Balloon debate: what is the best city?

Saturday 28 October, 17:3018:45, Free StageContemporary Controversies

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When Samsung announced they were opening new European headquarters in Berlin instead of London on the grounds ‘it’s not a fun place to live unless you’re really rich’, it was taken as another death knell for the capital. Following on from the Brexit vote, the likes of Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin have been lobbying for London’s crown as a global business hub; the likes of New York, Shanghai and Singapore vie for the claim of the twenty-first century’s true financial centre. Meanwhile, cities from Seoul and Mumbai to Tel Aviv and Lisbon seek to challenge San Francisco as the go-to destination for global tech talent. Increasingly, too, London faces competition from culturally regenerated UK rivals such as Manchester, Cardiff and Glasgow as they seek to attract a more mobile workforce in search of better living standards.

Yet, as Samsung alluded to, for many people a city is much more than its business infrastructure. London rarely makes the top 20 of Mercer’s most liveable cities index, routinely beaten by the likes of Vienna and a host of rivals in Switzerland, Scandinavia, Canada and Australia. For others, the culture and outlook of its inhabitants overcome more obvious shortcomings: the intellectual vibrancy of Kolkata or St Petersburg; the passionate street cultures of South America’s mega-cities; the melting pots of Tokyo and Bangkok; or the history of Barcelona, Istanbul or Venice. Indeed, the architecture and urban planning alone can be the primary draw for tourists to Brasilia, Dubai or Chandigarh.

What makes a great city? Does it require a unique combination of economic and cultural forces, or do they stand alone through design and outlook? Will cities without history always lack soul, or does a preoccupation with heritage risk creating living museums? Should we judge greatness by the happiness of the citizens or the importance of the elites? As the balance of global power shifts, what could be the greatest cities of this century, and will today’s contenders be able to compete? Do the citizens make the city, or does the city inspire greatness?