According to McKinsey, 60% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030. So the question “What makes a city great?” is perhaps a very important one. To McKinsey, that statistic “could mean great things for economic growth—if the cities handle their expansion wisely.”
Yet really, is that what makes a city great?
Well, if we go by the McKinsey’s definition that focuses on economic growth and how well cities handle their expansion, then perhaps, Singapore is the greatest city of them all.
Earlier this year, Singapore was officially crowned the world’s most expensive city to live in, according to the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU).
Think about that for a moment.
I would say that it is actually quite a feat to grow and rise to that in less than 49 years of independence.
This piece of news was quickly shared all over the social media channels. Yet, many shared it not because they considered that a feat. In fact, the results of this study resonated with many people because it was as though some official organization had finally testified to the fact that it is increasingly difficult to live in Singapore. Perhaps the glitz and glamour that lie in the heart of the city displayed to tourists and foreign expatriates were finally unearthed to reveal the hardships that Singaporeans faced.
Now before we get all feisty about how Singapore is or isn’t the most expensive place to live in, let’s return to the key question of this article: what makes a city great?
When I was first asked that question by a fellow lone traveller in Thailand, I thought for a moment and said, “People and culture. That’s what makes a city great. If a city is able to preserve its unique culture over the years, then yes, it is truly great.”
Throwing that question back to the one who asked, his response was, “Infrastructure. Great cities must be able to support the operation of a society or enterprise.”
This question left me thinking for quite a while. So since I had the privilege of being on the 50th floor of the most expensive public housing in Singapore, and subsequently managed to take the photograph above with the iPhone 4S that I own (yes, not even an iPhone 5), I decided to pose this question to my tiny little Instagram world. Comprising mostly of fresh undergraduates and young adults who recently stepped into the working world, I got varied responses and comments that were rather intriguing.
From friends trying to be funny, comments included “Proportion of good looking people” and “Me”.
These were quickly followed by more serious answers like “All great cities are built around a great idea! Like conquest for Rome.” and “It’s people feeling like they belong and fighting to better the situation”.
And yes, with all these answers from people of diverse backgrounds, I would like to believe that I now have a clearer understanding of what makes a city great. Here’s one jarring similarity I found from the responses and it is this: it really is about me.
In any city that we live in, or choose to live in, there is one particular thing that we would like to carry with us – how well we fit into that particular city. And even though this might sound like a rather self-centred and egocentric way to think about what makes a city great, I would like to put forth that it is true on three levels – the self, the family, and the society at large.
1. The self – being happy with what the city offers
When we find a good fit between us and the city that we live in, then one natural resulting effect is possibly how happy we feel to just be there. And it isn’t just about an emotion, but really, a state of mind or an outlook towards things around us. Everywhere we go, every person we meet, and even every crowded train that we take seems to be sprinkled with some sort of magical pixie dust. Our whole being feels alive again, the grass looks greener and the sky looks bluer.
In an article written by The Smart Local, the writer analyses why young Singaporeans are so unhappy. Reasons put forth by her include unrealistic expectations, impatience, too many choices, inflated online lives of friends, and even being told that “you are somebody special” all our lives.
However, I would like to offer an alternative perspective. If someone pursues unrealistic expectations because they are innately ambitious or enjoys having many choices, then they would be able to find a good fit between Singapore and themselves, which negates the reasons for unhappiness above.
I believe that every city has a specific blend of things that they offer and a fit between that city and “I” will result in one being happy, affecting the family and society at large to further the greatness of any city. And this does not simply mean moving to another city until one finds a good fit, but really changing the attitudes that we have and actually appreciating the good things that every city offers.
2. The family – fostering happiness amongst our loved ones
Once we are sorted out with being happy ourselves, I believe it can translate into happiness in the family. The way we treat our loved ones, the things we do for them, or simply understanding where they are coming from.
3. The society – propagating happiness throughout the day
And since families are the micro-structures of society, happiness within the family can lead to us feeling happier each day. Our colleagues and friends, or the strangers whom we come into contact with every day will see that difference. It really is some sort of positive bug that spreads.
These, amongst everything else, is but of course a narrow view of what makes a city great. However, I do believe also that they are the building blocks to making any city a great city and leaving the legacy for the next generations and societies that make up each city.
Is that simple word “happy” the spark towards making any city great?
PS. Feel free to comment below because it would be really interesting to hear from people outside of my little Instagram world or my tiny brain, what they think makes a city great.