July 13, 2017 10:00 am JST

Monocle points the way to city life at its best

Politeness, punctuality and green pockets keep Tokyo atop life quality ranks

STEVE BLOOMFIELD

Bubbles and bambinos at Yoyogi Park (Photo by Kohei Take)

Who's up? Who's down? Who's in? Who's out? Our 11th annual Quality of Life Survey identifies the cities with all the answers when it comes to livability.

This report first appeared in Monocle magazine. To find out more about the magazine and to subscribe, visit http://monocle.com.

LONDON As a wave of populism has risen in Western liberal democracies, the idea of the city has come under attack. In the U.K., the populists sneer at the "metropolitan elite"; in the U.S., it's the "coastal elites"; and in France, Marine Le Pen rails against Paris' "arrogant elite." Those living in cities, they argue, are "out of touch" with the needs of "real" Britons, Americans and French people.

There is something peculiar about this argument. It is made by people who tend to live in homogenous communities and where difference is often denigrated, not celebrated. It is made by people who want their country to turn back the clock to a mythical "golden age." And it is no coincidence that it is often made by people who live in economically struggling regions. Perhaps those areas would be doing better if they looked a bit more like cities.

The divide between those who live in cities and the rest of a country's population appears to be widening, not just economically but socially and politically too. The U.K.'s great cities, particularly London, voted in favor of the country remaining in the European Union. The big U.S. urban centers voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton and have set themselves the task of becoming sanctuary cities able to defend their residents from the anti-immigrant policies emanating from Washington. In Austria, it was the votes of the Viennese that prevented the far right from winning the presidency. In France, those voting in major metropolises helped give Emmanuel Macron a landslide victory.

But as anyone who lives in a city is all too aware, they need a constant supply of newcomers in order to thrive. They need the 18-year-old who wants to work in a bar for a year and learn the language. They need the artist who wants to rent a studio, the lawyer who wants to push their career or the doctor after new experiences. They need the families who want to settle, send their kids to schools and get involved with the community.

As this year's Quality of Life Survey shows, the cost of living in the world's best cities is becoming problematic. So too, for some cities, is the threat of terrorism -- and the restrictions on openness that this, in some cases, has led to. The cities that thrive in the coming years will be those that remain open and liberal, safe and affordable.

How the survey works
There are more than 60 metrics in this year's Quality of Life Survey, covering everything from the average response time for an ambulance to the price of a decent cup of coffee.

This year we've added a handful of new ones, including the number of design schools, homes built in the past year and new businesses set up. We have also, given the spate of terrorist attacks, added a new metric that assesses the threat of terrorism and the way in which it impinges on a city's quality of life. All research has been carried out by Monocle's team of editors, correspondents and researchers, using a combination of publicly available information and requests to city officials. The more subjective metrics, from the quality of restaurants to a city's tolerance levels, have been assessed by our team of editors and correspondents.

Tokyo: This year's winning city FIONA WILSON

TOKYO Living in Japan can sometimes feel like inhabiting a very safe, impossibly polite bubble, detached from the strife, intolerance and ugly rhetoric that seem to be so prevalent in many parts of the world. Of course, other places are not always so bad and Japan is not perfect but, as far as large-scale cities go, Tokyo has got urban living down to a fine art.

Primary schoolchildren walk to school unaccompanied as a matter of course and the streets are safe, even at night. Good service is expected and received in every situation. In fact, the level of civility is so universal, and everyone so attuned to it, that any deviation from acceptable standards -- a mildly sullen waiter or inattentive shop staff -- causes disproportionate outrage.

The overwhelming sense is that people go out of their way not to bother others. Disturbing fellow subway passengers with a booming conversation just wouldn't be on and you can almost feel the collective horror should someone start eating a pungent burger or put their shoes on a seat. If it sounds exhausting, it really isn't. The awareness of not imposing one's presence on others is absorbed from childhood and internalized to the point where it becomes instinctive. There's an unspoken agreement among Tokyo's citizens that whatever the situation -- a crowded train, a busy bus or an airport security queue -- it will all be much easier if everyone thinks of others and not just themselves.

The "manners" posters that proliferate on the Tokyo subway, reminding passengers not to sit selfishly or shake their wet umbrellas in the direction of others, show just how different Tokyo is from every other megalopolis. Most major cities are grappling with serious crime and the threat of terrorism. Not that Japan is a stranger to external danger: North Korea has been lobbing missiles in Japan's direction with varying degrees of success and Donald Trump has blown hot and cold on a relationship that was once a cornerstone of regional security. The laissez-faire attitude to smoking also needs more attention from officials, particularly with the 2020 Olympics fast approaching.

Tokyo's charm is sometimes hard to pin down. It's about a combination of tight neighborhoods, superlative food, trains that leave when they're supposed to and a general ease of moving around what should be an unbearably crowded city. Maybe it's also the density of cultural offerings and the pockets of greenery. Or the fact that people cling doggedly to the rhythms of the natural world regardless of their urban surroundings, eating ginkgo nuts in the autumn and picnicking under cherry trees in spring. While we'd welcome other challengers, we're still in thrall to Tokyo's unique blend of small-town warmth and big-city excitement.

What's changed this year
Tourism has exploded: The number of visitors to Japan reached 24 million in 2016, and the government wants to hit 40 million by 2020.

What should change next year
There has been much discussion -- and even more resistance -- but it's high time for Japan to put an end to smoking in bars and restaurants.

Population: 9.4 million
Murders: 75 (in 2015)
Unemployment rate: 3.2%
Public parks: 6,062
Homes built in the past year: 148,275
Culture: 260 museums, 224 libraries, 575 art galleries
Design schools: 23
Cycle lanes: 155.4km
New infrastructure projects: Stations on the Yamanote and Hibiya lines are due to be completed in 2020.
International connections: 108 from Narita International Airport and 34 from Haneda Airport

A big city on a human scale HIROFUMI KURINO, Co-founder, United Arrows

TOKYO Four things make Tokyo the attractive city it is: tradition, innovation, diversity and the people. The feudal city of Edo became Tokyo 150 years ago, but many traces of Edo remain: the city's layout, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and shops.

The warmhearted spirit of the Edokko (people from Edo) lingers, too. This legacy is what visitors know as the "kindness" of Tokyo's people, the ease of getting around and the pleasure of shopping. For the Japanese, a shop is not just a commercial entity -- it is part of the community. After the recent earthquakes, shops quickly reopened to provide a crucial lifeline. While it meant people could buy clothes, the support was not just about the availability of goods but the human interaction between survivors and shopkeepers.

Human interaction is the beauty of shopping here. One neighborhood in Setagaya, for example, has small shops rather than big supermarkets. The owner of one vegetable shop phones my wife when he has fresh ingredients he knows she'll like.

Tokyo is just one big village. Consider lively Shimokitazawa or tiny Shoin Jinja, dotted with restaurants and secondhand bookshops. The capital is a place of remarkable diversity.

prev link

Tech & Science

The software engineer keeping Uber on track
next link

Tea Leaves

As a city, Yangon is still searching for its mojo

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.