Singapore, 18th Most Liveable City.

I just like this for its idea of “chain store pollution”.

Starbucks, anyone?

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In search of the urban X factor

18 July 2009

Business Times Singapore

The process of urbanisation, which is what all cities are about, is not always best served by well-intentioned public policy. By Arthur Sim

THE factors that distinguish one city from another are becoming increasingly cryptic.

Monocle magazine, which ranks the world’s Top 25 Most Liveable Cities notes that there are five Zara fashion stores and 62 Starbucks cafes in Singapore. This equates to about one Zara shop and one Starbucks for every one million and 78,000 people, respectively.

These numbers were factored into Monocle magazine’s matrix for figuring out its 2009 rankings, with Singapore moving up four places to 18.

Writing in the preface to the Top 25 list, editor Tyler Brule said that for 2009 it had decided to look at ‘chain store pollution, ease of opening a business and major infrastructure improvements currently underway’, on top of the previous criteria which includes cultural outlets, global flight connections, crime rates and levels of social tolerance. Indeed, citing ‘tolerance issues’ in 2008, Monocle had pushed Singapore down five places to 22 from 17 in 2007.

Tolerance issues are not likely to have been significantly addressed in the last year so what exactly did Singapore do to rise four places – the biggest jump on the list – and should Singapore keep doing it?

As far as chain store pollution goes, Singapore fares reasonably well compared to the top three cities on the list. Top city Zurich has three Zara stores and four Starbucks. The second and third cities on the list, Copenhagen and Tokyo, have two and eight Zara stores, and two and 219 Starbucks, respectively.

The introduction of ‘chain store pollution’ as a ranking criteria underscores the difficulty in distinguishing not only the top cities from the rest, but also from each other. Being the best city in the world is what most governments aspire to. Yet, as Monocle suggests, globalisation has its drawbacks. The proliferation of Starbucks around the world is often cited as one of the worst aspects of globalisation as it pits itself against many small local businesses. That every Starbucks looks alike – adding to the homogenisation of global cities – does not help either.

So could the fact that Singapore has managed to have only 62 Starbucks cafes compared to Tokyo’s 219 have made such a difference to its rankings? While it is tempting – especially for urban planners – to think that simply getting rid of Starbucks could make Singapore the ‘Most Liveable City’ in the world, the reality is that various factors, and points of views, contribute to what makes a city great.

This probably explains why real estate consultant Knight Frank’s ranking for The World’s Best Cities, ranks Zurich 22nd and Singapore seventh. Copenhagen did not make the cut and cities that were not even on Monocle’s list, London and New York, came out first and second. Interestingly, Tokyo was in at fourth place.

Knight Frank’s ranking criteria is perhaps more prosaic and gives credit to ‘locations where the confluence of financial, creative and intellectual activity is so great that the city has an impact way beyond its national and regional borders’.

Looking at ‘political power’ attained by various cities for instance, Knight Frank considered the number of headquarters for political and non-governmental organisations (national and international) together with the number of embassies and think tanks. This was in order to calculate ‘the importance of each city to global political and intellectual thought and opinion’. It also gauged economic activity, intellectual influence and the quality of life.

To illustrate how this works, Knight Frank said that Hong Kong (ranked 14th) had actually scored in the top five in terms of economic activity and intellectual influence, but poor scores on political power and quality of life pulled down its ranking. ‘As a result, Singapore comes out ahead as the second Asian centre in our survey,’ added Knight Frank.

Seen in this light, Singapore’s otherwise high ranking poses a conundrum. While its nice to know that the quality of life here is more pleasant compared to Hong Kong, should we keep working on keeping Singapore safe and green or should we worry more about why we are lacking in intellectual influence?

Perhaps a more important question to ask is why Tokyo ranked equally high on both Monocle and Knight Frank’s list and if the world’s cities should be emulating it instead.

By any account, Tokyo is not a pretty city. Yes, there are some nice parks, historic buildings and temples but even Singapore probably beats Tokyo on this count. Economically and politically, its stature has also diminished since the rise of China.

‘On paper, Tokyo shouldn’t work at all . . . And yet it does,’ adds Monocle.

Knight Frank even notes that Tokyo (as well as London and New York) is ‘vast and messy’. And while it has been planned in part, it is ‘generally the result of organic growth’.

‘The danger for some newly emerging world centres is that they concentrate on the wrong things. Excellent transport infrastructure is a good thing; and to some extent, so too are shiny new business districts, stock exchanges and entertainment quarters, but the real underpinning of the current top-tier world cities is much more complex,’ says Knight Frank.

Understanding this could save some governments a lot of time and money. The process of urbanisation, which is what all cities are about, is not always best served by well-intentioned public policy.

How useful then will the outcome of the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize to recognise ‘outstanding international initiatives for city excellence’ be?

The objective of the prize is noble. It sets out to address the challenges of rapid urbanisation and will honour the achievements of individuals and organisations who have contributed urban initiatives, policies or projects which ‘epitomise foresight, good governance or innovation in overcoming the challenges faced by cities’.

The organisers also hope that it might ‘serve as a catalyst to facilitate the sharing of best practices in urban solutions worldwide, and spur further innovation in sustainable urban development in pursuit of city excellence’.

The problem with such awards (and global rankings), however, is that they can serve to highlight one aspect of the city and ignore others. And at a time when cities around the world are all looking for a quick fix that can propel it to the top, such an outcome could be misguided.

The Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize does seem skewed towards sustainable development issues. But looking at Tokyo again, one has to wonder how much cachet can be gained by pandering to ranking institutions and awards panels by addressing hot urbanisation topics of the day. After all, while Monocle did choose to highlight that in Tokyo – since October 2007 – municipal buses have been running on a 5 per cent biodiesel fuel, it also went on to say: ‘At first glance, Tokyo is jumble of roads and buildings; but it has a cosier side, with low-rise side streets and homely restaurants.’ It would appear then that what makes a city great could just as easily be about getting that special bowl of ramen in a mom and pop cafe.

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