A while ago I started to collect city rankings, but more than anything else I was creating the foundation for what would eventually be the greatest destination. If I’ve learned anything throughout this process is that no city can claim such honour. Depending on who you ask, each city will have a unique array of features and advantages that are hard to qualify, let alone compare. But more importantly, the city itself is such a large entity in our mostly urbanized world that trying to generalize any qualities may result in a gross generalization of certain attributes that would be better appreciated if we could localize them.
But since we’re hopelessly lost in this quest for our ideal place, I thought a great place to restart the quest is the latest attempt from Monocle magazine to design the perfect city block. As it seems now a tradition, along with their Quality of Life index, they also look closer and generalize what they’ve learned through the process of ranking cities to put together a theory of “smart urban living”. Without trying to discredit the effort (I really think they are onto something), the article falls to easily into common clichés such as wind turbines, urban farming, community greenhouses, rooftop entertainment and falls short of getting into a serious exploration of the most powerful element to transform our cities: a lively, dense, diverse neighbourhood with progressive minds ready to adapt as new technologies and ideas becoming affordable. In my opinion, more than building we need to explore our cities to find those neighbourhoods that are almost at the brink of a creative explosion, just waiting for the right people to converge and turn them into the ideal urban quarters.
What are the attributes that would make a neighbourhood such a candidate? I expect this will turn into a debate, but here a summary of arguments I’ve put forward over the last three years (in no particular order):
- Hyper-connected: both in the virtual and living realms, it must provide the infrastructure to keep its dwellers engaged with other people across the city and around the globe.
- Sustainable: as with any self-organizing entity, it must optimize resources for its survival, learning to reduce dependency on external sources. This could very well apply to energy efficiency, local food supplies or even its ability to foster the innovation necessary to sustain a thriving culture.
- Evolving: opposing any attempts to characterize the area with a limited number of attributes or features, a great neighbourhood is a living entity with an ongoing narrative that can only be understood by its actors and can only be fully appreciated by being part of such narrative.
- Diverse: not only in the variety of its people, but in its ability to bring these people together into a single meeting point. You should feel like every day is an opportunity to meet a different person from whom you will learn something new.
- Acoustic: as in acoustic medium, where the space becomes a medium that excels at enabling cultural transfer by virtue of the evolved traditions of its participants, advanced mechanisms enabled by technology to propagate information and a rich mix of sources that can be used and reused for many different purposes.
- Unique: even though we may one day discover the perfect recipe for a great neighbourhood, I bet we will continue to be amazed by their variety. A signature lifestyle should be a good hint that you’ve got a good thing going in this place.
- Livable: a great destination should make you feel like you’ve arrived somewhere and not like you’re in transit as an spectator. Its ability for calling on people to settle should be of utmost importance.
How is that for eligibility criteria to become the greatest destination? Can you nominate any area in your city? I’ll continue to explore this theme as we pack our bags and start our Global Culture tour in a quest to find a collection of the best hoods around.
On the trail of liveability rankings released recently by both The Economist Intelligence Unit and Mercer, and just a couple of weeks until Monocle’s Global Quality of Life Survey is out, I thought it would be interesting to question why we care so much about liveability?
But first here are some thoughts from a friend on why we don’t want to live in a ‘liveable’ city:
This hurts Vancouver so much…
1) Employers can say, it’s so livable ! so we can afford to pay less – people SO want to live here.
2) Real estate market keeps going up — people want to live here
3) Vancouverites who haven’t been elsewhere keep the same attitude that it is so perfect and there’s no room for improvement :
- Release city restrictions : Velib bikes ? Sidewalk cafes ?
- A little more culture : +art, +theatre.
It is great that you can ski and go to the (cold) beach on the same day, but that does not mean it would be bad if you could ski and go to see ‘Wicked’ or a Monet on the same day…..
Is it possible that a city can hypnotize its inhabitants into such a state of apathy that liveability is an attribute to be desired but never to be acquired? Just as Borges suggests that there is nothing remarkable about being immortal except to know oneself immortal; I wonder if our (my?) obsession with liveability would terribly affect our lifestyles should we realize we already ARE living in the absolute best place we can possibly find.
Perhaps the most important lesson in travel can be applied to this quest: what matters is not the destination, but the journey. To aspire to find better ways to live, learn from other people making a good and balanced living, connect with other people pursuing the same ideals; these are the reasons to continue our quest for liveability and never settle and assume that we’ve found it. The most interesting bit of this quest is every single new place that will teach us something new that we hadn’t learnt in our previous stops.
I should add that the quote from my friend is based on his own experience living abroad, finding the city of lights after many years of what anyone would’ve assumed was already a great lifestyle. It demonstrates the spirit of a true global citizen, never assuming that things are as well as they could be. Not for himself, not for his family and not for the people that live around him. There will always be a better way, and that’s the spirit of the invitation in give up your urban “devil”:
the key may be in experimentation: what if you could try alternate lifestyles for a short while? Maybe farming is not going to cut it, but helping a community in need develop advanced social programs tapping into your urban skills may be your call. If you could try not one but a few life-changing experiences, chances are not only you’ll change your life, but you’ll end up enhancing the life of many people around you.
P.S. If you haven’t read The Immortal, go buy The Aleph by Borges.
Courtesy TECchris @ Twitter
Our species’ survival depends on how fast we embrace the moral shift from “patriot” to “global citizen”. Chris Anderson.
Reminded me of a key post in the evolution of this blog: cosmopolitanism (or the implosion of nationalism)
As we struggle to find ways to survive the current crisis and look at the leaders of the world to provide guidance, the latest Hub Culture 2009 Zeitgeist Ranking will come in handy as a tour of the cities that are better positioned to sustain an acceptable quality of life while providing plenty of opportunities to rebuild for the future. A zeitgeist reflecting the drama of our times:
its not really about the Obamas – its about the context of our changing expectations of government
Berliners become an enigma – povo at home, increasingly affluent abroad
Just ignore the noxious skyline as you watch the GDP growth rates, still hovering near 9%
- Los Angeles
LA’s fashion scene has stagnated, and the city’s hold on entertainment is slipping to diffusion by web 2.0
the principles of kaizen (continuous improvement) are shaping a really cool new Japanese ecovibe
The general attitude down under appears to be one of distant concern
- Saö Paulo
Here, ‘crunch’ is in the quinoa, not in the financial vocabulary
- Hong Kong
The city is rich enough to sit out the bust, and it can always rely on China’s neighboring Guangdong province to drive the local economy
- New York
Hunger breeds innovation, because people actually have to think, plot and scheme to make a difference, and are more likely to do it on a shoestring budget.
With large infrastructure projects on the horizon for the Olympics, nimble currency moves and a general stiff upper lip, the mantra now is survival and sobriety
China is one of the last places in the world still experiencing growth, and that means that the party is still in progress here on the Huangphu River
Clearly the November attacks had a large impact on the mood of the city, but they can’t dent the can-do spirit of average Mumbaikars
Private wealth and trading (two of the city’s biggest focuses) are giving ground to medical tourism, biotech and other homegrown industries taking root with support from the government
- Buenos Aires
international markets and visitors that provide an international feel to the city began to dry up
Dubai’s taste for showcases, whether luxury, architecture or design, make the remaining grand opportunities here very interesting
The current mood is about refocusing on priorities, living life more simply and thinking deep thoughts. Where better than Paris?
Canadian globe trotters are heading back home to Canada’s most influential business city as they check out of their stints abroad.
Looking ahead, the story of Istanbul is about youthful opportunity.
- México, D.F.
a young population works in Mexico City’s favour, creating optimism and opportunity for the future, generated by an increasingly well educated and global population.
the Danish way of life, from design to food, with a focus on streamlined simplicity, makes more sense than ever.
What is more likely: That an American entrepreneur will look for an early exit strategy to live the good life in Europe or that a French impresario will consider giving up a dinner invitation to Pierre Gagnaire (one of the World’s best restaurants) for a meeting with potential investors?
As absurd as the question seems, that is the tone of the debate going on among the readers of celebrity-entrepreneurs Michael Arrington (Joie De Vivre: The Europeans Are Out To Lunch) and Loic Le Meur (Should Michael Arrington Be Invited At LeWeb Next Year). The word battle, taking place across blogs posts, comments, twitter messages continues to scale as people are quick to join sides and it seems there are only two ways of being an entrepreneur: you either kill yourself building a company and sacrifice all immediate personal satisfaction or give up trying to be successful in the business world but discover the joys of life.
What most people engaged in this debate are not recognizing (and I’ll admit I haven’t finished reading all comments/posts) is that everyone is really advocating the liberal ideology, where individual success is what matters the most. One could even judge from recent events, that individuals may feel entitled to succeed at the expense of others.
The American entrepreneurial spirit, driven by hyper-competition will not hesitate to take every opportunity to grow a business, which would be great if the ultimate objective of such business was to enhance the life of all the people that depend on it. But too many times we’ve seen greed triumph over the high ideals of the early capitalists, leading to an early sell without concern (more on this from Matthew Ingram) for long term prosperity. However, a life style without such ambition may lead to stagnation. Feeling entitled to long lunches, 35-hour weeks without producing the output that the world needs to overcome the current crisis, may be just as damaging, though.
In past posts I’ve explored the relationship between growing cities and their hunger for an accelerated rhythm. I’ve also quietly considered what is it that everyone wishes in the long term. Why are people attracted to quiet, relaxed retreats away from the fast-lived scene of the big cities?
It seems to me that putting the individual ahead of the collective is the cause of problems in any case. If the entrepreneur was every bit as considered when selling the business as he was while building the business, accounting not only for individual pay-out but overall society impact… and every citizen just as concerned for overall output, even at the expense of personal gratification we may have a new entrepreneurial spirit for our post-bonanza era.
Front Seat, the organization that brough us Walk Score continues deploying tools to bring citizen participation to the web 2.0 era. This week they launched Obama Urban Policy, a forum where everyone can participate in recommending priorities for the first Office of Urban Policy for the United States. Getting involved early seems like the best way to influence the opinion of future policy makers.
In my recent post “vote” I pointed out three policy ideas that focus on cities:
- Find ways to replicate the hyper productivity of cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston across some of the poor-performing cities.
- Create a new industry around the “City of the Future”: sustainable, energy-efficient, less dependent of non-renewable resources, able to produce only the necessary goods and doing good through a well educated workforce.
- Study your most cosmopolitan cities and figure out how to leverage diversity as a strength, integrating migrants to the workforce more effectively.
I’ve done my part by posting these suggestions on the forum. Now is your turn to stop by and make your vote count (again).
The top three priorities at this time are:
- Invest in a world-class rail network
Build a world-class rail system between cities and within them to transport people and goods more efficiently.
- Change zoning laws to promote walkable development
Change zoning and land-use regulations to promote mixed-use walkable development.
- End subsidies for car-dependent development
Walkable developments currently subsidize car-dependent developments. End the subsidies for car-dependent development by requiring developers to pay the true cost of utilities and transportation in sprawling developments.
Hope you can vote and help create better urban policies.
The Economist is already calling the US election: Obama. I seriously hope The Economist is right. The result of this election is decided by a very small percentage of the people who are affected by its outcome and I’m certain the consensus around the world is that it is time for a change.
Here is my list of what Global Culture needs from the next president of the United States:
- The US has some of the most successful cities in the world. Over the next decade that model needs to be replicated throughout America, creating new magnets for talent and investors.
- The size of economic rescue that will be needed over the next few years can only be accomplished by creating entire new industries; let it be that of the cities of the future: sustainable, energy-efficient, less dependent of non-renewable resources, able to produce only the necessary goods and doing good through a well educated workforce.
- After years of catastrophic diplomatic efforts, realize that your best ambassadors may be those US global citizens that are ready to embrace other cultures. Baby boomers may find their retirement funds will do better in other currencies.
- Leverage diversity as a strength. Study the common grounds with other cultures that will create the opportunities for a more peaceful world. This is easy when your cities are some of the most cosmopolitan in the world.
- In the era of increased mobility it is absurd to go on with measures to restrict the movement of people. Recognize this and capitalize on the increasing flow through programs to integrate migrants to the workforce, and create more tolerant, diverse and culturally rich urban centres.
- Lead the globalization efforts through a renewed sense of corporate responsibility. Every corporation understand the value in reaching out to the world, but they can’t keep doing it at the expense of the world. If the recent crisis has taught us something is that moral leadership is clearly needed.
If you’re a US citizen vote. If you are not, send a friendly reminder to your known friends with the right to participate in this historic election.