Metropolis now

There’s nothing quite like the release of an urban quality of life index to send property developers into a spin and city halls into fits of rage. Locals (who won’t hear a bad thing said about their beloved Chicago, faultless Frankfurt, impeccable Seattle or perfect Perth) can “lose it” when it’s announced that their city is not the best place to live in the world – or even in the top 10. If you’re prone to violent outbursts when others find that your hometown isn’t quite as great as you think it is then I should perhaps guide you to another part of FT Weekend, as Monocle magazine’s annual global quality of life survey is about to be published and only 25 cities make the cut.

House & Home has the exclusive on the winning cities and a bit of insight on why homebuyers might want to consider relocating to Munich rather than Hamburg or Helsinki over Oslo. The full ranking (complete with breakdowns, metrics and honourable mentions) goes on sale next week.

Now in its fourth year, the survey takes a slightly different tack on ranking the best cities to call home using measurements that go beyond the basics of crime statistics and cost of living such as hours of sunshine, ease of setting up a business and global connectivity (direct, non-stop flights). For 2010 it took a look at what mayors have in store for their citizens, factoring in big infrastructure initiatives on the horizon and also how diverse a city’s streetscape is in terms of independent retailers and restaurants – too many chain stores and a city lost points.

Another addition is a special section devoted to the cities that don’t necessarily stack up in terms of infrastructure or public education but are oddly liveable because they’ve defined their own codes and managed to overcome their limitations by making life bearable through softer, less tangible features – superior service, alternative economies and a bit of lawlessness. Rio, for example, might not be the easiest place to live but there’s something rather seductive about the city that gives it a certain quality – the beach, the climate, the natural landscape and the optimism of a city that’s seeing its role shift within the region and globally. The same goes for Istanbul. It’s more than a wee bit chaotic, has outgrown its airport and is lacking in many areas of public service but somehow manages to offer an attractive way of life. Beirut is also an example of a city that is wonderfully charming despite all its hang-ups, obstacles and the ever-looming threat of war at home or with Israel. The plumbing might not be the best but no one is going to kick you out of a bar at 5am. There are no “green trams” gliding around the city and few traffic lights but vehicles manage to move. Rule of law is certainly not a strong point but in a world increasingly run by ministries headed by nannies, it’s a breath of fresh air being in a city that’s free from all the rules that can make daily life quite tedious in some of the higher ranking capitals.

Top 25
*First time on list: Portland
Dropped off: Amsterdam
Source: Monocle

Nevertheless, rules and order are what make trains run on time, hospitals free from super-viruses and streets safe around the clock. As personal security comes top of most people’s requirements for choosing one city over another, it’s one of the reasons neither Beirut nor Rio come anywhere near the top 25.

Having taken a hard look at 40 cities, cut the list to 35 and then down to 30, it wasn’t easy to rank the top five as some are considerably smaller than others and have the advantage of cosy scale over sprawling mass. Equally, some of the bigger cities seemed more dynamic (full of opportunities and diversity) and made some of the tinier hubs seem a bit provincial in comparison. To balance things out, the ranking always uses global connectivity as a leveller between big and small and it’s one of the ways the survey is able to have a Geneva share space with a Madrid or Melbourne.

Last year Zürich picked up the top prize thanks to its intimate scale, exceptional infrastructure, proximity to lakes and slopes and non-stop links to the world’s biggest markets. In 2010, however, the top prize went to Munich for its high-quality housing, great medical facilities, environmental initiatives, attitude to business and ever-expanding roster of air links. Not far behind was Copenhagen, with its living, breathing urban transport experiment that sees more people jumping on to bikes every year as their main vehicle for getting from A to B, while Zürich took third position because it could use some work in the “be nice to people who keep your city’s economy ticking” stakes but also has some impressive urban development projects on the horizon. Rounding out the top five were Tokyo at number four (the world’s best big city) and Helsinki for its proximity to Asian markets while offering one of the best public education systems in the world.

Despite 2010 being Vancouver’s year due to the Winter Olympics, Monocle’s editors thought that the city has a lot of work to do in terms of offering better public transport and improving the state of its neighbourhoods.

If we were going to live in North America, we’d probably set up home in Honolulu and take advantage of the climate, low crime rate, urban redevelopment initiatives and the quick flying time to the world’s fastest developing economies.

From an opportunity and lifestyle perspective, we reckon it’s the best the continent has to offer – in part because it’s practically sitting in Asia.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle. Read his Fast Lane column in Life & Arts;

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