THE VANILLA CUPCAKES OF WORLD CITIES: NICE BUT DULL
Have you ever been somewhere that is, on a whole, pretty nice, but somehow incredibly boring? It’s like a vanilla cupcake: it’s fine, there is nothing wrong with it, yet it just doesn’t give you the thrills? I always wondered if it is just me being spoiled by travelling to some truly incredible corners of the world. Or me being a pretentious snob, because who would ditch a (picture-perfect) place like Vancouver.
When The Economist posted a piece entitled “Torporville. Boring cities” I got excited (oh the irony) that someone finally addressed the elephant in the room. Even if it’s probably more of an elephant in my room rather than anyone else’s, it always seemed a bit weird how dry the criteria are when it comes to determining “the world’s best cities to live in”. You know, those numerous surveys that rank places based on availability of goods and services, safety, cost of living, and a few other parameters. The reason why such lists baffle me no end is that they never align with global reports on life satisfaction. While there is no universal or perfectly accurate way of measuring either quality, it is reasonable to say that Australia, Canada, Switzerland, and New Zealand usually do really well in liveability surveys, but they aren’t the ones topping studies on happiness. For example, Gallup’s most recent poll suggested that people living in Paraguay, Columbia, and Ecuador are most likely to experience positive emotions on a daily basis, along with other 7 South American countries in the top-10. Another report claimed that Panama has the highest overall well-being in the world, followed by Costa Rica and Puerto Rico. Trouble in paradise?
Back to The Economist’s article, the author mentions as cities “strive to become nicer places in which to live, the more they succeed the less interesting they become.” The observation partly comes from a previous assignment where he assessed the liveability of various cities for firms to determine hardship allowance to their staff abroad. He came to conclusion that liveable often came with anodyne: “Vienna, Vancouver, and Geneva always seemed to do well. Pleasant cities, yes, but mind-numbingly boring.” Unsurprisingly, the piece received a massive backlash from readers. And he’s not the first one to criticise certain cities for dullness while implicitly acknowledging they are getting the basics right, as The Guardian put it. Last year Rio de Janeiro’s mayor Eduardo Paes said he didn’t want to compare his city to Zurich because “Thank God we’re not that boring”, although admitting there are numerous ongoing issues. Paes’ colleague in Melbourne, Robert Doyle, picked on Adelaide for similar reasons, as “it has so little going for it that it should be shut down”. Despite The Economist journalist’s acerbic tone and the politicians’ awkward backhanded compliments aside, their words do deserve a second thought.
Case in point: Vancouver. It is a place that I will always call my second home thanks to the lovely time I had there while getting my Bachelor’s degree. Five years later though, the city did not quite float my boat. I came back from my much prolonged exchange in the Netherlands to realise that I, in fact, am no longer fond of the city I once admired. Hence I found it particularly amusing that out of the 3 cities labelled by The Economist’s blog as dull, the only people who got defensive were Vancouverities. Even mayor Gregor ‘Prince Charming’ Robertson gave it the time of day to respond: “[But] this is an exciting city. We’re one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, we’ve got breathtaking nature surrounding us […], adventure is in our DNA!”. I could see it coming: residents of Vancity are known for their immense pride in their home. Righteous, defensive kind of pride. On paper, Vancouver does look amazing, if not perfect: its mountains-and-beach landscape is impressive, the community is diverse and pretty laidback, and the standard of living is good.
What draws one to this city is not the same as the draw to Tokyo or, say, Rome - it is all about being outdoorsy. But take the sweeping vistas, aka Vancouver’s backbone, away - is there much left there? I cannot help but think that the city is like a teenager going through a standard Special Snowflake syndrome phase. Provided it’s damp 9-10 months a year, most of the time you’re faced with a grey wall of fog rather than ocean views, yet Vancouverities have a bizarre feeling of smugness. As Michael Stewart of the Huffington Post put it, "It takes no imagination to enjoy a city carved out of a Pacific rainforest on the shore of the Coast Mountains. All it takes is inertia.”
The Economist’s article came out just shortly after the Tumblr account I Hate Van gained a lot of attention because - breaking news - someone has very mixed feelings about the city and wants to speak up. Among the things the author mentions on his blog is how locals take on any upcoming trend, even well-intentioned ones, and blow it out of the proportion (in a pretty typical North American fashion). Yoga? Everyone will be rushing to the nearest store to get a mat tomorrow morning, combined with a must-have pair (or ten) of Lululemon trousers. Organic products? Let’s slam a massive “organic label” on everything - food, chainsaws, toothpaste, whatever! Throw in characterless condos and upscale shops next to homeless people and high drug abuse rates, and you have a disturbing mix of glamour and vanity. Apparently stunning views once in a while can only do this much: as of April this year Vancouver ranks the lowest in life satisfaction across Canadian metropolitan areas. How come that despite all the perks of its location and liberal-minded spirit the city still fails to meet the needs of its proud residents? This research particularly pointed at how it can be a hard place to make friends and there are limits to how people see diversity as an opportunity to forge meaningful connections. For a city that strives to be world class, Vancouver is slow.
It’s not necessarily a shade to be described, in The Economist’s terms, as “mind-numbingly” boring; it really depends on what you like and what you are essentially looking for. For this reason dismissing someone’s story because it’s not the same as yours is a snotty move. Returning to the liveability rankings, the one I actually keep an eye on is that of Monocle. According to this publication, the world’s best cities “are vibrant and offer the best quality of life for their residents. This means late opening hours as well as an efficient transport system and clean streets.” As of this year’s issue, Monocle particularly takes into account what can inspire one to make a city your base, such as available outdoor activities, connectedness to the outside world and average monthly rent for a one-bedroom flat. Ambivalence is also important, so the magazine aspires to look beyond the standard measurements of living conditions and keep in mind various needs of a city denizen, from practical to aesthetic ones. But then I wonder, where is the line between a lack of ambivalence and The Truman Show?