Smarter Cities

Better City Living, A Personal Quest From St. Petersburg To Basel And Back Home Again

Our Worldcrunch Impact special editor has lived in half a dozen different cities around the world, always with an eye out for the local features that improve modern life.

Back home in Portland
Back home in Portland
Emily Liedel
Back home in Portland

PORTLAND — In Madrid, I lived a short walk away from an open-air market that sold a vast variety of fresh vegetables and carefully cured meats at affordable prices. In Paris, a low-cost cooking class near my apartment taught me French haute cuisine while creating a genuine sense of belonging to the neighborhood where I lived.

In New York I lived a block away from a large, hilly park where people barbecued in the summer and sledded in the winter. In Basel, Switzerland, public transportation was so good that I could get to the smallest towns in the region without my own car, and even the poorest residents had decent housing. In St. Petersburg, Russia, world-class museums, orchestras, theaters and other cultural events were either free or extremely inexpensive. In Portland, Oregon, where I grew up and now live again, the way people know their neighbors and look out for each other creates a sense of security that even the best police force could never achieve.

Over the past 15 years, I have lived in a number of cities around the world, which may have given me a particular eye for overseeing this month’s Worldcrunch Impact series: Smarter Cities. I have been quite conscious about the advantages and disadvantages of each of the places that I have called home, and understand how important it is that local leaders seek the smartest ideas and latest technologies that can help make life better for their citizens.

Emily's city footprints

By now, there are myriad studies that offer “livability” rankings of cities based on relatively objective indicators, like violence, healthcare, education and even weather. These are very important factors, and few would disagree with The Economist magazine’s conclusion that Damascus is the least livable capital in the world these days. At the same time, there is also a growing focus on the “Smart City” movement, which pushes local administrations to use the latest information technology and digital tools to improve urban planning and infrastructure.

Still, much of what makes a place livable is subjective and often difficult to measure — and doesn’t always come out of the latest high-tech startup. Among the very different places where I have lived, the common thread that I discovered is that a city that encourages strong social and community connections tends to be a better place to live. Here are some other, often harder-to-measure factors that I believe can make a city both smarter and more livable.

Fresh Markets: Having a farmer’s market nearby increases "livability," and having a supermarket was only a poor substitute. Markets provide not only higher-quality products but also a higher-quality experience. Market stands, whether indoor or outdoor, are usually operated by the same person every day. It was possible — or unavoidable! — to build a relationship with the salesperson, making grocery shopping a social transaction.

Continuing Education and Training: Adults often struggle to meet people outside of work, and to find time and money to pursue other interests. The low-cost classes — in everything from foreign languages and computer programming to dance and cooking — subsidized by the city of Paris, strikes me as a solution for both problems. The fact that classes lasted for an entire year helped build a small community.

Public Transportation and Walkability: Being able to get from point A to point B without a car is liberating and healthy. A neighborhood or city that is designed for pedestrians, not cars, also feels much more cohesive than one where people only walk from the front door to the car door. That's because when you walk, you might run into a neighbor or friend, stop to pet a stranger's dog or discover a new restaurant or shop. Mulitplied over the years, those chance encounters build stronger communities. A city that allows you to use your two feet as a primary mode of transportation is much more livable than cities that force you to sit in a car.

Equality: Basel, Switzerland is a rich city in a rich country with plenty of rich people, and very few homeless people. New York City is also a rich city, but its homeless population is staggering. Low inequality is important to livability for residents everywhere on the income scale. In keeping with the idea of community, high inequality has a detrimental effect on social cohesion, becuase it limits the things that rich and poor have in common, contributes to a feeling of "us' vs. "them," and reduces social interaction between people at different income levels.

Green Spaces: Scientific studies have shown that being around trees reduces stress. Parks bring people together and are a place to get to know neighbors. Parks should be equally distributed throughout a city to get the maximum livability bump.

Beauty: The last factor is often overlooked, but it is why millions of people flock to Paris and why St. Petersburg is more livable than Moscow. Beauty may be the most democratic thing a city can promote: It can be enjoyed by all for free. I am always suspicious of plans to increase "livability" by destroying beautiful historic buildings to make way for some supposedly innovative utilitarian boxes. Everyone is proud to live in a beautiful city, and a strong sense of civic pride is often the engine that drives a city to keep improving on every level.

The articles in this series come from all over the world, and will address specific ways that cities on every continent are working to function more intelligently. But even as innovation accelerates, it is crucial that urban policy doesn’t get reduced to some blind utilitarian calculus, and that livability remains central to how cities will change to adapt to the future.