As people continue to flock to cities, creating a utopian urban environment has become the holy grail for the 21st century’s developers and planners, but the goal has ended up being beyond the reach of many.

The World Economic Forum scores city liveability on six factors: affordability, amenities, connectivity, culture, safety and sustainability.

These comprise interwoven features of urban living, including accessible public transport, employment opportunities, good education, open green spaces, widespread recreational activities and universal health care. When a city boasts such attributes then it should, in theory, promote wellbeing in individuals, build communities and support a coherent and lively society.

Sadly, many modern attempts to create such environments went wrong, turning what should have been vibrant locations into soulless urban wastelands. Perhaps planners have been approaching things from the wrong angle.

Martha Thorne, dean of the IE School of Architecture and Design in Madrid, believes more people should listen to a German innovative industrial stylist who, she says, holds the key to liveable cities. Head of design for Braun from 1955 to 1995, Dieter Rams is renowned in creative circles for his Ten Principles of Good Design.

Speaking at a TEDx event in 2018, Thorne argues that Rams’ criteria can help us identify today’s most appealing conurbations and regenerate the liveable cities of tomorrow.

Start with innovation

To start with, cities must be innovative, otherwise they stop functioning properly. Innovation goes hand in hand with technology, making city life easier and allowing people to live more fulfilling lives.

Modern principles of innovation are closely tied to environmentally friendly design and a commitment to preserving old parks, establishing new ones and adding vegetation. It also involves reducing as much pollution as possible, so people go outdoors and breathe in clean air as they enjoy their leisure time.

Liveable cities must also be aesthetically appealing. People who love their cities take care of them. A proven way to foster such connections is to introduce buildings and spaces that closely reflect a city’s culture.

As well as beautiful signature buildings, cities need an eye for detail, because their inhabitants care just as much about pavements and school architecture as they do about city hall façades or the appearance of famous monuments.

Cramped apartment blocks in bleak concrete towers does not sound like ‘liveability’. Yet, 24 million people call Shanghai home – attracted by its exotic, modern and dynamic nature.


Consider durability

Another of Rams’ yardsticks is durability. Thorne says that in our modern throwaway economy, a city that cherishes its past and understands its heritage strides confidently into the future. Continuity underlines the importance of protecting a city’s heritage and historical landmarks.

Some of Rams’ more nebulous principles also affect city design. Thorne contends that cities need to be understandable; inhabitants should find it easy and comfortable navigating neighbourhoods and relate to the spaces and buildings they occupy. As well as good design, cities need honesty. Cities that rebrand just to attract tourists, or certain types of firms or social strata, lose their ability to embrace diversity and cater for everyone. Honest cities respond to all citizens.

Ranking cities

Despite blueprints such as the one advocated by Thorne, measuring the merits of a city remains a subjective exercise. This is clear from the many lists published each year purporting to have identified the world’s most people-friendly cities.

The Liveable City index of the Economist Intelligence Unit currently lists Vienna as the world’s most liveable city, although Melbourne held the title for the previous six years.

The magazine Monocle, Deutsche Bank and Mercer all currently rate Zurich as the most liveable, while the consultants at ECA International have Copenhagen and Bern in joint top place.

Further down the lists, differences become more marked. Deutsche Bank ranks Boston as having the eighth best quality of life, but Monocle does not even have the Massachusetts capital in its top 25.

The usual suspects swap places every year near the top of these lists. They include Scandinavian, central European and Australasian locations such as Melbourne (Australia) and Wellington (New Zealand). Out of these regions, Scandinavia in particular has become famous for liveable cities, leading to the recent creation of an international master’s programme in Nordic urban planning. This course is a collaboration between Denmark’s Roskilde University, Sweden’s Malmö University and The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø.

David Pinder, professor of urban studies at Roskilde University, puts the success of Scandinavian cities down to authorities wooing residents by empowering them to plan the ideal city through a bottom-up approach. This has resulted in large parks, robust transport networks and a strong bias towards accessibility for children and senior citizens.

Melbourne was ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit as the world’s most liveable city from 2011 to 2017. However, with a population predicted to reach 7.7 million by 2051 (now 4.3 million) the city is experiencing dramatic urban sprawl, sporadic and groaning public transport, congested roads and high property prices, threatening its consistently top ratings.

When a city becomes less liveable

In contrast to Scandinavia, some US cities once considered idyllic sunshine destinations have struggled to impress modern reviewers.

Robert McNulty is the founder and president of Partners for Livable Communities, a not-for-profit organisation that works to improve the quality of life and economic and social wellbeing of low- and moderate-income individuals and communities in the US. He says American cities suffer because the country’s Social Security safety net is inadequate, resulting in a sharp rise in homelessness.

“Cities that used to be the most liveable, whether that be San Francisco, or Los Angeles or Seattle, now have the highest problem with an underclass that live on the street, in some cases simply because they cannot find affordable housing,” says McNulty. This breakdown in social cohesion highlights the importance of two critical factors behind liveable cities in McNulty’s mind – equity and resilience.

Partners for Livable Communities is working with organisations to promote ‘equity of opportunity’ with the aim of lifting marginalised people out of their current conditions with better job and health care prospects. “The cities that are best able to adjust to an equity agenda are mid-sized ones, such as Chattanooga in Tennessee, Idaho’s Boise and Austin in Texas – these are the harbingers,” says McNulty. “People are moving to these places for a high quality of life, where there is a civic will to spread out wealth on a regional basis through public-private partnerships and a desire to improve community living.”

For McNulty, a city’s resilience is found in its determination to improve its air and waterways, housing affordability and its ability to support upward social mobility. “I would say there’s a major change underway to redefine resiliency, so that it’s not just solely focused around the environment, but also looks at whether a city has the staying power to be a liveable community for all of its population.”

Chattanooga leads the way

McNulty picks Chattanooga as the best example of how a city can transform itself by concentrating on equity and resilience. The city was once seen as one of America’s dirtiest and economically depressed locations.

“Today it is a place young, talented people want to move to,” he says. “Chattanooga invested heavily in its waterways, trail systems, economic development, school system and overall quality of life.”

The improvement has been so dramatic that people from neighbouring Atlanta, in Georgia, are also moving there for a better quality of life. Businesses have taken note too. VW chose the city as its North American electric vehicle manufacturing hub last year, while tech start-ups have been drawn to the city in large numbers ever since it set up a city-wide gigabit network in 2010, giving residents and businesses internet speeds that were 200 times faster than the national average.

Chattanooga’s story is an inspiring one. It is also perhaps proof that what really lies beneath a liveable city is simply the will to make it one.

MAREK HANDZEL is a journalist and the editor of Institutional Real Estate Europe. He has lived and spent time in a number of cities, including London and Warsaw. In his view, liveable cities need large open green spaces, accessible sports and leisure facilities, great public transport, a vibrant arts community and plenty of beer gardens. He no longer lives in a city, but likes to visit them with his young family — now and again.