Top 25 places to live

The News

While it is still enjoying its current buzz-worth status, Dubai is no place to live. Nor is Hong Kong. Milan perhaps passes muster. Mumbai? Forget about it.

Behind the News

After a year of research, across 95 cities and with over 3600 hotel, bar and restaurants reviews by our global team of writers, contributors and ambassadors — the results are in. Melbourne, nestled on the south-eastern coast of mainland Australia, is the world’s most desirable city to live, stay, eat and play, ranking at the top of SA’s Global Cities 2009 Index.

By assessing current conditions in 95 cities based on stability, health care, education, infrastructure, culture and environment, Melbourne ranks first in the world, just slightly ahead of Zürich and Geneva. Copenhagen comes in fourth and Paris rounds out the top five list of the world’s most liveable cities.

Joining Jakarta at the bottom of the list were Mumbai (#99), Macau (#98), Mexico City (#96) and Dallas (#93). Beijing and Manila also ranked poorly coming in at #94 and #87, respectively. We have simply found that these cities have aspects of daily life that present significant challenges to its inhabitants and visitors alike.

With the exception of high scores in Australia and some Asian centres, most of the better-ranking cities are based in the more developed regions of Western Europe and North America. Tokyo (#6), Singapore (#10), Hamburg (#16) and Toronto (#13) — all placed in the top 25.

Cities that scored highly are mostly mid-sized, in developed countries with a medium population density. They also benefit from cultural or recreational availability but with lower infrastructure problems typically caused by large populations. The world’s most interconnected cities help set global agendas and serve as the hubs of global integration. These are the well-oiled machines of growth for their countries and the gateways to the resources of their regions in the 21st century.

1) Melbourne

While Sydney enjoys a stunning harbour and that much ballyhooed opera house, and Adelaide with its vineyards and the outback on it’s doorstep, it’s Melbourne that has emerged as the most important city in Australia. With its idiosyncratic blend of Victorian and contemporary architecture, impressive cultural life and situated as one the top university cities, Melbourne is also one of the world’s pre-eminent global cities. The city is now the fastest growing city in Australia, with thousands flocking to live here on a never before seen scale. By paying attention to urban flow, Melbourne has opened itself up as extremely pedestrian and biking friendly, with its extensive network of laneways and arcades; an enormous amount of new outdoor cafés and restaurants have opened on Melbourne’s streets. While the tram network (the world’s largest) is due for a much needed upgrade, and the city has an increasingly expanding waistline (it’s estimated that the city will need to accommodate another 1 million people before 2025), all eyes are currently on Melbourne.

2) Zürich

Although the high Swiss cost of living is off-putting, the low crime rate, being astonishingly close to the Swiss Alps, and having a transport system that is among the best in Europe props Zürich up as poster boy for Switzerland’s pivotal position in global living. The largest city in Switzerland is also the cultural capital, where mountains cover over one-third of the country’s surface area. From Zurich’s ultramodern airport to the city’s buses, trams, boats, and mountain cars, you are never far from public transportation. The city boasts of having one of the best medical and health care systems in the world – and being a drop-dead gorgeous city always helps. But Zürich is also one of the most expensive cities in the world, ranking only slightly behind Hong Kong and a few steps ahead of Copenhagen.

3) Geneva

Geneva’s goal is to slowly increase the density of its urban core and the suburbs while promoting continuous urban space, all the while allowing limited amounts of development in outlying villages. We think that this kind of a detailed outlook hits the nail on the head as far as managing urban sprawl and pressure on the surrounding countryside. Switzerland’s second largest city accounts for 75% of all jobs in its cross-border basin, yet houses only 57% of its population. It may be a magnet for employment, but Switzerland’s second largest city lacks sufficient land for new construction. On the plus side, Geneva is a bustling, affluent city and is a pleasure to explore as its streets are safe and clean and its transport system is reliable. With over thirty museum and art galleries in the city the cultural appetite of visitors should be satiated. Alas, Geneva has the second highest standard of living in the world making it an expensive city to visit.

4) Copenhagen

It’s no coincidence that the rest of the world is consumed by a fetish for all things Danish. Copenhagen is a town so deferential of design that city officials ban inferior plastic café furniture on city streets; rather, sidewalks are lined with stainless-steel tables and chairs ripped from the pages of an Arne Jacobsen catalogue. It’s a city where boutique cafés are dotted with Finn Juhl coffee tables. Once regarded as a dull provincial town, overshadowed by vibrant metropolises like Paris and Rome, Copenhagen now enjoys life at the top of most international quality-of-life rankings. This new-found eminence is due, for the most part, to its dynamic city centre, which has been famously re-tooled and connected to the rest of the city by one of the world’s most painstakingly assembled bicycle-path networks. The Danish capital, however, is relatively small in comparison to many other cities. Copenhagen is also a safe place.

5) Paris

Cool becomes Parisiennes. Nearly everyone you encounter is fiercely attractive, insanely stylish and possessed of an enviable, effortless grace. The French can glide about on a rusted old bicycle with a broken horn and come off with the grace of Audrey Tautou. That same praise speaks for the city itself. Paris gets high marks all across for friendly people, great quality of life, climate and views. But, since there is more to life then lounging with a café au lait on the patio of the Deux Magots, the city itself does have issues – like the need to revamp both transport and infrastructure. Otherwise, Paris gets our nod, mostly due to two factors at work. The first is that Paris is one of the best-policed cities on the planet; having over 21,000 police officers translates to about one cop per 100 Parisians. Second, The Paris Department of Sanitation is known for being one of the most innovative in the world. This is, after all, the city of the mechanized municipal pooper-scooper.

6) Tokyo

There are about 36 million people living in Tokyo, most of whom have considerable benefits, and there is a life-long recruitment system to protect their employment positions — a situation that is watched closely, and emulated by, other global cities. The perspectives of conducting a business in the Japanese capital, while notoriously difficult, are widening considerably, which is due to the increase of the interest of foreign investors. The secret to the city’s strategy seems to be incrementalism. City officials have about 200 things running at once. You know, improving the sidewalks, planting trees, signage, furniture, widening the footpaths, bringing pedestrians back in — it’s a sort of broad strategy of slow improvement. But, as the world’s most expensive city — a fabled emporium where shopping is considered a fine art – Tokyo is indeed a hard city to afford.

7) New York

The biggest difference between New York and, say, Paris is the fact that Paris is clean. Though New York’s subway system has made improvements to its constituent elements, especially by purchasing new, air-conditioned cars, the total system remains, to say the least, haphazard. Because the city is already so tax-saturated, finding the money will require long-term spending cuts elsewhere, but New York itself can do more to save on health-care costs; fixing future pension benefits requires state approval. Completed and in-progress improvements are mostly sound, including reinvesting in F-train subway tracks that have lain dormant for decades, and reviving the High Line, the former elevated freight railroad of the West Side Line, along the lower west side of Manhattan. The New York residential market, which most termed bulletproof during the general housing downturn, has finally started to slip, with sales volume down by as much as 75% in some neighbourhoods and prices overall down by over 25%.

8) Vienna

Vienna appears to sparkle; in fact, it does sparkle. Austria’s primary city has about it the squeaky-clean aura of a just-scrubbed porch, a feeling one almost never experiences in New York. The reason is not difficult to discover. Not only is Vienna a well-located, bicycle-friendly spot, but it also boasts an impressive public transport network, and a health system that ranks amongst the best in the world. A central core of stone-tiled streets with shops, restaurants, cafés and bakeries is consistently filled with shoppers, street venders and artists, social activists and performers.

9) Barcelona

Perhaps all those magazine spreads and back alley nightclubs have reminded the world of what Spain was capable of. Whatever the motivation, Barcelona has got its groove back, and it still remains one of the coolest cities in Europe. Many expats in Barcelona can be found rubbing elbows at cool wine bars or hipster restaurants spilling diatribe amongst friends until 4 a.m. (if venturing two hours north of the city to El Bulli isn’t in the cards).

10) Singapore

Many urban planners from developing countries have visited Singapore to learn about its urban development experience. Singapore has evolved from a developing country beset with problems to a newly industrializing economy with a successful public housing program and excellent urban infrastructure. This makes the culture varied and broad, offering tourists a variety of different people and environments to visit throughout their stay. It can be an exciting place to see, just be wary of the cane.

11) Amsterdam

Amsterdam rises to take the 11th spot on the list. With one of the world’s most stable economies, high standard of living and strong legal and political framework, Amsterdam’s rise illustrates the continued importance of Europe as a dominant global player. Amsterdam has all of the attributes found in a world-class city: museums, art galleries, music, sporting events and international foods.

12) Sydney

Australian cities occupy two of the top 25 places in ranking the liveability of the world’s major centres, with super-competitive Sydney clocking in at #12. The world’s love affair with Sydney continues unabated. Getting into and around Sydney is relatively easy. Sydney Airport services the world and is accessible by car and convenient rail lines. Furthermore, extensive public transport ropes the suburbs into the city centre.

13) Toronto

We think it is important not to let Toronto rest on its laurels and reputation as a pedestrian-friendly or sustainable city; it’s neither. There is far, far more the city could and should do. But it is reassuring to know the city is advancing in the right direction with the addition of a number of spectacular public architectural projects — including the (controversial) ROM, The Gardiner Museum and the AGO. We also approve the city’s ongoing love affair with food and multiculturalism, and Toronto gets our nod at #13.

14) Bangkok

Bangkok, for the aware, is packed with lessons in sagacious urbanity. But, cram over 2.5 million people into a burgeoning metropolis less than 1,000 sq miles, and you have to expect a few problems. While tourism is popular in Bangkok, and is one of the keys to its growing economy, the city itself is gritty and polluted, with undeniably the worst traffic jams on the planet. That said, the gateway to Asia is one of the most popular destinations for travelers worldwide.

15) Berlin

The Good news: Berlin has transformed into a major hub for music, media, publishing, fashion, design and research. The bad news: Berlin is the perfect storm of urban planning gone wrong. City planners’ subsidized efforts to make the city the economic capital of the European Union have faltered, leaving the city skyline littered with construction cranes, and signs offering dirt-cheap rates on untouched apartment and office buildings.

16) Hamburg

Hamburg is seen in the architectural world as something of a pioneer. Its futuristic, ambitious urban planning and boldness in pursuing new courses in architecture on the spot are not the only recent reasons for this. Renowned for its edgy urban planning for over a century, Hamburg’s striking architectural designs, such as the Chilehaus, dating from the 1920s, and the more current HafenCity, have also set new standards for living and working in a big city.

17) Munich

If ever fully realized, Munich could become the world’s most attractive, liveable and economically vibrant metropolis. The catch is in the clause “if ever fully realized,” because it is highly unlikely that they ever will be. The city’s plans for its physical environment suffer from the same philosophical flaw that pervades all its policies: the assumption that Munich is so desirable that no price is too high, no burden too great, for the privilege of locating there (or, in this case, building there).

18) Vancouver

Wait at a Starbucks — any Starbucks — take a seat and watch a potpourri of city society. Well-attired women in Prada sunglasses strut across the street. Mothers wrestle on and off with their double strollers. A 12-year-old boy wanders in, unaccompanied, on his way perhaps to his Polo lessons. Regardless of how big Vancouver gets, it just can’t fight that small town vibe. And that get’s our vote. With all eyes on 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Vancouver offers a glimpse into the nuts and bolts as to how real change can happen in cities that need to work within certain confines.

19) London

We’ve found Londoners to be among the nicest people in the country, and there’s such an incredible number of things to see and do there. But it has liabilities, such as the cost of living, city planning and the weather, which, even with global warming won’t be changing anytime soon. But, London is offensively expensive. The jewel of a former empire, London remains a cultural, musical and historical capital. Every five steps you’ll find a pub with plush seats or a park full of punters.

20) Washington

Washington, D.C., traditionally takes a back seat to world cities like London, New York and Tokyo when it comes to city living. And it does again. But, if you have a chance to pass through Washington, take a few days to explore the city. The constantly morphing landscape, logic-defying projects and D.C. sun play into the surreal nature of the whole experience. That said, Washington is not a pedestrian-friendly city…

21) Dusseldorf

Berlin is the capital, Munich had a socio-political Olympics and Frankfurt has a giant airport. Their underused German cousin, Düsseldorf, does not have the claims to fame that they do, but that is slowly starting to change. A city of well over half a million people, it is a mid-sized metropolis with a fashion-centric climate, young and moneyed locals are dressed like they just walked off of the Sartorialist. Take heed.

22) Cape Town

Those reports that place Cape Town high on liveability listings are classic. We especially love the one about Europeans trampling one another to live in Cape Town. Now, admittedly, Cape Town is a solid global city. But I guarantee you that the residents of Berlin, Paris and Zurich (in addition to residents of smaller western European cities) are not eager to move there. Indeed, they would likely trample over one another to avoid having to move there. Still, Cape Town has its qualities, entering at #22.

23) Buenos Aires

In the current global economic climate, where value rates highly, Buenos Aires is right up there with Chiang Mai and Thailand. With a diverse, Euro-heavy pedigree, the city’s stunning architecture amalgamates a host of sources. Strolling down its streets, you will see blocks of buildings that, at turns, evoke Paris, Rome and Barcelona. That diversity makes for a gorgeous tapestry of design.

24) San Francisco

San Francisco, like all world cities, is a place of breathtaking contrasts. It is a city both of charming corners where the essence of civilized existence is concentrated into a glass of red wine and a cat asleep upon a cash register, but also of modern quarters whose banality makes you wonder if there are secret competitions among architects for the ugliest building.

25) Oslo

Stockholm and Copenhagen have gotten a lot of press lately (notably, from us). However, their under-serviced Scandinavian-capital brethren, Oslo, is due for some coverage of its own. A moderately sized city, the Norwegian capital has a population of almost 600 000. It is therefore possible to see a lot in a short period of time while still enjoying the benefits of a metropolis (i.e. cultural/historical attractions, iniquitous distractions). On paper, at least, the city’s plans for Oslo’s future development are as comprehensive, sophisticated and visionary as those of any major city in the nation.

Courtesy of SceneAdvisor

Visit Part concierge, part tastemaker, Scene Advisor is an insider’s guide to the world’s most exciting cities.