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My Favorite City. There, I Picked One.

Dan Hoornweg's picture

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Sao Paulo Skyline

Anyone with more than one child knows never to answer the question ‘who’s your favorite?’.  Professionals working with cities should also heed that advice. But I was at a dinner party last week and our host demanded we pick a favorite city. “No dessert and no one leaves the table without picking a favorite city,” she insisted.

Toronto, my hometown, certainly has all the necessary ingredients to be among the world’s best, but it is not living up to its potential, yet. Montreal and Vancouver are great Canadian cities, and Calgary and Edmonton are solid innovators. Winnipeg has IISD, a great world-class organization, and good canoeing near-by, but too many mosquitos and long winters.

In the US New York is amazing – my wife and I want to always visit at least once a year to make sure we ‘stay alive’. Houston and Chicago are strong contenders as they push to integrate environmental and social considerations with growth; San Francisco and Portland have led environmental efforts for decades.

Living in Washington, DC is terrific: the wide collection of professionals, great bike paths, spectacular cherry blossoms, and all the free museums and art galleries are a huge bonus. But with creeping road closures, security-minded bollards around buildings, and even pedestrian traffic being corralled and inconvenienced, the city is losing some of its appeal.

Over in Europe, Paris is by far the best city for walking. Milan is the perfect blend of work and leisure. London’s cultural mix and determination to face the future while firmly anchored to its historical prowess make it a top contender. Copenhagen and Stockholm are fresh and clean, and comfortable. Amsterdam and Barcelona are among the smartest of the pack. And of course, the buildings of Hamilton, Bermuda are the most colorful, and there’s a lot to be said for wearing shorts to the office in summer.

“Just pick one, for Heaven’s sake,” our host berated me.

Tokyo is probably the world’s best-managed large city. I like large cities as they have everything, and if you’re lucky to live in the right place you can walk to most of it. Good big cities are the single most important ingredient to get us to sustainable development.

Singapore doesn’t count, as it’s as much a country as a city. Sydney, along with Melbourne and Brisbane are great candidates. Auckland too, but the beaches aren’t as inviting.

Working in development, when picking champions it’s only fair to pick cities that are doing the most with what they have, not just the richest. In this group of high achievers there are cities like Surabaya, Indonesia; Hanoi, Vietnam; Kunming, China; and La Paz, Bolivia. South African cities are great too. Cape Town is gorgeous and seems well managed, as well as Durban. And you can almost feel Johannesburg shaking itself awake and wondering how best to anchor much of Africa’s economy and culture.

“The coffee is getting cold! Pick a city.”

Buenos Aires is beautiful and steeped in history, and intrigue; the odds on favorite for carnivores who like red wine and can dance the tango. Santiago has the best combination of food, wine and gorgeous views from the hotel window. And Lima is a great fusion of tomorrow’s potential with today’s simple pleasures.

All great cities indeed, but I would have to go with a city in Brazil. The country, with a woman as President, resources and opportunity, is well poised for the future. True, the country has even more gun violence than the US, but at least it’s declining fast. The citizens, especially in the cities, seem to be trying to bring as many people into a better tomorrow with them as possible.

Rio de Janeiro is an obvious choice. Its setting is stunning, and a city with such beautiful beaches has to be high on anyone’s list. And their boast to become the greenest city on earth is credible. But in high school I never asked the prettiest girl to dance. The second prettiest seemed a better long-term bet. And to fully enjoy Rio’s beaches, I’d need to loose 10 pounds and get six-pack abs.

So, it’s a tie between São Paulo and Belo Horizonte.
“No ties, pick just one. Now. Please.”

Belo’s had some great mayors and probably has the best neighborhood data management system. Plus amazing rocks and minerals from around Minas Gerais –even a geology museum (you see, everyone’s tastes in city attributes varies widely).

São Paulo is big and burly and more in a hurry – and right now the world needs a lot more hurry, as long as it’s in the right direction. The city anchors much of Brazil’s economy. Traffic is terrible and there are far too many people still living in precarious favelas, but the city is emerging as a key global center. São Paulo’s a huge and spectacular work in progress – trying to find that balance between growth and sustainability. And city leaders are trying hard to develop in a sensible, hopeful, and if possible, inclusive way.

For now, I pick São Paulo.

So be warned that if you’re invited to our house for dinner you will have to declare a favorite city. And dessert might be delayed as we discuss how to make that, or another city, even more a favorite.  Time for coffee.

Photo credit: Jonathan Olsson,


Submitted by Lillian Foo on
Singapore is a city-state, so it does too count as a city...and a fabulous one too! :) Thanks for an enjoyable read!

Submitted by Lorraine Sugar on
Great post Dan! You tackled the hardest--though most common--question asked to people working in cities. My answer changes all the time. When I was down in Rio this past June, someone asked me, "Which one city is the ideal example of a sustainable city?" ...another question one should refuse to answer! I'm curious: what were the other favourite cities around the dinner table? ;)

Submitted by Anonymous on
Well written Dan! How does Istanbul rate in your book? KC

Submitted by Dan on
I've unfortunately never been to Istanbul. This blog was a secret way of trying to finesse an invitation ;-)

Submitted by Abha Joshi-Ghani on
I would take a pause Dan. Aspirations and energy versus the reality of crawling traffic. If I knew whether it would take 2 hours or 5 hours to the airport on a given day it would help. Having said that SP has a lot going for it and they are addressing the congestion problem I understand. Was it Espresso?

Submitted by Dan on
True, traffic is terrible, and good espresso only goes so far. And using a helicopter to get to work is very unsustainable. Not sure if a 'favourite city' is the same as the place one most wants to live in. Hmmm, a possible future dinner coversation.

Submitted by Steve on
Very good post and choice of a large City !! I live in a small (150,000+) town 30 Km (20 Mi.) from São Paulo in the middle of the Atlantic Rain Forest called Itapecerica and go to SP once a week. It is amazing how there can be so much native forest around such a big and sprawling city and the area is also where the city gets much of its water, its water reservoir. Have been here now for 26 years and have traveled some to the US, South America, and Europe and do not know any city quite like SP which is also about 30 mi. to the beach and at 3,000 ft (1,000 m) above sea level. Its a great place to live at ! Gostei, Valeu !!

Submitted by Caroline on
Enjoyed reading, and mostly agreeing, thank you! I've been thinking about the same for a while now and tried the difficult task of listing what's most important in a city. I know that I prefer proximity to water, positive and inspiring people, access to music, art and dancing, and preferably eclectic architecture. Rio used to be top of my list until I realized that it was mostly wonderful in a shallow Samba kind of way, and that personal freedom also is a luxury I wouldn't want o let go of. That, and food. It has great sushi but I never fell in love with the rest of it's cuisine. Today, I live in the capital of Mozambique. We have palm trees, music and amazing sea food. What we don't have everything that Copenhagen has. That's a general intelligence and awareness in a city. In Copenhagen, you can bike everywhere, you can always buy ecological food, you can dance all night with happy, relaxed people, and the design, oh gosh, the danish design is just candy for the spirit! Clean, smart and beautiful - just like the city. All Copenhagen misses is the Brazilian kind of overwhelming joy, and even though you can find that in the many music festivals and concerts, it's not something you can expect absorbing from your surroundings. So Copenhagen is on the limit to perfection, but it lacks that little something. New York. I must admit I haven't made it to the States yet, but I'm dreaming about New York and I believe in it. Maybe it will win and allow me to finally make a choice and settle down, that would be nice.

Submitted by Carlos on
Awesome list, and I couldn't agree more with what the articules say about those cities, I'd just add one more option, and that is Mexico City, I understand the country is not precisely the best option right now, but the city has some very awesome spots... so I would definitely include it in the discussion.

Submitted by Oswaldo Lucon on
Thanks for sending me the link to your blog, Dan. Living in Sao Paulo for nearly half a century, a comment I've heard 15 years ago from a British lady and still strikes me is : "it's the ugliest city I've ever seen". She had just arrived from the airport, through Marginal Tiete and crossing the city center. This makes a sense. We're still poor in branding, we have still weak landmarks. A Toronto CN Tower perhaps? Can the World Bank help us with this? There is a payback, as Eiffel has proven to us more than a century ago. Cheers

Submitted by Scott on
I agree, it so difficult to choose. I tried putting together a similar list and came up with Stockholm. Of course I haven't been to Sao Paulo, so now you've got me questioning myself all over again. Here is the list I came up with:

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