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And the Winner is… Helsinki!

August 4, 2011

The 5th edition of the Monocle survey of quality of life in the cities deserves some surprise, a lot of meaningful data and some more hints to think about  the benefit of such an exercise, that is my main concerns. Is it worth trying to find relevant, available and reliable indicators to define the quality of life in an urban environment?  Is quality of life or urban quality  measurable in terms of statistical data? Does it make sense to try to measure and rationalize values that cannot per se be captured by numbers? Well, I think it does and reading the annual Monocle Quality of Life Survey is an example of sensible attempt to define the tangible and intangible assets of cities.

As usual the survey is included in the summer double issue of the magazine ( 45, July/August 2011, 250 pp.) together with lots of related articles, conversations, cartoons, tips, photographs etc.  I have particularly enjoyed the articles about Breaking the rules of town planning, the relationship between money and urban quality seen through the eyes of economic statistics. Far less interesting is the attempt to design a perfect urban block and the list of things to do in order to improve your quality of life, but after all it is a nice reading for the deckchair. A kind of infotainment which is not resilient to any kind of advertisement (big firms, small design studios, , city marketing, fashion and high-tech brands) although keeping a pleasant degree of independence and coherence.

Following Zürich (2009) and Munich (2010) this year Helsinki, the daughter of the Baltic Sea, has become the crown of the World’s best city to live and work, featuring the most innovative and sustainable urban development policies. Another North European city, sharing the podium with Zürich (2) and Copenhagen (3) this is no big surprise, but certainly a peculiar choice. Finland is a land of understatement and its capital city is not famous for its spectacular skyline, worldwide events or daring architecture. No big headlines in the news:  Helsinki is not touched by the dramatic flow of migrants that concerns most European cities, nor by the economic crisis and unemployment is not a big issue. Isolation, national identity versus globalisation and risk of marginality may be the preoccupation of such a small population in a rather unfriendly climate. Therefore it is enlightening to read about the smart urban solutions that attracted the attention of Monocle’s staff.

For example it is useful to know that OECD has rated the Finnish education system among the best in the world in the last Pisa surveys and that it is free of charge up to the university. The same excellence level is found in the health and public transport systems and it is almost needless to say that Helsinki is among the less polluted urban areas in Europe. This country aims at making its lakes’ water drinkable in the next years, but it does not mean that concrete has ben banned from the country. On the contrary, the former docks of the harbour are subject of a gigantic development project, after their relocation of the harbour facilities, making place to a brand new city neighbourhood. Finland is gaining ground, among others, in design, architecture and food culture. This is tackling competitiveness and attractiveness through higher quality of life. Finn’s know how to set priorities.

Monocle’s editorial staff is well aware that its ranking may appear a bit too cool and aseptic, business oriented and with less attention to globalisation issues, demographic change, migrations, participation processes and social cohesion. On the other side they declare what are the priorities for ranking: environmental sensitiveness, crime rate, public transport, investment in public infrastructure, sunny days, international connectivity, bureaucratic burden for enterprises and a good deal of subjectivity which is absolutely legitimate. The survey is not a piece of scientific research or institutional statistic, but it has an own coherence and the great advantage of being pleasant, worldwide distributed and open for discussion.

Many countries won’t have their cities ranked in the top 25 and you may ask yourself why New York or London are not considered and whether Rome is really less livable than Portland or Fukuoka, but this is part of the game. Anyway for those who are not ranked there are generous forms compensation, like for instance the special article dedicated to Florence, Montpellier and San Francisco or being among the 5 most lovable cities that will never make it in the top 25 (this year Rome, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Casablanca, Kagoshima).

You can watch the video preview of  Monocle’s Quality of life survey here.  For the video preview of the issue 45 of the magazine click here. For my post about 2010 Monocle’s Quality of life survey click here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2012 6:37 am

    Thank you for the information.
    marg swarnabhoomi


  1. … and Happy New (Design) Year « Well Designed and Built

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