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Why Berlin and Munich are among the world's best cities

Antje Binder sh
October 2, 2017

Although Tokyo topped the list, Monocle magazine's editor-in-chief Tyler Brûlé tells DW why German cities like Berlin and Munich made the annual Quality of Life Survey global ranking from 2017.

Summer sun warm temperatures lure Berlin and Tourists to stroll on the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin
Image: imago/U. Steinert

DW: What makes a city livable? What were the criteria you applied?

When we started our Quality of Life Survey, one of the driving factors was lack of friction. We think that great cities are friction free. That means public transportation works, communications function and you can have a really seamless existence in a city.

To have a great life, you should be able to have the maximum number of experiences in a day. That means to be able to jump in a river or lake in the morning, have an easy commute to work and be in a great office environment and of course be able to do the same when you come home as well.

When you think about a friction-free city that plays into issues of great infrastructure, mobility and whether that is over rail or bicycle tires or even mobility with when we think about how to get around the world – all of these factors play in.

Tyler Brûlé
Tyler Brûlé Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

The top European city on your ranking is Vienna. Why is that a livable city?

Vienna is an interesting city and did well in our ranking partly because this is a city that did it well the first time. If you rewind over a century, you have a city where there was a bigger population at the start of the 20th century than at the start of the 21st. So it's the right size. It allows citizens to breathe a little and has an incredible history.

One thing we looked at this year more than ever is the ability to start up a business. This is of course very important time or Europe, a very critical time for Europe when we address the issue of Brexit.

Another factor is when people think about where they want to live and where they want to be based is how easy is it to find a great office space, a great atelier. Is this somewhere where I could follow my dreams if I decided to leave a city like London? Monocle is an international magazine and we think about Europe and the world in our market.

Bildergalerie beliebteste Städte Wien
A popular venue with a rich tradition: Vienna's BurgtheaterImage: AFP/Getty Images/J. Klamar

What makes Berlin so livable?

We thought of Berlin and looked at things a bit through Brexit lens: What are the cities that will emerge as new capitals of Europe; not just through finance or tech, but real places where people want to live.

Even though prices are on the rise, it's still relatively inexpensive to get a great flat and a great workspace, as well. The other thing that we like about Berlin is that it's loose around the edges – if you stay open a little later the authorities aren't going to shut you down. We like that there is a bit of sort of grit and maneuverability around the edges and I think that makes a modern city as well.

Read more: Germany for sale: why the cost of living is on the rise

You mentioned public spaces that are available to everyone in Berlin. Why is this something special?

Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin
A Berlin favorite: The urban gardening project PrinzessinengartenImage: picture-alliance/dpa

What we've seen in Berlin is how the residents and visitors alike have been able to take over parts of the city. Of course there's always been this slightly anarchic side that the city has. You suddenly you just have the pop-up park, the derelict building site and the next thing you know it has become a Schrebergarten ("allotment garden") out of nowhere – I think that's something to be celebrated.

Is civil society going to completely unravel because a few people gather over a series of weekends in the summer while the developers are away? I think not.

Read more: A brief guide to German garden colonies

We want to encourage mayors and urban planners and landlords to go look at how it's done in other cities. Berlin has a number of challenges but at the same time it presents a range of opportunity.

Berlin skyline | Nikolaiviertel mit Fernsehturm
Brûlé says Berlin has a number of challenges but also a range of opportunitiesImage: picture-alliance/R. Schlesinger

Munich is on the same list as Berlin but it couldn't be more different. What can you say about this?

One of the key components of our Quality of Life Survey is connectivity. So if we think about connectivity, Munich is outstanding. One of the key contributions is its airport. You are able to fly to destinations all over the globe through an exceptional airport; a place where you want to begin and end your journey.

We also like the proximity to nature — not just the lakes that Berlin might have, but the rolling hills of Bavaria and being on the doorstep of the Alps.

Also, there's a slightly misunderstood side to contemporary Munich. Everyone thinks startup and youth and energy is only in Berlin, but when you look at a different type of tech boom and all of the incubators for mobility and transport, that's not happening in Berlin; that's happening in Munich. There is a great creative energy there as well.

Read more: Property boom in Germany as investor choose real estate over stocks

Tokyo skyline
Tokyo took the top spot for the third time in a row in Monocle's Quality of Life SurveyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

One of the challenges with the cities in the Germanic world is that there is still this six-day-a-week culture. So many things outweigh it, but that's why Tokyo outweighs it because it is 24-hour city.

One of the challenges with these middle European cities is recognizing that not all people work from 9 to 5. We should be looking at Tokyo for a cue, saying you can have a 24-hour city but it doesn't have to make a lot of noise; it can still be very, very serene and function and not be disruptive but also have metabolism around the clock.

For German, Austrian, Swiss and even Danish cities to be competitive, they're going to have to look toward Asia.

What does the livable city of the future look like?

The livable city of the future has a number of challenges, but hopefully even more opportunities. On one side, cities want to focus on youth or parents, but we have to look at Japan where you have an aging society.

The great thing that will confront Europe is not so much how do we deal with toddlers, but how do we deal with a situation where a vast number of people are going to be over 90 or over 100? So when we think about connectivity, we can't leave these people behind. They are going to be incredibly important and I think that's a big concern and challenge.

Also, I think we're going to have to adapt to be more flexible to time zones, so whether we are starting our work day earlier or ending later, it means the services and retail around that also need to adapt.

It's important not only for elected officials but also people in the private sector to recognize how we are able to create an affordable environment. I always say it's like a good party — you don't want people from one age group or one demographic; a great party is a mix of all kinds of individuals and of course that's what makes a good city.

Monocle has been publishing an annual list of livable cities since 2006. Tokyo, Vienna and Berlin/Munich took up the top three spots in the Quality of Life Survey 2017. 

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