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HERCULEAN TASK: The people’s commitment is essential in creating a city that is vibrant and alive
"WHEN a man rides a long time through wild regions, he feels the desire for a city. Finally, he comes to Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner, hesitating between two women, always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors. He was thinking of all these things when he desired a city. Isidora, therefore, is the city of his dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square, there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories." -- Italo Calvino
The city, changing, growing, constantly evolving, tells us so much about ourselves. It is the product of our history. It mirrors us as a society.
It takes a lot in order to understand the living organism that is the city. It requires a vast sampling of knowledge, one part history, one part philosophy, one part architecture and one part urban planning.
Judging cities, on the other hand, attempting to somehow grade them on a curve, is a task nothing short of herculean. It is that time of year when the good folks over at Monocle, that recent staple for the highly literate, put out their annual Quality of Life Survey.
Every year for the last six years, they have endeavoured to rank the 25 most liveable (and loveable) cities in the world. Quite the task, but one which they seem to handle with aplomb. This year's top three cities comprised the same suspects as last year's but in a slightly different order. Zurich leapfrogged Helsinki for first place, while Copenhagen held its ground, standing firmly at third.
Geneva rounds out the list at 25 while Singapore, continues to languish somewhere in the middle.
What makes the Monocle survey special, what makes it stand apart from the polls by Mercer and the Economist Intelligence Unit, is the value they place on the ineffable. Which isn't to say they ignore those all important indicators of crime, healthcare, state-funded education and business climate. Not at all. It's just that there is a significant weight placed upon the many other non-scientific elements that are so crucial to the mix. The all-important human element. Psychological. Emotional. Often immeasurable.
Sophie Grove and Nelly Gocheva write in light of a floundering Europe: "Urban flair, strong leadership, and efficient transport all count in our pecking order but what's the point of a trail blazing Autolib' car scheme (Paris) or even a plucky new mayor (Madrid) when hundreds of thousands of young people are out of work?"
Which is why this year, there is an added emphasis on civic commitment, on leisure, on all the things that help make a difference to a community's health while adding to the overall joie de vivre of a city.
So much so that they even asked their correspondents to "tot up the number of bookshops from Auckland to Oslo". Why? Because these purveyors of the written word "are key cultural, economic and civic indicators".
Civic commitment is essential in creating a city that is vibrant and alive.
If there is one thing that stands out among all the 25 cities on the list, it is the role that the citizenry plays in establishing its greatness.
We are ultimately responsible for sculpting the spaces in which we want to reside. From business tycoons to artists, from green entrepreneurs to journalists, more and more it is the individual that is making an impact on society and the spaces all around.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote: "I've searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees."
The practical goals of any city are easily achievable.
Be it reducing crime, or building better transportation networks, or pledging a greater commitment to the environment.
They are a question of infrastructure. They are nothing more than the most basic physical and organisational structures and facilities required by society. Build those and they will come.
The government's role in looking after any city is really quite simple: maintain security, ensure basic infrastructure, provide seamless connections and facilitate transactions.
The government's job is to make the city dweller's life as easy and as fluid as possible. Everything else should come from the people. Because we no longer live in the era where hardware was king. Today, it's all about the software.
A city cannot be safe without the cooperation of its people. It cannot hope to become carbon neutral without the combined effort of every last one of its citizens. A city cannot be free of filth unless everyone does their part.
We are the ultimate guardians of the spaces which we inhabit.