There’s suddenly a rather alarming school of thought, which believes that a liveable city is a quaint one – somewhere that places more value on the number of bike lanes or park benches than the number of multinational businesses it houses. It’s an alarming thought because it assumes that liveability and business viability are mutually exclusive. That cyclists and city bathers don’t make a profitable workforce. That urban charm runs counter to investment potential. This is nonsense, derived from a misunderstanding of what liveability constitutes in an urban setting.
What makes a city liveable is difficult to define because it tends to be subjective. At Monocle we’ve championed quality of life in our annual city ranking for six years now (the latest July/Aug issue no. 55 is on the newsstand now). We base it on a carefully chewed over and meticulously researched series of metrics. They take in concrete statistics, like crime and unemployment rates, together with more fluid criteria we believe constitute a happy day-to-day life in the city: sunshine hours, number of bookshops, outdoor swimming baths and how easy it is to get a nightcap after midnight. Of course, there are welfare factors too – healthcare, state education, emergency response times, which we weigh up against tax rates. Crucially though, we also include criteria that indicate how well it works as a business hub, for start-ups and global players: from how easy and fast it is to start up a business to the number of international and intercontinental flights and ease of getting in and out of (and around) town.
Our belief is that a liveable city is one that provides high quality of life for its inhabitants in and out of office hours. It’s a dynamic place, run by a proactive, forward-thinking mayor and council that understand the benefit of being open for business, big and small. It’s a thriving place in which to invest because – not in spite – of the quality of life afforded to its population. It’s an inspiring place to live in because there is opportunity for growth and because businesses that do set up shop aren’t parasitic; they don’t eclipse the charm of daily life, but add to it in their own way.
This year we ranked Zurich our number one city because it ticks all these boxes and still strives to improve itself as a home for young and established businesses and creatives alike. It’s a city that works beautifully – global in operation but local in character and quirk. In second, third and fourth place we have Helsinki, Copenhagen and Vienna. Be they transforming giant swathes of former harbour fronts cleverly and beautifully, overhauling their transport infrastructure or merely listening to their populations and making changes at grass root levels according to human, rather than spreadsheet, feedback – these are three cities that mightn’t yet boast the multinational headcount of Zurich or Munich but the future looks to be fertile.
Our understanding of cities and city life has evolved dramatically in the past decade. It’s outdated to think of cities purely as centres of commerce and industry, where capital and production come first, quality of life second. Today we’re fortunate enough, in city halls, boardrooms and on the streets, to understand that urban liveability is not the preserve of quaint, backwater cities, it’s something every city can and should strive for.