Liveable Cities’ Liaison with Heritage and Open Spaces (Full Article)

Annual surveys and lists of World’s most liveable cities each differ but there are some clear trends from which interesting lessons can be learned. For instance the European cities of Zurich, Vienna, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Bern, Stockholm and Munich keep scoring well. Cities from Canada, Australia and New Zealand do well. In contrast, Asian cities largely fail to make the top ten, with Japan still doing well and Singapore keeping a foot in the door. Major cities in the United States in general struggle to rank high, and Latin American, African and Middle Eastern cities continue to get poorer rankings.

Sydney, a blending together of the new and old in the green waterfront landscape setting (Photo: Haenraets, 2012).

For instance the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which publishes the ‘Global Liveability Report’, has placed Melbourne in recent years number one, while Vancouver and Toronto are not far off. The ‘Most Livable Cities Index’ by lifestyle magazine Monocle has a top 25 ranking locations for quality of life and is seen as less anglocentric. Zurich and Helsinki topped the Index the past two years, with Vancouver ranking nineteenth in 2012. Monocle uses criteria such as quality of architecture, urban design, environmental issues and access to nature. These aspects of cities make a major contribution towards the quality of cities and the liveability. Monocle’s top-five and the tenth spot were all European cities in 2012 (Zurich, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Vienna, Munich and Stockholm). Each of these cities is known for spirit of place, authenticity and character, qualitative open spaces and historic landscapes. Tokyo is the only Asian city in the top-ten but also boosts a rich architectural heritage and many parks and green zones. The other cities in the top-ten are Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland which all three have managed to balance rapid growth and development with the retention of qualitative open spaces and historic identity and character.

Eight of the top-ten cities in Monocle’s and EIU’s rankings are waterfront cities. Large water surfaces not only are a guarantee for open space, largely untouchable from the building drive on land where theoretically any open space is at risk to become a potential building plot. Large water bodies also benefit recreation, air quality and provide a healthy connection to nature and the outdoors.

The new Sky Tree tower in Tokyo from Sensoji Temple in Asakusa (Photo: Haenraets, 2012).

Various aspects play a significant role in creating liveable cities, including managing urban continuity and change in such manner that tangible and intangible values of the place are safeguarded. In many cities we can observe rapid expansions that ignore the significance of those tangible (structures, patterns, topography, etc.) and intangible (traditions, festivals, food, etc.) heritage and landscape. Cities that have lower rankings mostly failed to balance development with safeguarding such values.

The old has to make way for high density new urban developments in Beijing (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2007).

For instance, in Asia, twentieth century development resulted in many cities with high-density building, often more than twice as dense as average European cities. This results in a higher density of automobiles and greater pressures on open space. In the rush for modernisation and aggrandisement the key values were often ignored and much of the heritage and historic character gets lost. Instead fashionable design and architectural trends are employed to create so-called landmarks, artificial attractions and economic welfare. The result is mostly the loss of heritage and open space, unsustainable environmental conditions and a concrete sameness.

The restored historic Chenyecheon river in the centre of Seoul, which was cover up in the 1970s with a four lane suspended concrete motorway on top of it (Photo: Haenraets, 2012).

Working in South Korea I noticed that there appears to be little birdlife in the cities. An explanation given was that cement and birdlife do not go together, as they die or leave. Can we say that this also applies to humans? We are nature after all and desire natural environments and energy for quality of living. Our homes, clothing, utilities, food and cities tend to become more and more unnatural and synthetic, especially when living in dense urban areas. A reconnection with the spirit of place, the natural and historic landscape can assist in re-establishing essential natural energy and in turning grey cities into more liveable places. In most cities aspects of the historic fabric and the layers of the past are still present. The ‘World’s most liveable cities’ surveys show how heritage, nature and qualitative open spaces are key factors in making cities healthy environments for living.

Text and photographs by Jan Haenraets

Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes, Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada

References: Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), ‘Global Liveability Report’ / Monocle, ‘The Most Livable Cities Index’ / Mercer, ‘Quality of Living Survey’

 This text was originally published in BCSLA Sitelines in June 2013. The original pdf version of the article (pg. 17-18) can be downloaded here (381 KB).

This issue of Sitelines was Guest Edited by Heritage Vancouver with Atelier Anonymous (Alyssa Schwann, Jan Haenraets and Ariel Vernon) and  can be viewed here in Pdf (2.6 MB). The Full June 2013 BCSLA Sitelines journal was a thematic number on ‘Legacy’. Sitelines is published by the British Columbia Society of Landscape Architects. To view other full-colour versions of Sitelines, 

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