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My Favorite City. There, I Picked One.

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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,


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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