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Blog // Adaptability
April 7, 2011

The Perfect City?

Is there such a thing as the perfect city?

Airbus A380 on inaugural flight to Hong Kong

Yesterday afternoon I had a talkative cabbie. He ran me through the usual sorts of questions – where are you from, what do you think of Hong Kong – that sort of thing. Then came the kicker,

Him – don’t you think Hong Kong is the best city in the world?
Me – yes Hong Kong is a very interesting city.
Him – best city in the world, no argument.

Well, no argument from me, largely because I think the “best city in the world” idea, in any kind of general, or abstract sense, is kind of preposterous. There is no best city in the world – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

A few days earlier I was caught in a cafe next to a loud talking patron. Normally I try to tune out other people’s conversations. But, occasionally, when they express loud opinions about certain topics, it is hard to block them out.

On this occasion the loud chatterbox was visiting Hong Kong and considering a job offer. The line that caught my attention was “Living in Hong Kong is no worse than living in Australia.” Wow, dammed with faint praise indeed.

He then went on to say that where you live is ultimately not as important as the work you do and the friends you make. At that point I switched off and started remembering a piece David Sedaris wrote in the New Yorker a few years back,

“Pat was driving, and as we passed the turnoff for a shopping center she invited us to picture a four-burner stove.
“Gas or electric?” Hugh asked, and she said that it didn’t matter.
This was not a real stove but a symbolic one, used to prove a point at a management seminar she’d once attended. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”

Assuming, for a moment, that the four burner analogy works, we have to assume not everyone will make the same choices as to which parts of their lives matter most. Our friend in the cafe was suggesting that, for him, career and friends mattered most.

However, some people will forgo making new friends in order to dedicate more time to their family. In fact many, if not most of us, will change the mix during the course of our lives.

What a city has to offer us will depend, to a great extent, on the mix we create and in particular, on the career we follow. Just because a city has a great live music scene, for example, doesn’t mean it is a good place to build a career in aeronautics, or biological research. It also may or may not be a good place to raise young kids.

Richard Florida exegeted this idea masterfully in his book “Who’s Your City?” (I reviewed this book in 2008) Florida suggests that the attractiveness of a city depends on a mix of preferences that will vary from one person to the next; choice of industry, career aspiration, marital status, sexual preference, cultural interests, hobbies or sports and age.

Once we start to think in this more rounded and humane way a lot of our assumptions get challenged. We might think New York is the obvious choice for a musician. But, Nashville or Memphis could be a better alternative, with just as many (or maybe more) work opportunities, a lower cost of living, more affordable housing and a more “family” oriented atmosphere.

Samuel Johnson once quipped, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Despite my love for London, I have to admit I’m tired at the thought of living again with that city’s crime, traffic, rubbish filled streets, dreadful customer service, dysfunctional rail network, inadequate public health and insane property prices.

The truth is that no one city is ever perfect, because all cities cater differently to different people at different times in their lives.

The truly great cities, today and throughout history, have been the ones that can cater to a wider range of choices, cultures, careers and industries. We tend to put New York, Tokyo, London and Paris in the class – although I wonder how true the definition now is for the latter two. However, when we think of quality of life (cities that tend to balance opportunity with a good environment and rich local culture) it tends often to be so-called second tier cities that come to mind – Copenhagen, Vancouver, Auckland, Melbourne and the like.

That said, I’ve heard people talk affectionately about years spent living in cities like Dacca, Kampala, and even Kabul, because they were good places to make friends and make a difference. It all depends on what drives us and how we measure success.

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