How to Become the World’s Best City

In 2011 Helsinki was ranked as the World’s most livable city by Monocle magazine. It awarded the rise of urban culture in a nordic capital, which according to the magazine was possibly the only city in the western world genuinely trying to change itself.

When looking at Helsinki from the grassroots level you often don’t feel like being in one of the best cities in the world. But that is not what the criteria measures either. A closer look at the criteria shows that ranking high has everything to do with the services and functions, and almost nothing with the built environment.

The most livable, smartest, greenest and sexiest places alive

Just as investing in cycling has become the newest trend in city planning, ranking cities by their liveability, lovability or number of electric car charging points is becoming a growing trend. The three most renown livable cities lists are compiled annually by Monocle magazine, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and global consultancy Mercer.

For most people a city is a physical place. Yet the majority of the criteria in the liveability rankings measure non-physical qualities rather than the physical (natural or man-made) environment. EIU’s list is based on 27 criteria, out of which only two are about physical environment (discomfort of climate to travellers, average temperatures). Mercer has 39 criteria, only two for physical environment (climate, record of natural disasters), and Monocle’s criteria consist of 17 things, out of which three (green area per person, hours of sunshine, temperatures) address physical surroundings. The rest are about different functions and services of the city or society.

Mercer Quality of Living Report, 2012 Economist Global Liveability Ranking, 2013 Monocle Quality of Life Survey, 2013
Stability Political stability
Law enforcement
Threat of civil unrest/conflict
Threat of military conflict
Prevalence of petty crime
Prevalence of violent crime
Threat of terror
Domestic break-ins
Society Censorship
Limitations on personal freedom
Level of censorship
Social or religious restrictions
Level of corruption
Economics Currency exchange regulations
Banking services
Unemployment rate
Healthcare Medical supplies and services
Infectious diseases
Air pollution
Availability of private healthcare
Quality of private healthcare
Availability of public healthcare
Quality of public healthcare
Availability of over-the-counter drug
General healthcare indicators
Education Education standard
Availability of international schools
Infrastructure Electricity
Public transportation
Traffic congestion
Waste disposal
Energy provision
Water provision
Public transport
Road network
International links
International flights
Electric car charging points
Key upcoming developments
Housing Rental housing
Household appliances
Maintenance services
Availability of good quality housing
Built environment Green area per person
Natural environment Climate
Record of natural disasters
Discomfort of climate to travellers
Hours of sunshine
Recreation Sports and leisure
Movie theatres
Sporting availability
Cultural availability
Art galleries
Music venues
Street life
Consumer goods Availability of food items
Availability of daily consumption items
Availability of cars
Food and drink
Consumer goods and services
Grocery and wine shopping on a Sunday
Criteria used by Mercer, EIU and Monocle for ranking cities in 2012-2013. Items highlighted with green indicate criteria that explicitly measure the city’s physical (natural or man-made) environment.

The former Monocle winner Helsinki may not feel perfect but neither may New York, Stockholm or any other city. We rank the places where we live by indicators such as unemployment rate, hours of sunshine, number of book shops and wine shops open on Sundays (some of Monocle’s criteria in 2013). Based on this type of criteria, can you really tell how any given city actually feels like?

Concentrating on functionalities rather than the built environment is not the only thing these lists have in common. European, Canadian and Australian cities dominate rankings with their punctual public transport, healthcare availability and stable political systems. EIU also has a list of the least livable cities where the problems are deeper than for example not having bakeries that open every morning at 7 am.

Cities have personalities too

Where we live affects every decision we make in life.

Another thing these cities have in common is that even though they might not be boosters of global economy, they are all wealthy western cities. Still a strong economy does not yet guarantee good living conditions—urban life does not grow roots in money but in active people. Whereas the most livable cities-lists examine how the cities work as systems rather than as places, cities can also be analyzed by what kind of people they inhabit.

Sociologist Richard Florida looks at cities based on their inhabitants’ personality types. Certain kind of people tend to migrate towards the likeminded and these personality types cluster geographically. Florida says that we can look at cities the same way and categorise them into five groups—one is more open-to-experience than another, one agreeable, one conscientious, one neurotic and one extroverted.

World’s TOP3 cities in each personality category. Source: Who’s Your City book

We also choose places to visit and live according to their characteristics. Berlin attracts young bohemians, Brussels is headquarters for european politicians, many pensioners flee to southern Spain etc. If Florida’s claim cities have personalities too is true, do the top ranks of most-livable-cities lists favour one personality type over another? Melbourne, Zurich and Vancouver, are you open-minded or neurotic?

Aside from air quality, childcare and living expenses, cities can also be measured by the number and type of potential partners. This does not turn the city planning department into a dating service but indicates that city space is fundamentally a meeting place. Florida suggests that we should look at cities stripped from the organisational structure and focus just on people and how they are. People change, and so can the cities they live in.

Cities are not miracles, they are decisions

Every city is a scaled version of the same city.

Only that it is not. We’ve been lulled into thinking that cities are self-organising macrocosmoses whose patterns are predestined and their form set. We often compare cities to living organisms and overlook how they break down to artefacts; these traffic lights could be here instead, a mall could be a park or the other way around, some places have more rail tracks than highways etc.

Cities do not build themselves, we (or some of us) decide how to develop them. Every bench on a square can be traced down to a decision in one of the city departments. Location, weather and geography excluded, everything in the city is decided to be as it is and therefore everything in the city can be changed.

You often hear people talk about the miracle of Copenhagen (they prioritise clearing bike lanes from snow before roads for cars), the miracle of Berlin (the wild west for creative gold-diggers) and now we have our own miracle of Helsinki (ranking among the best cities in the world). Except none of these is a miracle. They are decisions these cities have made in order to become what they are today.

Copenhagen was not born as the most bicycle-friendly city in the world, it was made into one by political choices. Berlin was and still is a dirt-poor city that turned its focus from bad finances into less-profitable cultural industries and is now one of the most vibrant and laid-back cities in Europe. It serves as a good example of using what you have and turning that into a strength.

Dissecting urban structure is just like opening a black box of an airplane

First we shape the cities, then they shape us.

What constitutes a city? First thing that comes to mind is usually the physical place, which is the precondition for everything else. Then there are people, services, landmarks and a certain atmosphere we cannot place in any one thing—it is the feel of the city.

Danish architect Jan Gehl is one of the few to measure the relations between physical features, people and the livability of a place. It sounds so obvious, but the more benches a park has, the more people sit down. The more sidewalk cafés there are, the more they emphasize people as the main attraction of any place. Gehl’s team has gathered huge amount of data on these seemingly small things that affect the way we experience our environment. The physical surroundings influence us more than we often realize; the information on how these small details change our routines supports this conviction.

Simple mathematics: doubling the number of benches in Aker Brygge in Oslo has doubled the amount of people seated and lingering in the area. Source: Cities for People book
Simple mathematics: doubling the number of benches in Aker Brygge in Oslo has doubled the amount of people seated and lingering in the area. Source: Cities for People book

In Cities for People book, Gehl pinpoints little things that reflect who the city is built for. Many are designed for cars; Gehl argues that for example crossing the street should be a human right instead of something one must apply for by pushing a button in traffic lights. We do not usually pay any attention to details like this but yet we experience the city through these small things rather than the masterplan.

City planning processes are fundamentally political. They manifest different interests and power relations and determine the way cities’ basic functions like transportation, housing etc. are arranged. City planning requires compromises when the user group is as diverse as everyone who lives in the city. Still, the outcome is never free from politics.

First rule of city planning: Design for people

Built environment should no longer be the only focus of city planning. The process has to start at functionalities and services. A sound architecture and transportation net are not enough for a livable city—it needs to support and open possibilities for social life as well.

For residents the microscopical level of city is important; it matters whether the city centre is designed for cars or for people, or if there is a place to sit next to the library or not. It is nicer to go to a park with a public toilet than to the one where you always have to run to the closest cafe.

The most fundamental principle in planning cities is considering universal human activities. Cities must provide good conditions for people to walk, stand, sit, watch, listen and talk. This is what public space is for.

Instead of just shaping the physical environment, urban planning should focus on service design and social infrastructure too
Instead of just shaping the physical environment, urban planning should focus on service design and social infrastructure too.

If we think that measuring and ranking cities makes sense, and if we are interested in designing cities that score high, city planning has to be redefined to cover more social functions and services. Well what to do? We suggest a new top-level organisation with three subdivisions:

  1. Built environment
  2. Social infrastructure
  3. Service design

Aside from architects and engineers, the new team responsible for urban planning would employ service designers, technology experts, artists and social scientists to make the city vibrant and keep the big picture in check. Expanding the city planning team to different professions means addressing different aspect of everyday life—we need a cook to plan where to grow and serve food, a painter to occupy our senses with things to make us think and smile, an agent to put empty spaces to use etc.

Smart city planning recognises the city’s strength. Built environment and people are equal resources. If you are developing a nordic city by the sea, rent land to someone building a sauna rather than a chainstore, and ease the regulations of houseboats. If you are dealing with a megapolis with a lot of skyscrapers, award projects that make them examples of high-rise gardening. In all cases, plan for activities that happen 24 hours a day—there are no opening hours for streets, squares or parks. There is more to cities than just people and walls.


To hire me, request an appearance or discuss a project, please contact me via, +358 50 547 0020 or LinkedIn.

With kind regards,

Signature of Jyrki Vanamo