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Five things that make a city great

And three things that don't seem to matter

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Los Angeles
© Olenka Kotyk, Unsplash

We asked eighty-one questions to each of our 20,000 respondents to our survey about their life, in our mission to tease out what really makes cities fun places to live.

How did the cities that came top of our index differ from those languishing further down? The results may surprise you...

new york, brooklyn, battery park
© Ben Duchac, Unsplash

They're exciting

A great city is all about the buzz.

The top five cities in our overall City Index – Chicago, Melbourne, Lisbon, New York and Madrid – also got the highest scores for being ‘an energising, inspiring place to live’, while Kuala Lumpur (#18 in our overall ranking) has the lowest inspiration score.

The sense of possibility is why we seem to be forgiving of the stresses and strains inherent in city life. Fewer than one in ten New Yorkers described the city as an 'easy' place to live, but it nonetheless managed to come fourth in the Index overall. 

And the best cities keep on evolving. Sāo Paulo sits seventh in the index, while Paris sits at 15. They received similar scores for cultural offerings, but while 70 percent of Paulistanos say there's always something new to do, only 44 percent of Parisians say the same. 

© Kevin Curtis, Unsplash

They're tasty

Does great food make a city, or do great cities create great chefs? Either way, the scores our cities got for their bars and restaurants were almost perfectly aligned with their overall rankings – the top eight cities for food and drink were also the top eight overall. 

Chicago, our Index winner, and Melbourne, our runner-up, scored the highest for having ‘great bars to go to’ and ‘a great restaurant scene’.

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© David Marcu

They're worth exploring

A varied and characterful galaxy of neighbourhoods, rather than cookie-cutter residential zones around a central urban core, is also a significant boon to a city. It means more interesting places to live, and for those bored of downtown, fun new areas to explore.

New York (#4) and Chicago (#1) top the list of cities where residents love exploring different areas of their city, but in Miami (#12) and Singapore (#14) we see relative indifference to both respondents' local areas – with few enjoyable options within walking distance of home – and lack of interest in visiting others.

© Davide Cantelli, Unsplash

They take things a little easier

City living might have once been associated with a 'work hard, play hard' lifestyle, but now it seems that striking the right work/life balance is key.

Small differences in working hours make some impact, with our top six cities putting in three hours a week less at the office than the bottom six. (Funnily enough, there was no relation between city's average working hours and satisfaction with work/life balance.)

A culture of overtime has a more significant negative impact – it's hard to make plans to go out if your working hours are unpredictable, and nobody likes a canceller. 45 percent of people in Dubai (#17) said they frequently work outside their usual hours versus 28 percent of Madrilenians (that's apparently what people from Madrid, #5, call themselves).

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© Alexis Brown, Unsplash

They're friendly

Cities can be a bit of a paradox – super-dense agglomerations of humankind that can somehow still feel a little lonely. Maybe that’s why a smile from a stranger can make all the difference.

The bubbly cities where people are most likely to chat to a stranger (Chicago, #1) did better overall than those where they keep themselves to themselves (Tokyo, #13).

Indeed, the four cities that residents score the best for ease of making friends – Mexico City (#6), Madrid (#5), Lisbon (#3) and Sāo Paulo (#7) are all towards the top of our overall ranking.

© Chang Hsien, Unsplash

But they aren't necessarily...

...cheap. Some of the biggest cities are expensive, but a higher cost of living isn't necessarily fatal to a city's success. New York (#4) and Madrid (#5) were only eleventh and thirteenth in terms of affordability, while Singapore (#14) and Kuala Lumpur's (#18) relative cheapness wasn't enough to boost their overall standing. That said, Chicago and Melbourne prove you can be an exciting, engaging city and value for money, with high marks for both dimensions.

...safe. Safety first? Not for the respondents in our survey, apparently, where there was little connection between perception of danger and overall satisfaction with the city. Only 2 percent of people feel unsafe in Tokyo at night (#15 overall) compared to 72 percent in Mexico City (#6), for example. Across all our cities, a mere 3 percent of people would anticipate getting a lost wallet/purse back with the money still inside – that rises to an enormous 30 percent in Dubai (#17), but to no overall benefit.

...or partying all night. Fun, it turns out, really is more than drinking enormous amounts (Sydney, #16, is one of our top cities for hangovers), staying up until sunrise (Tokyo, #13), taking drugs (Miami, #12), having a one night stand (Sydney #16) or a workplace romance (Sydney #16, again!).

Indeed, Lisbon (#3) is far more conservative than both New York (#4) and Melbourne (#2), suggesting it's not how wild you go, but how wonderfully.

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