Piers Fawkes talks to the Monocle founder to understand more about their annual quality of life survey.
This week, Monocle magazine released their Quality of Life Survey where they identified what they judged were the top 25 cities in the world. Cities like Munich, Copenhagen and Zürich came out top because of the different social, economic and transport systems that they offered. PSFK founder Piers Fawkes spoke to Monocle editor Tyler Brule to understand more about the survey. In the interview, Brule also offers suggestions about how cities that did not make the cut could improve.
Piers Fawkes: I’ve been reading your new report. Can you tell me about the new index and what it has in it.
Tyler Brule: Well, this is the fourth time that we’ve done our quality of life survey. When we initially launched it, we were just a little bit, I think, disillusioned with, I think, a lot of the other indexes that are out there, which sometimes throw out some, I think, rather odd choice in terms of top cities. I was always sort of surprised that a place like Bairness could rank as the second or third best place to live in the world when it’s hardly a city. It’s much more of a town that happens to be a capital city.
So one of the first things we wanted to do is really talk about cities in the truest sense of the words, but use a lot of the same tricks, which are universal. That means you’re looking at public safety and is your flat going to be broken into when you’re away at work, are you going to get mugged. I think it’s kind of the basics that everyone craves that they will be safe around the clock. So that’s a starting point for us.
Of course, that moves to then public health, education and then spills into, of course, infrastructure. Is it easy to get from A to B? One of the key elements and I would consider trends that comes out of this when we speak to the urban thinkers and we talk to our editors is the cities that really work are the ones that offer the greatest amount of freedom. We sort of judge that freedom as any city which allows you to have… It really sort of throws up the fewest number of obstacles during the day is a livable place.
We sort of believe that a resident or a visitor alike should have as many experiences as possible, so the more that you can cram in, the more exciting your day is. It doesn’t mean that you’re having 30 back-to-back meetings, but it means that you have time to walk through a park and take time on a bench, and then seamlessly, go have lunch with a friend. Then go to a meeting and then go visit a museum without losing time sitting in traffic or sitting on a subway system which no longer functions properly or one that’s just so unpleasant you don’t want to be on.
Part of the foundation has really become this notion of being able to glide seamlessly through an urban environment. I think it’s increasingly that’s something that’s always been taken up by governments, but I think we’ve also seen a similar mantel has been seized by a lot of the major automotive companies. You see like the Philips’, I think they’re doing a big livability campaign. You could look at the Middle East and see a big developer like Solidare in Beirut talk a lot about the built environment and creating an enhanced quality of life for people in cities in the Middle East.
So it’s interesting that I think that this is something which has become very much a public message of governments, but it also conveys what the private sector is seizing on as well.
Piers: I think the way organizations are improving city life is very interesting. We’ve even been monitoring how IBM has been talking about sentient, or intelligent cities. Do you consider the impact of technology on your rankings?
Tyler: Not really. It does crop up in certain areas. But I would say more of the technology focus that we have is with regard to transport and infrastructure and with technology as it relates to environmental initiatives more than anything else. I think those would be the key drivers for us.
Of course, there are individuals and stories within the issue that bring, let’s say, some slightly more less to build context to life, I would say sort of the main area that where that would be used at is when we look at transport and the environment.
Piers: OK. So I noticed that seven or eight cities in your top 10 are European, northern European mainly. What’s going on there? Is it because they are smaller cities that have been able to rebuild or reshape themselves? What’s happening in those cities that’s different from the rest of the world – especially the the US, where I’m located?
Tyler: The Europeans do well for a variety of reasons. All of the northern capitals rank. Copenhagen ranks first amongst them followed by Helsinki, followed by Stockholm, and then Oslo. In their own ways, they’re all doing very interesting and sometimes interrelated things. Yes, they all have advantages of scale that they’re all cities of quite manageable size with greater metropolitan areas that never spill much beyond one and a half million people tops, two million maybe.
So they have the luxury of scale. They have the luxury of space, too. They’re all socialist countries. They’re all countries which pay very high taxes, so there’s a lot of public spending. So there’s, of course, a lot of common themes, but in an initiative nature, very different.
Piers: Let’s talk about Copenhagen for a minute. What makes it hit all the right notes?
Tyler: The reason why it ranks so high (and it’s been a number one city in the past, as well) is because it is truly seamless. It lives up to so many of the things that we talk about in the magazine. Can you get off a plane from… If you fly in from Bangkok and then get on a train and then be in a city center, and then can you immediately get on a bicycle and never have to deal with a car ever again. That’s why it does well.
Helsinki, on the other hand, ranks high for those reasons but also because we see that in the city which very much looking feast. Fin Air only has one flight in the United States, but I think it has somewhere in the range of nine or 10 flights into to Asia. I think as long as it uses its proximity to Asia, it’s very much to its advantage, and that’s a basic rule.
But then you can go south in Europe. Paris ranks well for us this year because small businesses are protected and there’s a certain scale to Paris that works incredibly well. I think that’s something that’s very hard to measure in terms of pure metrics, but you have to look to the government policy that they keep large box stores out of the city core. They keep large grocery stores out of the center of Paris.
So that promotes a different level of entrepreneurialism. There’s that which flows into the nexus. Then, of course, you’ve got the Zurich’s and Geneva’s, which are very small cities, great for ex-pats. They have very diverse multi-national communities, et cetera.
So that’s why the Europeans do well. The North American cities that rank, Vancouver, a classic on many lists, we ranked it a little lower. Vancouver only comes below number one. It’s a little bit down in our list because I think that they didn’t quite seize the Olympic opportunity quite to the full effect that they could have. Honolulu is our only US city.
Piers: Let me ask you a quick question about that. How could a city like New York appear in this top 25?
Tyler: I think one thing is schools. When you look at public education, I think that’s something which immediately needs to be addressed. If I just go through the day when I drive around and it doesn’t matter whether I’m in Brooklyn or I’m in Manhattan or on my way through Queens, when you look at just either the states of public education institutions, they really look like something that’s stuck in another era. So I think there’s that.
But yet, we can look at big initiatives like Governor’s Island and all of the big parks, but I think it would be interesting to say that you don’t have just these almost out of proportion oases either at the center of the city or at the fringes. But it would interesting to see can New York punctuate itself with more green spaces that are readily accessible, almost sort of every four or five blocks that you have usable green space.
I think that there needs to a good look at, not just public housing, but I think also just the quality of architecture for the middle classes. I think there, we went through, obviously, an era of loss of architects doing these mega projects, doing mega towers in New York. But then sort of the middle is just a lot of mediocre rubbish, drywall, flimsy doors, uninspiring finishes. I think that’s a lot of the American design vernacular.
It just feels like you’ve got sort of two choices when you want to have an entry door for a building. I think part of it as well is… What we’d be looking for is better quality housing. The city definitely needs to work on just connecting people to the airports. It’s remarkable that there’s no high-speed rail links to any of the airports.
So there’s just a lot of things which are almost standard. They come in standard in so many of the cities which we look at and New York doesn’t have them. London has its own share of problems, which is why it didn’t rank either.
Piers: Thanks for your time, Tyler.