World’s 25 most livable cities? From Tokyo to Portland (really!)

Fri, 2015-06-26 06:00 -- Doug Peeples

This year's Quality of Life survey from lifestyle, culture and design magazine Monocle gave top honors to Tokyo as the world's most livable city in its listing of the top 25 best places to live. Portland, Oregon also made the list – with the distinction of being the only U.S. city to do so. Last on the list, but still.

While Tokyo rose from second place in 2014 to first in this year’s Monocle survey, Portland slipped to 25th from 23rd, a slot it had held for the two years prior. That may have had as much to do with a change in the survey’s focus as much as anything else.

What makes Tokyo and Portland so special?
While Tokyo and Portland have a working relationship – a model smart city project near Tokyo for example – the two cities aren't exactly similar. Tokyo proper's population is about 13.3 million compared to Portland's 619,000.

As Monocle explained in its press release announcing the survey results, "Tokyo claimed the top spot due to its defining paradox of heart-stopping size and concurrent feeling of peace and quiet." The primary evaluation criteria were a mix of culture, connectivity, tolerance, green space and safety – all of which would fit neatly into a definition of a smart city. After all, smart cities are supposed to be a lot more than pretty showplaces for high tech and efficiency. They're supposed to be livable too.

That change of focus in this year's survey? As Monocle editor-in-chief Tyler Brûlé put it, "We've added 22 new metrics, including several that look at housing and the cost of living, from the price of a three-bedroom house to the cost of a coffee, glass of wine and decent lunch. We've also put more emphasis on access to the outdoors."

Why Portland over everywhere else in the U.S.?
At the editor's polite request, I'll offer a first-person take on what probably put Portland on Monocle's list. I've lived here since roughly the end of the last Ice Age. And while my personal biases would no doubt be fascinating reading, I'll try to avoid sharing them.

At one time, Portland was considered a sleepy, slightly seedy provincial place with delusions of grandeur. The Willamette River which divides the city east and west was so polluted at one time we made jokes about being able to walk across it.

But the river is clean enough to swim in now and Portland woke up. Now it's hard to pick up a national publication without seeing a story about how wonderfully livable the city is. Magazines like Bon Appetit have raved about the city's food scene, its plethora of breweries and microbreweries (more than any city in the world). The city's coffee obsession is well-documented. And other publications talk up the city's green spaces and parks, which almost always rank in the country's top 10.

Recreation options are plentiful too, and Portland is a bicyclist's dream. There's also a well-established art and culture scene. And because it rains a lot, it's green here. The city has plenty of areas that are far from attractive (one is referred to by locals as Felony Flats, and some say that with a bit of pride), but tree-lined streets and azaleas and massive rhododendrons providing splashes of color amidst the green are common.

It's a blessing and a curse
All of those attractions and more mean Portland is grappling with a challenge many other cities around the world are dealing with: massive increases in population and not enough services, infrastructure and housing to accommodate all the newcomers.

A street near my home was essentially a wasteland of abandoned buildings, a handful of businesses and zero destination appeal when I moved to the neighborhood 20 years ago. But developers smelled the opportunity as it became clear thousands of people wanted to live here and began building apartments and condos and retail space just a few short years ago. Suddenly, that all but deserted stretch of street felt like a bee hive of people and traffic. It's happening throughout the city, particularly the east side.

Despite the hectic pace of development, affordable housing is scarce and jobs are too. As the New York Times put it, Portland "has more highly educated people than it knows what to do with." I probably couldn't get a job as a barista at a local coffee shop even though they're everywhere.

Portland has a smart city plan… and it’s trying
City officials have been working with Council Lead Partner IBM and others for the past few years on a model to help identify the areas where it can become a smarter city. Never a corporate city, those who manage Portland have a multi-pronged challenge: how to provide the economic growth (with jobs) and housing to support the growing population and do it sustainably with livability in mind. They also need to remember to get the people who live here on board because while some say "Embrace the growth," others say "You're ruining our neighborhoods and the things that make Portland special."

I can only hope those officials and managers realize their goals will change over time as needs and demands on city services grow and change. And that while they need to move quickly, this isn't a race that ends with a win or a loss. It's a continuing process, and there is no finish line.

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Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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