Boston Leads the Way in People-Centered Urban Planning

When it comes to making cities more liveable and efficient, many Americans tend to look abroad for examples, namely to places like Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore. But it is nice to find a model closer to home, especially since it gives lie to the notion that America’s car-culture poses unique challenges that foreign cities do not face.

As PRI reports, Boston is one of the biggest and most prominent participants a new movement that is sweeping communities of all sizes across the United States. Continue reading

An Amazing Time Lapse of Video of Austria

After two years and about five terabytes of footage, Thomas Pöcksteiner and Peter Jablonowski have created an unforgettable time lapse of their country. In less than three minutes, you can really appreciate the sheer natural and cultural beauty of this alpine nation of 8 million.

Courtesy of Gizmodo.

The World’s Most Liveable Cities in 2015

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has published its annual Global Liveability Ranking for 2015, which determines which cities are the best to live in based on 30 factors related to safety, healthcare, education, infrastructure, and environment. As always, the results are quite interesting. Of the 140 cities around the world assessed for liveability, the top ten were more or less the usual suspects.

The order is virtually unchanged compared to last year, with Helsinki dipping two places, Perth and Auckland each rising by one, and Zurich entering the top ten. Melbourne retains its top spot for the fifth consecutive year.

As in previous years, cities in Australia and Canada dominate the top ten, together making up seven spots. Fellow Anglophone country New Zealand maintains its usual toehold, as do small Nordic and Germanic countries.

Indeed, as the EIU observes, the most liveable places tend to be “mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density” — hence the fairly low ranking of prominent metropolises like London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo.

As far as the United States is concerned, Honolulu, Hawaii once against gets the highest ranking in the country, with Atlanta, Boston, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and even Washington, D.C., performing fairly well. Once again, there is a pattern of medium-sized, relatively less dense cities doing well.

But given that each of the factors are weighted, each city has its own unique advantage even if it does well overall. For some it could be climate and environment, while others’ lean more towards culture or world-class education.

Meanwhile, the bottom cities are unsurprisingly places wracked by war and/or socioeconomic collapse, with Damascus, Syria, being dead last, followed by Dhaka, Bangladesh; Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; Lago, Nigeria; and Tripoli, Libya.

The Economist, the EIU’s corporate cousin, also identified an overall dip in average liveability rankings worldwide.

[Since] 2010 average liveability across the world has fallen by 1%, led by a 2.2% fall in the score for stability and safety. Ongoing conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Libya have been compounded by terrorist shootings in France and Tunisia as well as civil unrest in America. In Athens, austerity rather than unrest has weighed on the provision of public services, while Kiev saw the sharpest fall over the last 12 months and is now among the ten least livable cities ranked.

The following infographics show how cities have been faring over the past five years.

It is interesting to see the capitals of Zimbabwe and Nepal, each among the world’s poorest countries, seeing an appreciable increase in their liveability (albeit from a fairly low base). And even though it ranked among the lowest on the index, Nigeria’s megacity of Lagos is seeing some improvement, as you can see more clearly below.

Reporting on the results, CNN noted some positive developments in fairly surprising places.

By contrast, some regions have bucked the trend — seven Chinese cities improved their ranking over the last 12 months “largely because of a lower threat from civil unrest,” the report said. “Chinese cities saw liveability fall in the wake of riots and unrest in 2012, most notably due to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment.”

China’s top-ranked city, Beijing, moved up five places to 69 in the global ranking.

But Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests last year resulted in a 3.2% decline in livability. Though the protests were largely peaceful, some parts of the city were brought to a standstill for several months.

However “Asia’s World City” still remained three places above city rival Singapore — 46th and 49th place respectively.

“Hong Kong’s liveability has been hit by the disruptive protests that took place last year. The city retains bragging rights over its regional competitor Singapore, but by a tiny margin. In fact both cities can still lay claim to being in the top tier of liveability where few, if any, aspects of life are restricted. This has not been the case in other parts of the world, with instability and unrest features undermining the scores of a number of cities globally,” said Jon Copestake, editor of the EIU survey.

As certain parts of the world continue to develop and prosper, we may find ourselves with a larger and more diverse collection of liveability cities across the world. It is a fitting trend given the parallel growth in both urbanization and globalization; more people are moving to cities and across borders, bringing with them cultural ideas, urban planning concepts, and the like. Perhaps that is why so many great cities — including most of those in the top ten — tend to be of a multicultural and cosmopolitan character.

Granted, the EIU is hardly the sole authority on the subject of liveability. Indeed, as with most any study, its ranking has some notable caveats; for example, it does not take into account the cost of living, which means that an otherwise liveable city might be out of reach from the average person. Some have also noted an apparent “Anglocentric” bias in the results, with cities in predominantly English-speaking countries consistently ranking the highest.

So for the sake of fairness, here are the results of two other leading annual surveys measuring cities’ living conditions. As it turns out, there is quite a bit of discrepancy, though a few familiar faces across the board, too.

First up is the Quality of Living Rankings conducted by Mercer, an American consultancy specializing in human resources and financial services. Unlike the EIU’s purportedly more academic look at liveability, Mercer’s survey is apparently geared towards helping companies determine the best places to expand their operation. Nevertheless, it encompasses an extensive criteria of 39 factors, such as safety, culture, recreational opportunities, etc. New York City is used as the baseline with 100 points.

Of the 221 cities analyzed, the following made the top ten for 2015.

  1. Vienna, Austria
  2. Zürich, Switzerland
  3. Auckland, New Zealand
  4. Munich, Germany
  5. Vancouver, Canada
  6. Düsseldorf, Germany
  7. Frankfurt, Germany
  8. Geneva, Switzerland
  9. Copenhagen, Denmark
  10. Sydney, Australia

Since the survey began in 2010, Vienna and Zürich have remained first and second place, respectively; Vancouver, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, and Sydney have more or less maintained their positions for the past five years. While the usual suspects from the EIU’s ranking gave a solid showing, it appears that Germanic countries are the ones that dominate Mercer’s index.

As far as U.S. cities are concerned, Honolulu once against performs fairly well at 36th place overall, but trails behind San Francisco (27) and Boston (34). Indeed, all the best cities in North America are Canadian; after fifth-place Vancouver are Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary.

In Asia, Singapore takes the top spot, followed by Japanese cities Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, and Osaka. For the Middle East and North Africa (e.g. the Arab World), Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Muscat (the capital of Oman) are the only ones to make it into the top 100. Oceania’s best cities are exclusively Australian, while Sub-Saharan Africa’s best city for quality of life is Port Louis, the capital of the island nation of Mauritius (which itself is one of the most stable developed African countries). Cape Town and Johannesburg, both in South Africa, round up the top three.

If you haven’t had your fill of liveable cities, we come to the third and final big index on the subject: The Monocle Quality of Life Survey, carried out by global affairs and lifestyle magazine Monocle. Conducted annually since 2007, this year’s edition was apparently the “biggest shake-up” yet, as it introduced 22 new metrics — such as international travel routes, public library systems, and good lunch options — that led to big changes in the top 25.

Without further ado, here is Monocle’s take on the best places in the world to live.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Interestingly, the results of this index are a lot more diverse than the other two. No country has a majority of top cities, though Australia and Germany enjoy a plurality with two spots each. We also see Japan perform a lot better, not only taking the top spot (which is an unusual for both an Asian city and a metropolis), but capturing two other high spots. (And this time, Portland, Oregon, leads U.S. cities.)

Taken together, the results of these big three surveys (and to be sure, there are a few other rankings out there), show a clear consensus: places like Vienna, Melbourne, Sydney, and Zurich are clear models to follow. Countries like Australia, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland seem to know a thing or two about how to create great cities. Whether for cultural, economic, or political reasons, these nations, and their leading urban centers offer, a lot to learn in a world of rapid urbanization.

We would do well to continue analyzing them — assuming of course that what makes cities great is something that can be clearly conceptualized and implemented, rather than an amalgamation of various historical, geographical, and sociocultural factor that are not so neatly emulatable. What are your thoughts?

A Professor Weighs in on the Trigger Warning Debate

I haven’t the time nor inclination to get into this increasingly fraught topic (it has been too rough a day to give the apparently big issue its due focus and assessment); let’s just say I was a bit on the fence about the issue.

But the following excerpt of a New Republic article by  offers what I think to be a pretty sensible and balanced take on the matter.  Continue reading

The Cheapest and Most Sensible Solution to Homelessness

You guessed it (I think): giving homeless people housing. It sounds so deceptively obvious, even a bit humorous, yet it remains a relatively novel concept in the long fight against chronic homelessness. As I discussed in a previous post, a few cities have been experimenting with giving chronically homeless populations permanent housing; these initiatives have been met with great success, both ethical and economic (not only do people get the shelter they need, but cities and states save money on homelessness-related policing, incarceration, and emergency hospitalization).

Back in May, the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, which looked at three counties in the state, found the annual cost of giving homeless people a residence and a dedicated caseworker was $10,000 per person — about one-third less than the $31,000 currently spent every year per homeless person (again, on policing, jailing, etc.). Similar recent studies found large financial savings in Charlotte and Southeastern Colorado by just providing housing. Continue reading

The Solidarity Fridge

Spain’s economy was among the hardest hit by the global recession, and it remains in bad shape to this day, with record-high levels of unemployment and poverty.

But with a long and deeply entrenched sense of community and social cohesion, many Spanish communities have weathered these trying times through good old-fashioned collective action.

A resounding testament to these values is the aptly-named “Solidarity Fridge” located in the Basque town of Galdakao. As NPR reports, this community of 30,000 is the catalyst for this almost-unheard of idea.

The goal is to avoid wasting perfectly good food and groceries. In April, the town established Spain’s first communal refrigerator. It sits on a city sidewalk, with a tidy little fence around it, so that no one mistakes it for an abandoned appliance. Anyone can deposit food inside or help themselves.

“The idea for a Solidarity Fridge started with the economic crisis — these images of people searching dumpsters for food — the indignity of it. That’s what got me thinking about how much food we waste,” Saiz told NPR over Skype from Mongolia, where he’s moved onto his next project, living in a yurt and building a hospital for handicapped children.

Saiz says he was intrigued by reading about a scheme in Germany in which people can go online and post notices about extra food and others can claim it.

But Saiz wanted something more low-tech in his hometown of Galdakao — something accessible to his elderly neighbors who don’t use the Internet. So he went to the mayor with his idea for a Solidarity Fridge.

Continue reading

The Cruelty of Robert Mugabe

Whatever one’s thoughts on the illegal hunting of Cecil the lion (and the mass outrage that followed), the issue has, at least to some degree, brought attention to another, much bigger travesty in Zimbabwe: the brutal and capricious rule of Robert Mugabe, the world’s oldest national leader, and one of its longest-standing dictators.

A mere excerpt of the New Yorker’s piece on the man offers but a glimpse of his frequently cruel and at times tragicomic rule, which has persisted unabated since 1987. Continue reading

The Ice Bucket Challenge Bears Fruit

Amid a fair amount of skepticism and uncertainty — including, to some degree, by yours truly — it appears that the ALS ice bucket challenge that went viral some months ago has literally paid off:

According to Vice’s Mike Pearl, the $100 million in funding the challenge generated has led to breakthroughs in our understanding of what causes ALS and how it can be treated. Researchers now report that ALS — a fatal neurodegenerative disease that causes the muscles in the body to deteriorate — is caused by a defective protein, and stem cell therapy has shown promising results in lab tests.

Jonathan Ling, medical researcher at Johns Hopkins, stated in a Reddit AMA that funding from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been instrumental in helping scientists break new scientific ground.

“All of your donations have been amazingly helpful and we have been working tirelessly to find a cure,” Ling wrote.

An infographic from The ALS Association, the global leader in ALS research that received the funds, breaks it down thusly. Continue reading

On This Day in 1793…

The Louvre officially opened in Paris with an exhibition of 537 paintings. Built in the 12th century as a military fortress, the building now housing the Louvre was a royal palace and then a private museum before the National Assembly, in the midst of the French Revolution, decreed it should be open to the public to display the nation’s great works.

Through centuries of government support and private donations, the Louvre’s world-famous collection has grown to nearly 35,000 objects, spanning almost every civilization, art style, and historical period from prehistory to the 21st century. The museum spans 652,300 square feet (60,600 square metres) and is the world’s most visited museum, receiving over 9 million visitors annually (about 15,000 a day).

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Promise of Rice-Fish Culture

I love it when simple yet groundbreaking ideas are applied to common and pressing human problems. From rates being used to accurately and safely detect landmines, to a cheap iron tablet helping to stave off the scourge of anemia, there seems to be no problem too big or complex for an easy fix. Such resourceful solutions are more feasible and accessible for the impoverished communities that need them most. Rice-fish culture is one such indispensable approach: creative, novel, yet surprisingly simple.

Merging agriculture with aquaculture — two of the prevailing industries that sustain poor communities across the world — it basically entails creating a self-sustaining ecosystem that saves input costs while maximizing both food and income for farmers. Practical Action, a British NGO that propagates this practice across the developing world, explains it thusly:

This technique is good for both the fish and the rice. Safely hidden from birds, the fish thrive in the dense rice plants, while they in turn provide a source of fertiliser with their droppings, eat insect pests and help to circulate oxygen around the rice field. Farmers tell us that keeping fish in rice fields can increase rice yields by up to 10% – plus they have the additional supplies of fish.

These lifesaving crops are doubly good for poor families struggling to deal with the global food crisis. A diet of fish is an excellent source of protein and so improves people’s health. Extra rice yields, meanwhile, not only put meals on tables but enable families to sell surplus food at market.

Continue reading