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It can’t be just that it’s the “silly season,” the tired dog days of summer when newspapers and television have nothing much to write about. These days there are too many burning stories to tell, mostly of disease, disaster, doom and death, so it must be that the media want to lighten the gloom, so several have asked the question — what is the most pleasant city to live in?

The question posed is an interesting, but is being asked in a silly way. It is time to be sensible about one of the most important questions of our lives, where we live and how and how well we live. The question is relevant because more and more people on planet Earth are becoming urban-dwellers. A hundred years ago only 20 percent of the population lived in urban areas; today more than half of the 7 billion people do; and by 2030 more than 70 percent of us will be city dwellers.

Let us see what the surveys say. Monocle magazine has grand ambitions. It describes itself as “a magazine briefing on global affairs, business, culture, design and much more,” and aims to serve “a globally minded audience of readers … hungry for opportunities and experiences beyond their national borders.” It claims to sell more than 77,000 copies of each issue, a lot for a magazine that is a real heavy weight, with 292 pages in the July/August issue, costing £7 or $14, or $24 if bought at news stands in Japan.

Monocle offered some good ideas as to what factors should be counted for a quality life, but its report is lightweight and subjective. It is not clear what the weighting was for each of the factors that its editors regard as important. A box of diagrams for each city listed: “sunshine hours; murders/break-ins; bookshops; charging points” as principal considerations.

But below were categories for total population; daily newspapers; culture, meaning museums, art galleries and cinemas; rubbish recycled; unemployment rate; chain test, which was the number of McDonald’s and H&M (fashion stores). Then there were more subjective tests, including tolerance, architecture, public transport, when do the parks close, a question about whether the city is a libertarian paradise or a stickler for rules, and the Monocle “fix,” the magazine’s recommendation for making the city more pleasant.

Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, topped Monocle’s rankings, and was rewarded with 11 pages of uncaptioned color pictures. It was followed by Tokyo with 3.6 pages of pictures, then by Melbourne in third place, Stockholm, Helsinki, Vienna, Zurich, Munich, Kyoto and Fukuoka. Australasia did well, with Sydney (11th), Auckland (12th) and Brisbane (25th) in the list of 25. Old Europe did better, with Berlin (14th), Madrid (17th), Paris (18th), Amsterdam (19th), Hamburg (20th), Barcelona (21st), Lisbon (22nd) and Oslo (24th) making the cut. Only Hong Kong (13th) and Singapore (16th) made the list from Asia outside Japan, and Vancouver (15th) and Portland (23rd) were the only North American cities, with Africa and Latin America being absent.

In a brief explanation, Monocle cited 414 murders in Chicago, against one in Copenhagen as the reason why the windy city failed to get in. London’s omission was explained by the comment, “London may have nightlife and culture but house prices are out of control and the police can’t always be trusted.” The comment on house prices was a bit odd given that Hong Kong’s prices are so sky-high that rich Hongkongers are flocking to London and New York to snap up cheaper homes.

Monocle lacks consistency. It advised Copenhagen to “reform the immigration system” to allow more non-Westerners in to provide better Chinese and non-European food — whereas immigration laws are a matter for the Danish government, not the city.

In contrast to Monocle, which includes Tokyo, Kyoto and Fukuoka, in its top 10, Japanese are not so impressed with Tokyo or Kyoto as a place to live. The magazine Aene asked Japanese housewives which was their favorite city. Fujisawa came on top, followed by Inagi, which is just outside the 23 wards of Tokyo, and Nishinomiya, which borders on Kobe and Osaka.

Fukuoka came in sixth. The magazine concentrated on what it called “happy quality,” meaning family friendliness and overall convenience of life.

The Economist Intelligence Unit is altogether more sophisticated and it ranks 140 cities, from Melbourne, Vienna and Vancouver at the top to Damascus at the bottom, with Dhaka and Port Moresby just above the war-torn Syrian capital. It uses a matrix of health care (20 percent), education (10), infrastructure (20), stability (25), culture and environment (25) against which to assess cities, along with subcategories, such as sport. Melbourne scored a perfect 100 in the first three, as well as in sport to give it 97.5 out of a perfect 100.

London and New York come in 55th and 56th position because they “suffer from higher levels of crime, congestion and public transport problems than would be deemed comfortable,” EIU says rather pompously. Tokyo is ranked 18th by EIU.

New Delhi comes in 111th place. Even so, it is puzzling to find London so far below cramped Hong Kong, in 31st place, or to understand why Hong Kong is so much higher than clean and green Singapore, which comes 53rd.

In a sense, these surveys not only ask the wrong questions, but are rather silly. It is noteworthy that the leading cities are not the bright cosmopolitan metropolises — apart from Tokyo in Monocle’s list — but comfortably wealthy, I am tempted to say old-world cities, others might say safe and boring.

Dr. Samuel Johnson declared that anyone tired of London was tired of life and, of course, it is rather daft to present London, or New York or even Tokyo, as a lumpen city. There are people who would pay upward of £100 million for a pad in London’s Mayfair, which might be regarded as an acid test of whether a city is worth living in.

In a big metropolitan city like London or Tokyo or Osaka, it very much matters where you live: a big Georgian house in a good area of Islington would be very different to a small flat in Shoreditch or Wandsworth; by the same token, a house in Wandsworth would be better than a council flat in the N19 district of Islington.

The same consideration applies to Tokyo or Osaka or Kobe: better to be in a safe residential area than in a dingy council flat. One of the surprising aspects of Japan’s cities is the poor and cramped quality of public or subsidized housing. The same thing about location and home ownership applies in spades to Delhi or Mumbai or Beijing or Shanghai or other developing Asian cities.

Most of us don’t get to pick and choose where we live. We are constrained by our upbringing, education, job, family, salary, commitments. These surveys may be fun for the comfortably bored of old Europe and Australia. But for the up and coming new cities of Asia and Latin America, it is high time to adopt a different standard.

Maybe Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the right idea in talking of toilets inside homes. How about judging a city by the price of affordable housing, the distance to the nearest subway or bus stop, the price and quality of the local school, access to a toilet, provision of safe drinking water, immunization against disease, a doctor if a child or an aged parent is sick, benefits for the unemployed, sick or elderly?

Given that all of these things need investment and may take years to come to fruition, even with a forward-looking government, any survey of city facilities needs an in-built test as to whether the city politicians are moving in the right direction.

For several billion people in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, the burning question is whether they have a safe roof over their heads, enough money to pay for food and safe water so that they do not get sick, not where is the nearest branch of H&M or art gallery.

Kevin Rafferty, a professor at Osaka University’s Institute for Academic Initiatives, is author of “City on the Rocks: Hong Kong’s Uncertain Future.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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