Mercer released their annual list of the Most Livable Cities in the World last month. The list ranks 231 cities based on factors such as crime rates, sanitation, education and health standards, with Vienna at #1 and Baghdad at #231. There’s always some furor over the results, as there ought to be when a city we love does not make the top 20, or when we see a city rank highly but remember that one time we visited and couldn’t wait to leave.
To be clear, Mercer is a global HR consultancy, and their rankings are meant to serve the multinational corporations that are their clients. The list helps with relocation packages and remuneration for their employees. But a company’s first choice on where to send their workers is not always the same place you’d choose to send yourself to.
And these rankings, calculated as they are, also vary depending on who’s calculating. Monocle publishes their own list, as does The Economist, so the editors at ArchDaily decided to throw our hat in as well. Here we discuss what we think makes cities livable, and what we’d hope to see more of in the future.
What do you consider the most fundamental quality/characteristic to achieve livability in urban areas?
Maria Gonzalez: For me, there are two fundamental things. Firstly, cities should provide mixed programs and facilities at close distances from the inhabitants, preferably 10–15 minutes by foot. Secondly, they should have public spaces to generate encounter between the inhabitants.
Niall Patrick Walsh: If I were to pick one thing, I would say interaction with other people. It sounds really simple, but I always find that my experience of a city is entwined with the people I meet, see, or even hear. So the fundamental characteristic is perhaps a city that is walkable, or negotiable without using a car, to maximize daily interactions.
Keshia Badalge: I would put safety as my first priority. I realize a lot of things come under safety—such as political safety, streets being safe to roam, or being able to own/live in a house that is not prone to natural disasters. It gives me a sense of stability when a city is safe in all of these regards, and I can then go out and interact with people and enjoy other aspects of city life.
Victor Delaqua: I agree with Niall, for me the city is a place where you are always exposed to new encounters, and it can result in a lot of positive experiences. But for this to happen, the city needs to have a nice infrastructure that allows for mobility and security, as Keshia mentioned.
And of course the local culture must match with your beliefs. It makes no sense to live in a place where you cannot be who you really are.
What is an example of a place that has these qualities?
Keshia: Going back to safety, compared to the US, Singapore has very strict gun laws and drug laws ("very strict" meaning there’s a death penalty attached to some of these violations). And while I’ve heard a lot about how authoritarian these laws are, they also make Singapore so safe. We have one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Because we’re a stable economy, we can then use this as a foundation to develop better parks, public services, even housing.
80% of Singaporeans live in public housing, and it’s even mixed based on races (we have a racial quota for each block). And then the other unique thing about our public housing is a feature called a "void deck" which is an empty space at the first floor of our public estates, which can be filled with amenities like food or childcare services, and it also encourages interaction. These well-built government housing estates become enclaves for social interaction, and because they are subsidized they keep homeless rates low. Home ownership is so important to feeling stable and safe in the city you’re living in
Niall: Safety is an interesting aspect. I studied architecture in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which up until fifteen or twenty years ago saw a decades-long conflict between paramilitary groups. But in the post-conflict era, it has become statistically one of the safest cities in the United Kingdom, which has instilled a confidence in investors, developers, and even governments who are transforming the architecture of the city center. So yes, safety and confidence is a big driver in what makes a city attractive, both for designers and citizens.
As for a place that engages its people, I was always struck by the Spanish Steps in Rome. You see so many different characters and personalities, and the surroundings lend themselves so well to just sitting back and soaking in the atmosphere, even though it is in one of the busiest cities in Europe.
Maria: What I value when I travel to European cities is being able to enjoy the human scale, where you can tell that the city has been modified for pedestrians. You can find a supermarket or a school just a few blocks from your home. You can walk or use a bike.
Victor: I would say that the streets are a special space in every city, they're not only the space where people pass by, but also the space where city life derives its meaning. I remember a speech by Eduardo Souto de Moura in which he says he loves urban spaces because of the city noises and the surprises that a lot of people living together can bring. If a city has lively streets, with people eating, socializing, celebrating, it is a healthy city.
While nothing is ever “easy,” what are the measures that could be taken in some of the cities you are familiar with that would make it more livable?
Maria: In Latin American countries, there must be a greater mixture of uses in neighborhoods, so facilities are closer together. Commerce, housing, and recreation should be part of the same complex. Transport systems should also function as an integrated system, with pedestrians, bicycles, buses and the subway working as complementary parts of the network.
Keshia: For me, one of the things that’s always on my mind is: How are we looking out for a mature population? Sure cities can be great fun, but the world’s population is growing just as fast as cities are, and so cities need to become more age-friendly, instead of being all about consumer shopping malls and coffee shops.
I read an article that the elderly in Japan are committing petty crimes, repeatedly, to end up in jail, in order to have a home and a community. Things like that cannot continue to happen; we have to look out for people outside of our own demographic, and think of better aging-in-place programs and ways to create communities for elders within the city.
I’d like to add a nod to the Dutch here for their housing programs like Dementia Village, and Humanitas Retirement Home where students can live rent-free with seniors. There’s also this funky Milan residential home called Casa Verdi, where 60 mature musicians live with 16 music students. I hope we can encourage more interaction across age demographics.
Niall: That issue of community and age becomes more prevalent when we look at how technology will impact cities. If smart objects become more necessary to negotiate cities in the future, there is actually a danger we can further alienate groups such as the elderly, who find it difficult to keep pace with technological advances.
I think moving away from traditional road/sidewalk streets can have a big impact. London has some interesting shared surface streets which make the city seem more breathable, and less cramped. Exhibition Road outside the Victoria and Albert Museum is a good example. Of course, when we propose these initiatives, we have to be mindful of the knock-on effects, and not just create a situation where we move all buses and cars to the next street!
Victor: As someone who lives in São Paulo, a big city in a developing country, I believe the step to becoming a more livable city is to become more democratic. São Paulo is a city that has grown tremendously in recent decades and much of it was not planned. The poorest people live on the outskirts, and they spend approximately four hours of their day on public transport. This cannot be healthy for anyone.
The richer people in the city not only gain more time in their day (since they live closer to the city), they also enjoy a better climate because of more trees and parks. All this makes me wonder: For whom are we planning our cities?
I would say that "decentralizing" the city into several places would make it more sustainable. Also, if we have mixed areas that combine living, working, health, education, and leisure, people will not have to waste hours of their daily life moving around.
We posted this article earlier this month. What do you think of the results?
Keshia: I am surprised by the proportion of European cities. I wonder if the metrics that Mercer used were skewed towards identifying and awarding merits to the features of a Western city. Have European cities become the de-facto standard other cities should strive for?
It might be helpful to point out that even though these are the most livable cities in the world, they sure aren't the cities that everyone's moving to, so there's some sort of division between cities that are ranking-wise "livable" and then cities that people choose to live in.
Niall: Because Europe has been a center of wealth for centuries, its cities have seen long sustained growth and maintenance. I wonder if this makes them more appealing for lists such as this. Perhaps it is easier to understand cities with such longstanding cultural (and architectural) roots?
And perhaps having so many cities on one continent with so many variations in culture and style, many of which can be reached within an hour or two of each other, makes them more attractive still? If you live in Berlin or Paris, and decide you want a weekend city break, you have dozens of options just two hours away, all with unique attractions. I wonder if there is any other part of the world where so many cultures and histories can be experienced in such a short time?
Given your professional lens, what’s your favorite city and why?
Victor: [laughs] I'm thinking here
Maria: Me too, es dificil!
Niall: I love Amsterdam. Because of the tranport portoflio, to get from A to B, you can either walk, cycle, take an underground train, tram, bus, or canal boat. It makes the city so easy to travel around, definitely as a tourist, and probably as a local too. And it creates beautiful sounds and sights, such as canal bridges with vintage bicycles resting on them, or bicycle bells ringing if someone needs to speed up!
Keshia: I’m going to risk sounding like a snooze, and go with Paris. I’ve lived in various arrondissements at various points in my life. To be fair I fell in love with Lyon first, and Paris felt a lot grittier in comparison. It took a few months of living in Paris to fall in love with evening walks along the Seine, and the chance to pass by the Louvre in the morning on the way to service my computer at the Apple store (it broke down many times), and underground (sometimes literally underground) literature events and performances. My daily errands become quite magnificent when I look around and see these grand buildings with so much history and a community of people who love and appreciate the same things I do, which goes back to what Victor said, about belonging.
Maria: I would say Berlin. Even though it has big streets and sometimes you feel like you have to walk a little longer than other European cities, it has history and you can feel it through its architecture. The buildings give away a lot about what they have been through and what they’ve become. Also, it has a lot of great public spaces, diverse architecture and cultural activities, and is affordable.
Victor: One of my favorites is Medellin, Colombia. It is a city that demonstrates the role that architecture and urbanism can play in people's quality of life when you invest in excellent cultural buildings in poorer areas, design public spaces around the whole city, and have a strong urban network. To top it off the city has great access to nature, cultural and gastronomic offerings, a good climate and an extremely friendly population!
About the editors
Keshia Badalge is an editor and Content Manager at ArchDaily. She oversees the publication of ArchDaily and co-ordinates content across the global sites in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese. She grew up in Singapore and moved to the U.S. to attend Dartmouth College. She later studied architecture and urban design as a Postgraduate research fellow and has worked as a freelance journalist before coming to ArchDaily. She has also lived in Lyon and Vermont but it's Paris that calls out to her, time and time again.
María González is a project editor at ArchDaily. She is in charge of curating projects from North America, Africa, Europe and Oceania. She is an architect from Universidad de Chile, and was an exchange student at Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Belleville. She has a post-graduate degree in architectural photography from Catholic University of Chile. She worked as an architect for 3 years before becoming an ArchDaily editor. Apart from this, she also works as an independent photographer. She has lived in Santiago and Paris, and visited various Latin American, European and North American cities.
Niall Patrick Walsh is an Assistant Editor at ArchDaily, having joined in 2017 as an editorial intern. Originally from Ireland, he is currently studying a Masters of Architecture at Queen's University Belfast, where he previously graduated with a BSc Arch(Hons). He has lived cities across the UK and Ireland, including London and Belfast, and is a keen traveler, exploring cities throughout Europe, the United States, and Latin America.
Victor Delaqua is an editor at ArchDaily Brazil. He is architect and urbanist from the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (2014) and did exchange programs in FAUUSP and Universitat Politècnica de València. Apart from ArchDaily, he also works as architect. He has lived in Campinas, Valinhos, Florianópolis, São Paulo (Brazil) and Valencia (Spain), and visited various Latin American, European and North American cities. Currently he is designing the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo.