The city of your dreams

Tyler Brûlé , éditeur de la revue Monocle , a écrit un article dans le Financial Times à l’occasion de la publication de son classement annuel des villes où il fait bon vivre.

Avec un humour anglais caractéristique, il se pose la vraie question : « est ce que je viendrais vivre là ? » . Je ne résiste pas au plaisir de vous faire partager cet article que vous pouvez retrouver avec le classement sur le site du FT.com.

“Could you live here?” and “would you live here?” are two of the most common questions colleagues ask each other at the end of a business trip. Responses rarely take the form of a shrugged “I don’t know” or a half-hearted “I guess so”. Rather, they typically come in vehement declarations suggesting that considerable thought has gone into the topic already. Here are a few I’ve heard over the years:
On the train to Chicago’s O’Hare: “No way. It’s neither one thing nor the other and just look at this sad excuse of a train to the airport.”
In a cab to Vancouver International Airport: “Definitely not for me – seems a bit sleepy and limp.”
In a big Mercedes en route to Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok: “I could do it for a short stint but it wouldn’t be for the quality of life.”
Hitching a ride with an associate to Geneva’s Cointrin: “If I could get a great flat close to the lake and move my five closest friends, then it would be amazing.”
Being taxied to Fukuoka airport: “If I wanted the best of Japan but also great connections to the rest of Asia then it would be my first choice.”
How other surveys compare
Assessing quality of life is a difficult business and, as a result, surveys on the subject throw up different results.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability ranking, released this past Monday, put Vancouver, Canada, in the top spot out of 140 world cities, followed by Vienna .
Canada, Australia and Switzerland dominated the rest of the top 10, with Melbourne in third place, Toronto in fourth, Calgary and Perth tied for fifth/sixth, Geneva in eighth and Zürich and Sydney tied for ninth/10th. Helsinki was seventh, while London was 51st, behind Manchester at 46th. Asia’s best city was Osaka, Japan, at 13th, while the top US spot was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at 29th.
Mercer’s quality of living survey, released in April and covering 215 cities, was led by Vienna, followed by Zürich, Geneva, Vancouver and Auckland. Singapore was the most liveable Asian locale in 26th place, Honolulu was best in the US at 29th and London was the highest UK scorer at 38th.
There are similarities between these lists and Monocle’s and the reason is simple. According to Jon Copestake, editor of the EIU report, cities that score best tend to be mid-sized, in developed countries, offering culture and recreation but without the crime or infrastructure problems seen in places with larger populations.
Most of us tend to play some version of the game every time we travel and, while some quickly conclude they wouldn’t trade their current set-up for anywhere else in the world, I’d argue there are considerably more who are tempted to give up their current address for a place that promises better housing, worklife, transport, schools, restaurants, weather, shopping and weekend pursuits.
If there was a professional league for this particular sport, I’m quite confident I’d be on a huge contract and captain of my team. From the age of three I’ve always been on the move – I did two complete circuits of Winnipeg-Montreal-Toronto by the time I was 15 – and, since 1989, when I relocated to the far side of the Atlantic, I’ve been fascinated by the forces that make cities work (or not) and analysing the advantages and disadvantages to living in them.
My first stop in the UK was Manchester and, from the moment I stepped off the plane, I was looking south and east for a town with better weather, tastier food, more peaceful, polite neighbours and houses with proper heating and windows. London was the obvious choice and the place I ventured next. But for some reason I could hear Hamburg calling from across the North Sea.
That my mother was born in Lübeck, north of the city, might have had something to do with it. But, after a weekend visit in the 1990s, I was also smitten by the city’s compact and efficient airport, its cosy neighbourhoods dotted with inviting bakeries and shops, its centrally located lake, its great restaurants and even better bars. It also offered a buzzing media scene, with journalists working for Stern, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Tempo, NDR and a host of other titles, broadcasters and agencies.
So I moved and spent two years marvelling at how the quality of life in north Germany could be so much better than in the UK capital. Apartments were not damp but warm and dry in spite of equally horrendous weather. One could get a meal at 11pm, instead of being told, sullenly, that the kitchen was closed. Even the doors of buildings closed with a more reassuring whoosh and a thud. The list goes on.
Unfortunately, for career reasons, I was forced to give up on Hamburg and return to London in 1994. Yet my wanderlust – and my obsession with stacking cities up against each other – has not abated.
It was about this time three years ago that I was hustling from London to Tokyo, Stockholm to Sydney, Barcelona to Geneva trying to secure financing for Monocle magazine as well as creating our first-year editorial plan. In the midst of my travels, I suddenly realised we should create a new global “liveability” survey to challenge the ones put out by the likes of Mercer and the Economist Intelligence Unit each year.
In addition to looking at obvious cut-and-dried statistics such as average salaries, school performance and healthcare costs, we would ask our network of researchers to consider softer issues – physical and technological connectivity, tolerance, the strength of local media and culture and, of course, late-night eating and entertainment options.
The inaugural winner of Monocle’s “world’s most liveable city” award, in 2007, was Munich, which scored high in all our designated categories. (Given my Hamburg experience, I wasn’t surprised.) Then, last year, the German city was beaten by Copenhagen due to the Danish capital’s strong environmental efforts, subway network expansion and diverse neighbourhoods.
For 2009, we decided to tweak the metrics a bit, looking at three new factors: the independence of a city’s retail and restaurant scene (let’s call it the Zara/Starbucks index), the ease with which small business owners can start up operations and planned infrastructure improvements. More broadly, we considered the way in which locals and visitors are able to navigate and use everything from public parks to the local property market. In our view, places with the best quality of life are those with the fewest daily obstructions, allowing residents to be both productive and free of unnecessary stress.
Starting with a shortlist of more than 40 cities and taking these new elements into account, our rankings didn’t change dramatically. But Zürich did move into the top spot, thanks to outstanding and still improving public transport, including an expanding tram system and main rail station; ample leisure activities, including 50 museums and excellent restaurants; environmental activism in setting new emissions targets; good business culture, with local authorities offering both advice and low-cost office space; and its airport, which serves 170 destinations and is now in line for a SFr460m (£262m) revamp.
Copenhagen dropped to second place, reflecting a less impressive airport experience and a loss of flavour in its city centre, although it remains clean, green, cultural and virtually crime-free, while Tokyo held its number-three position, with big improvements to its main rail station and Haneda airport in the works on top of its already impeccable service-based economy. Oslo entered the top 20; Auckland returned after a one-year absence; and both Fukuoka and Berlin advanced several spots.
As usual, our list revealed that outside Japan and Singapore, Asia still has a lot of work to do, as does the US, with New York’s “world-capital” claim felled by the abysmal quality of its transport, public schools and housing stock (not to mention the carnage on Wall Street) and only Honolulu in Hawaii making the cut. Also, as is common in quality-of-life surveys, no African or South American cities were included, since the leading contenders – Santiago, Buenos Aires, Montevideo – all scored low on some basic metrics.
As for London, my home, it didn’t make the top 25 for many of the same reasons New York was omitted. So why am I still here? I can’t argue with the findings of the Monocle survey. Indeed, I once considered Zürich my dream city, with its speedy trains connecting me to skiing and Milan, its wonderful lake and bathing clubs, its pretty hillsides and solid Swiss apartments. Yet, when I eventually tried living there, I lasted less than a year. No matter how much the city had to offer, I couldn’t stand my narrow-minded neighbours. Zürich might have been a liveable city then but it wasn’t a welcoming one.
Have things changed? Well, aside from the improvements listed above, there is also a new mayor, the city’s first openly gay leader, who could do her bit to lighten the mood. Perhaps it’s time for me to give it another go.
For the moment, though, I’ll continue to endure London while simply sampling the top three on a regular basis – Zürich en route to skiing in St Moritz, Copenhagen when summering in Sweden and Tokyo for business trips at least once a month. Could I, would I, live in any of them full-time at some point in my life? Certainly.

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