The quest for liveable cities

Image of Tyler Brûlé

How do you it?” she asked. “Are you not permanently exhausted?” “Is it not tiring? All those airports and long flights and having to sleep on planes,” he inquired. “Does it not get a little bit old after a while?”

“Do you drink loads of water? Do you meditate? It takes me a week to recover just flying between New York and this coast,” she said.

If you’d been standing somewhere nearby on the sunny, breezy rooftop of advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy’s headquarters in Portland last Friday evening, these were some of the questions you might have heard between sips of crisp Oregon white and nibbles concocted from delicious produce sourced from the surrounding hills and valleys.

As you moved around the terrace, you would have also heard the former mayor chatting about eyewear made from locally sourced horn, residents debating the best local grocery store (I vote for Zupan’s), many questioning why the city hasn’t done more with the Willamette river as a source for recreation and restaurant development, and little groups erupting in laughter as they took digs at Seattle, their rival up the interstate.

Back among my little group I said it wasn’t the crossing of time zones that was tiring, or all the hotel rooms, it was the constant sizing-up and assessment of cities that was exhausting. “From the moment I touch down in a city, I find I’m always asking whether or not I could live there and then I start the process of constructing this fantasy lifestyle,” I explained. “Does the airport work? How was the drive into the city? Is the scale human or overwhelming? Are locals chirpy or chippy? What’s the quality of the local housing stock? Are there plenty of independent shopkeepers? Is there a good international newsstand within walking distance of the modernist timber bungalow I’d live in?”

“Do you find yourself doing this in most cities you go to?” asked the woman in sensible sandals and no-nonsense eyewear. “What’s your read on Portland?”

“Therein lies the problem. Forty-eight hours ago I was head over heels for Vancouver. After a 15km run around Stanley Park and the city’s west end I was already looking at apartments and talking myself into becoming a Vancouverite because it was well-connected to all my business in Asia. I even managed to find time to go to a viewing for an open house,” I said.

“Now I’m in Portland and I’ve completely forgotten about Vancouver and spent the day assembling a new life here. The second I got off the plane I was visiting grocery stores and food markets, I was scanning the streets to see how people interact with their neighbourhoods. I was even on the Delta Airlines website to see where I could fly nonstop long-haul if I lived here [Tokyo and Amsterdam]. How crazy is that?”

“So you like it here? How wonderful,” said the woman. “Will we score higher on your magazine’s quality of life ranking?”

“I think Portland’s great but then San Francisco will also be great when I’m there tomorrow and Bangkok will be even better 24 hours later,” I said. “As for your city’s ranking in Monocle’s quality of life index – you’ll have to wait till next week to find out.”

The next day I made my way to San Francisco on quirky-folksy Alaska Airlines and enjoyed a perfect morning running around, looking at the new-ish Bi-Rite supermarket on Divisadero and Heath Ceramics’ new manufacturing and retail space before it was time to set off across the Pacific for Bangkok via Hong Kong. As predicted, by the time I was zigzagging through the streets of Sukhumvit, the Pacific Northwest was a distant, oddly quaint, memory and I was debating the merits of the calm, sleepy city versus the energetic, buzzy, round-the-clock metropolis. It’s a debate we’d been having at Monocle the week before as we sifted through the data for our seventh quality of life survey and eventually agreed on an appropriate ranking for the most liveable cities. As ever, the metrics were a mix of the scientific and subjective and considered everything from public safety, flight connections, tolerance, cultural outlets and some 30 other parameters. The full details are up for review in Monocle’s July/August issue but, in the meantime, here’s how cities large and small ranked for 2013. For readers in Chicago, yet again your appalling homicide rate knocked you out of the running. The same can be said for most US cities.

1. Copenhagen

2. Melbourne

3. Helsinki

4. Tokyo

5. Vienna

6. Zürich

7. Stockholm

8. Munich

9. Sydney

10. Auckland

11. Hong Kong

12. Fukuoka

13. Kyoto

14. Paris

15. Singapore

16. Hamburg

17. Honolulu

18. Madrid

19. Vancouver

20. Berlin

21. Barcelona

22. Amsterdam

23. Portland

24. San Francisco

25. Düsseldorf

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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