Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What are the best cities?

Lijiang: honorable mention.  If they hadn't busted me here for Bible
smuggling, maybe higher. 
The Mercer Quality of Living Survey rated the best cities on earth in which to live. It turns out most of them are German, if you believe Mercer. Aside from Vancouver, Aukland, Singapore, and Copenhagen, 6 or the top 10 are German-speaking cities in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. 

It occurred to me the first time I saw one of their surveys, in which six German towns also won top honors, that Mercer is wrong, and it might be a nice break from serious subjects to post an alternative way of judging cities here. 

First of all, you probably shouldn't begin with a set of criteria. Begin by getting to know great cities on their own terms. Walk.  Smell.  Taste.  Chat.  Get lost on the boulevards and in the parks. 

But if you really need some criteria, say because you want to be "scientific" or have some other neurosis, here are a few ideas, in more or less random order:

(1) Did God make this the right place for a city? Its amazing how often people put cities in the wrong places. Why Phoenix? Can anyone explain?

(2) A good city needs beautiful buildings. It's nice if some of them are old, but it's not absolutely necessary. Gargoyles, bright lights, reflections, are all pluses. All major Japanese cities lose points; small towns where only old people live gain points.

(3) Of course beautiful women also make a city beautiful.

(4) A great city needs great food. Of course every large city nowadays has an infinite variety of ethnic cuisines -- the key here is good CHEAP food, served by real human beings, if possible, and with some flare.

(5) Do the people here have a sense of humor?

(6) Are there lots of kids? A city without children is a museum.

(7) Are kids allowed to light firecrackers, make noise, splash in pools, and play at the beach with their dogs?

(8) How many generations helped build the city? Are there ghosts of great writers and statesmen and scientists about? Take off points for famous tyrants and totalitarians, present of course but also past. Such boring ghosts they make. 

(9) Give points for top universities, multiply by the inverse square of the metropolitan population, or something like that.

(10) Takes points away for high taxes, add points for low taxes. Sorry, Berlin, Stockholm, Oslo.

(11) Add 50 points if the city is by the sea, 20 for a large (clean) lake, 10 for a (beautiful) river.

(12) A good city needs mountains nearby, with old trees. Extra points if you ski. 
Seattle: forget coffee!  This is a day-trip away.

(13) Add lots of points if you can drive three hours to (a) broadleaf woodlands that turn color in fall; (b) coniferous forests where they let you cut Christmas trees; (c) farms (1 hour or less); (d) ocean beaches; (e) glaciers; (f) desert.

(14) Does the city have a beautiful skyline at night?

(15) How many languages is worship conducted on the weekend here?  The more, the closer it is to the vision of heaven in Revelations. 

(16) Who do the sports fans hate? Add points if everyone hates the Yankees, Tokyo Giants, Manchester United, or some such placebo. Subtract points if you have one of these vile teams in your city.

(17) Yeah, take a few points off for unemployment, high murder rate, blight, smog, earthquakes, terrorism, and the like if you must.

(18) Now throw your scoring system out the window. If a cop or a nag comes up to you and gives you a scolding, burn all your bridges, shake the dust off your feet, and never come back. If someone politely throws it in the garbage can, smile once, get out of the car, walk for an hour, talk to a few people, and make the call exclusively on the mood you now find yourself in.

Someone suggested Budapest.  Someone else, Montreal.  A frequent poster here, Brian Barrington, suggested Australia, then France (which of course are not cities, but do contain some):

I'd agree with David that the best way to judge a place is to go and walk around a have a look. The place I have been to with the highest quality of life, if you just look at the overall country rather than specific city, is Australia. It's sunny, it's rich, it's safe, it's friendly, everything works, it's optimistic, the cost of living is not outrageous, the restaurants are good, healthcare is good. If you like beach life and outdoor activities you are sorted. One disadvantage is that it's very far away from everywhere and it doesn't have much in the way of history or culture.

If you take all that into consideration as well, then the place with the best quality of life is France, because it is a country with EVERYTHING.

So those would be my personal observations, and I get support for them from another Quality of Life survey:

Well, I haven't been to Australia.  They don't have much snow, anyway, or enough mountains, and too many snakes and deadly spiders. Plus it takes forever to get anywhere else. 

I have been to France, and much of it is gorgeous, without too many snakes.  If I knew the city better, I might include Nice, which is nice, from the mountain looking down on the city and the Mediterranean sea in the morning.  But judging a city by its looks alone is too superficial: I don't know any French cities well enough to evaluate them fairly.  (I did have some delicious peaches in Cannes, which helps. but doesn't quite get us there.)

So the following list is admittedly limited by my very limited travels or sense of a few places I have not been. 

Drum roll .  . . .

(1) Hong Kong -- even if you do have to live in a rabbit hutch, there's no place like it. The world's most spectacular skyline.  Everything moves -- water, people, trams, double-decker buses, hovercraft, subways.  Islands. Hills.  Monkeys.  Cantonese food.  Brilliant new architecture.  700 year old villages.  (Downside: so humid in long summer.  Dirty beaches.) 

(2) Vancouver Good, cheap Chinese and Indian food (among others) everywhere.  Beautiful views in every direction.  Community feel.  Nice houses, lots of trees.  Better recent architecture than Seattle.  Skytrain works. 

(3) San Clemente, CA -- no wonder Richard Nixon got tanned, rested and ready here -- it's a gorgeous little town with red-tile rooves, clinging to the hill above the ocean.  After speaking at the also very attractive Presbyterian church in town, walked down to the pier for some fish and chips. 

(4) Black River, Kyushu, Japan -- really just a hot springs resort, you can walk up and down the creek and sample the best hot springs by lantern, then drive up to the world's biggest caldera the next day.
A couple random kids at Nugget Creek falls, just north
of Juneau. 
(5) Juneau, Alaska.  Maybe the most beautiful natural setting for any capital in the world, when it's not drizzling.  Avalanches twisting down Mount Roberts in the snow.  Bald eagles.  Glaciers you can walk to, and pick semi-precious stones. Echo Ranch Bible Camp.  But prepare to be depressed in the fall.
(6) Shanghai Why Shanghai?  I don't know, ask the students at Nanjing University -- they all want to move there.  Renao, "hot and sweaty," in a good way.  Electricity in the air.  Spectacular skyline, but some old buildings, too.  Come at October 1st, and get bopped on the head with big air-filled hammer-balloons. 
(7) Oxford You can walk everywhere.  Hike through the trees above C. S. Lewis' house on a windy autumn day, and watch the oaks and maples turn into Dryads and Naiads.  Walk along the Cherwell, and look for Alice punting.  Listen for echoes of the debate between Sam Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley at the Pitts River Museum. 

(8) Honolulu -- I'd say Kona, but need the Asian stimulation.

(9) Seattle  You can see the mountains of three national parks from the city on a moderately clear day -- and three snow-crested volcanoes, including Mount Rainier.  (Mount Saint Helens used to be visible.)  Every day the Olympics look different across Puget Sound from my parents' house in West Seattle.  Salt water borders the city on the west, glacier-scoured Lake Washington on the east.  Coffee may not taste like much, but it smells good.  Some cool buildings.  Not too many muggings. (Well, one is too many, but you get my drift.)  Some decent Asian food.  (Seattle loses points for its great phobias against dogs on beaches, plastic bags, and firecrackers.  Never mind the rain, or Vancouver and Oxford are sunk, too, not to mention Juneau.) 

(10) Toss-up and honorable mention: Bath, Beijing, Hangzhou, Lijiang, Madison, Wenzhou, York, Petropavolovsk for all the volcanoes. 

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