Vienna cosmopolitan.
Three things to improve the city: It desperately needs to extend its shopping hours during evenings and on Sundays. Easing employment regulations would help businesses that want to hire part-time workers. New bike paths would make cycling a more viable option.


2015 ranking: 10 | 2014 ranking: 01

Former winner Copenhagen rises up the rankings once again. This year has brought with it an improvement in security, with a new campaign to create safer nightlife in the city centre that sees police foot patrols touring the streets on weekends. The city also continues to hit the mark when it comes to cuisine, culture, public transport and business. With 20 Michelin stars being awarded to 16 restaurants this year, Copenhagen is cementing its place as one of Europe’s food capitals. From this summer the three harbour baths will be open to the public day and night, and 15 new bathing zones will soon be primed for paddling. It seems the wheels – and not just those of the city’s 1,860 pearly white e-bikes – are turning. The high-flying Danish capital is, as ever, a sleek and happy place to live.

International Routes: 156
Monthly travelcard: €48
Clubs close: 05.00
Indie bookshops: 52
Population: 696,000 in the city; 1.3 million in the metropolitan area.
Ambulance response time: 5 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 1.7 percent (youth); 5.7 per cent (total).
Monthly rent for one-bed apartment: €780.
Daily newspapers: 19.
Culture: 50 museums, 19 cinemas and about 40 art galleries.
Monthly cost of an artist’s studio: €120 to €530.
Restaurants opened in the past year: 841.
Starbucks: 9.
Can you get a good meal after 22.00? Yes.
Are dogs welcome? For the most part. Though dogs must be on a lead, there are designated parks where they can run free.
Commuters who cycle to work: 45 per cent.
New infrastructure: Metro lines to Northern Harbour and Southern Harbour will be completed in 2019 and 2023 respectively.
Integration: The city works hard on this, with programmes matching newcomers with locals for cultural guidance.
Three things to improve the city: Remove vat on restaurant meals, build more affordable housing to ease the high cost of living and complete the new Metro extension.


2015 ranking: 09 | 2014 ranking: 08

Context in Munich is everything. As the centre of Bavaria it does tradition with a fitting flounce, surrounded by green fields and its famed blue-and-white skies. People put down roots here; the family-friendly vibe makes this easy. Good connections by rail or road to the pretty landscapes of South Tyrol and the Alps position it for fun in the wider world. Sophistication is something the city reaches for but often can’t quite grasp, where others might be happy to be one of the most pleasant cities in Europe. The city has increasingly good retail options, capitalising on the undervalued sartorial bent of some residents. Bookshops are of a similar quality and the city invites an almost Mediterranean, languor. Books, Alps and beer gardens: does one really need more?

International Routes: 231
Monthly travelcard: €64.40
Language schools: 118
Indie bookshops: 140
Population: 1.5 million in the city; 2.8 million in the metropolitan area.
Unemployment rate: 3.2 per cent (youth); 4.6 per cent (total).
Monthly rent for one-bed apartment: €1,300.
Hours of sunshine: 1,709.
Daily newspapers: 4.
Culture: 209 museums, 32 cinemas and 82 art galleries.
Monthly cost of an artist’s studio: €120 for a shared atelier; €500 for own studio.
Starbucks: 10.
Can you get a good meal after 22.00? No.
Are dogs welcome? Yes.
New infrastructure: Extensions on the U-Bahn and tram lines are underway.
Integration: It’s a problem exacerbated by the influx of refugees.
Three things to improve the city: Extended business hours for supermarkets and shops are long overdue; closed shops after 20.00 on weekdays and all day Sunday are a disaster. Integration is also an issue that needs to be addressed and placing a cap on commercial rents wouldn’t hurt either.


2015 ranking: 04 | 2014 ranking: 03

It’s easy to understand why Melbourne is Australia’s fastest-growing state capital: the streets are clean, the locals are friendly and the economy is booming. It’s a combination that’s irresistible to people who appreciate living well – and they’re arriving in droves. Recent figures show that Melbourne’s population is expected to almost double by 2050 but thankfully planners are ensuring that the city’s liveability isn’t compromised. Over the past year large amounts of money have been put aside for public-transport upgrades, including a new underground metro system. An enormous police station has also just been built near the CBD and the state government has committed to constructing 15 new schools. These vital amenities should allow the city to keep playing to its strengths.

International Routes: 42
Monthly travelcard: €93
Clubs close: 03.00
Indie bookshops: 119
Population: 126,000 in the city; 2.5 million in the metropolitan area.
Ambulance response time: 8 minutes.
Unemployment rate: 14 per cent (youth); 6.2 per cent (total).
Monthly rent for one-bed apartment: €940.
Hours of sunshine: 2,200.
Daily newspapers: 2.
Culture: 24 museums, 53 cinemas and 72 art galleries.
Monthly cost of an artist’s studio: €430.
Starbucks: 5.
Can you get a good meal after 22.00? Yes.
Nightclubs opened in the past year: 3.
Are dogs welcome? Not especially. Dogs must be kept on a lead in most parks, though there are a few dog beaches.
Commuters who cycle to work: 17 per cent.
New infrastructure: A public transport overhaul that includes a metro is in the works.
Integration: It’s not very integrated, particularly the suburbs.
Three things to improve the city: Planners must combat urban sprawl and congestion, while council housing is in desperate need of an update. Drug-related crime is also a problem in some areas.

See the full top 25 list here.

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