The best cities to live in are those with a diverse and vibrant outlook
COPENHAGEN basks in sunshine, all mid-summer revelry, with songs and lots of drinking. The city also celebrates being first among “The World’s 25 Top Cities for Quality of life”, a list compiled by Monocle, the magazine edited by trend-setter Tyler Brule, founder of design magazine Wallpaper.
Even a short visit shows the city’s strengths. Architecture, design and gourmet food combine with good public transportation and a bicycling culture that allows for easy, non-polluting transport. For recreation, there are green public spaces and trendy cafes, such as K Bar. On a warm day, you can jump into the harbour at Islands Brygge, a bathing spot in the middle of the city.
Monocle says: “There are many reasons why Copenhagen trumped the other cities ... seamless urban planning, paving the way for the mobility and, ultimately, the happiness of its residents.”
Copenhagen is not very big, with a population of about 2 million people and a compact centre that mixes cobblestone streets with new buildings in the famous, modern, Danish minimalist style. Like so many of the residents, I decided to get around by bicycle. Traffic here, unlike that in too many mega-cities, respects cyclists.
I zipped :safely from the sleek, modern Black diamond building along the waterfront to the famous old Tivoli gardens and castle, then on to designer furniture shops and art galleries. I visited the Christiani area, a colourful, graffiti-decorated “free town”, where people squat in old buildings without paying rent and sell hash pipes.
I looked out over the low city skyline, punctured by church spires and the giant turbines that harness the wind for power.
By the end of the morning, I had agreed: Copenhagen is a great city.
CLOSED SOCIETY AND MINDS
Yet, when I met Pia, a young Danish management consultant who has lived in Singapore, she says she wants to return. Why?
Singapore is the only city in Asia, outside Japan, to make the Monocle listings. But it is ranked at 22, slipping from 17 last year.
Pia told me that one thing Singapore has for her taste, is that it is in Asia. Our hinterland fascinates her — both the societies and the future possibilities for economic growth. In comparison, she finds Copenhagen a bit cut off, even from Europe.
Another factor she pointed to is that Danish society is relatively closed. A graduate of the Copenhagen School of Business, Pia thinks not more than 10 per cent of her class has gone abroad to work. Foreign professionals visit Copenhagen, but few stay. Her city, she says as we sit in a French-style cafe, is quite sophisticated and European, but not really cosmopolitan and global.
A Pakistani taxi driver I talked to made much the same point, from a very different standpoint. He had been here for more than 30 years. But he complained that, for years, there has been no mosque built in the country. This will change with plans to build a large Grand Mosque in the near future.
But still, he went on, most people do not understand Islam. To him, the notorious Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed showed the gap in cross-cultural understanding.
The native Danish professional and the Pakistani emigre taxi driver lead me to a question about so-called “liveable” cities. What makes a city liveable? Who is it who lives there? And why?
A LITTLE DIRT AND DIVERSITY
Many cities lack the basics of clean air and water. In a world under stress from climate change, such environmental goods are becoming scarce resources. Many cities also lack well-planned and maintained infrastructure, or struggle to contain crime.
Yet, as Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew once remarked, those basics are not enough to make a great city. He called for life and vibrancy, colour and — metaphorically — a bit of dirt.
But colour, life and even dirt cannot be organised, or set up as easily as a wireless hot spot. And we should not think the liveliness of a city can be counted in terms of the number of designer bars and clubs.
Monocle, for example, sets one criteria that you can easily get a drink of beer after midnight. You can in Copenhagen — some bars stay open all night. But that may not mean much if you are a Pakistani Muslim in the city.
The life of a city cannot be measured by narrow indicators. And a city cannot be built only for the ultra-rich or the stylish jet-set. It should be liveable for the vast majority of those who live there and accommodate their diversity.
So, there can be stylish spots and boutiques but there should also be humble places, like Singapore’s hawker centres and public housing heartlands. The best cities should have places that buzz with fast-paced life, as well as green spaces in which to commune with nature.
There should be a sense of international style, as well as :unique and indigenous elements. There must be citizens and also those who have come from elsewhere, to inject something new.
The best cities are diverse — in economic standing, ethnicity, taste and outlook.
I reached the Kastrup airport, one of he best in Europe and the world, efficient and well-designed but relatively small. I had enjoyed visiting Copenhagen, but I looked forward to returning home.
- Published in TODAY, 23 June 2008
Mr. Simon Tay recently chaired the closing plenary session at the combined World Cities Summit and International Water Week.