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June 10, 2011 9:13 pm

Why easy living can be so hard

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For Monocle’s 2011 quality of life ranking, we’ve tried to take more of the elements of scale and community alongside all of the usual metrics

The start of June marks a peculiar season in the London editorial offices of Monocle. Not only does it go incredibly quiet as editors, writers, researchers and designers head off on holiday (June being the equivalent of August for our magazine editors) but there’s also a giddy sense of anticipation surrounding the launch of our annual “most liveable cities” awards. While many staff enjoy their time off, there’s a core team back at base preparing to host mayors, ambassadors, clients and subscribers for the official announcement on Wednesday.

Several weeks ago the FT offered a round-up of its most liveable cities and invited readers to take part in a poll to nominate the city with the best quality of life. While the main article diplomatically side-stepped giving out a top prize, many readers seemed convinced by the attractions and promise of Istanbul, voting it number one.

As much as these rankings play on our dreams and insecurities about whether the places we call home enrich or hinder our lives, they also stir healthy, usually constructive, debate about what makes urban life great. Equally, they somehow manage to make even the most mild-mannered, politically correct people say the most inappropriate, off-colour and generally rude comments about other cities.

The English, for example, like nothing more than having a go at German cities, beating them up for being boring while failing to mention that it’s far easier and cheaper to get a good glass of wine at 2am, secure a palatial apartment and get around by bike in Berlin than it is in London. (Here’s a question to ponder this weekend. Why is it still acceptable to be rude about Germany, and Germans, when most other countries are now out of bounds?) As Sydney and Melbourne tend to do well on the liveability index, they also get a battering too. “Sydney is lovely if you like living in the ass end of the world,” is frequently heard at this time of year. “Melbourne might have great restaurants and nice houses but it’s hardly cause to compare it to Paris or New York,” is another one that will likely hit my inbox soon.

Having done this for five years now, it’s remarkable how few cities manage to learn from others. Do bike schemes really work for everyone? Is a recycling scheme really successful if people need to drive 5km to deal with their plastic and bottles? Why don’t more cities impose bin-bag taxes like Swiss cities? When they do adopt ideas, they’re often the wrong ones. Despite all the jamborees for mayors, urban leadership forums and liveability/sustainability conferences that clog up the calendars, cities continue to make the same basic planning and development mistakes.

With countries grappling with how to create more vibrant communities and how to promote more small businesses, many cities continue to get basic things such as road width, building facades and street lighting completely wrong. Roads that are too wide kill any sense of intimacy. No matter how hard you try to tart them up with smart retail outlets and handsome architecture, they’ll never be connected to the other side of the street (witness the wasteland opposite Harrods in London) and yet urban planners still try to come up with elaborate schemes to narrow roads, slow traffic or even pedestrianise streets when what people really want is cosy settings rather than wind-swept canyons.

Likewise, people also appreciate surprise and diversity in design when they’re going about their daily routine but somehow planners and developers find it easier just to throw up walls of tinted glass that are cold and forbidding for the shopper and challenging for the tenant to brand or merchandise.

It’s little surprise that condos in Vancouver, shiny new residential towers in Manhattan and office blocks in Toronto have trouble leasing their ground floor space when the city has given planning permission to building designs that will never connect with the surrounding community. Of course, the blame can’t simply be laid on city hall’s doorstep as developers should also know better. They should spend more time discovering what’s worked elsewhere and spend more money on providing shade, on better landscaping and on more challenging designs at street level that capture a consumer’s curiosity and foster a more human-scale environment.

For our 2011 quality of life ranking, we’ve tried to take more of these elements of scale and community into our overall ranking alongside all of the usual metrics focusing on crime, transport, business opportunity, global connectivity and more. Below is a sneak preview of cities ranked 25-11 and I’ll leave the drum roll for the top 10 next week: 25) Seattle; 24) Montreal; 23) Lisbon; 22) Hamburg; 21) Kyoto; 20) Vancouver; 19) Honolulu; 18) Portland, Oregon; 17) Hong Kong; 16) Fukuoka; 15) Singapore; 14) Barcelona; 13) Auckland; 12) Paris; 11) Stockholm.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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