Clean, safe and a little bit dull... the world's most liveable cities

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Forget Paris, New York or London, the best places to settle no longer need to be happening – as Vienna proves

The songbook of the world's most likeable cities needs an urgent rewrite. "We will always have Dusseldorf"; "I love Zurich in the springtime"; "Tulips from Vancouver"; "Maybe it's because I'm a Frankfurter that I love Frankfurt so". In a survey of the world's most liveable towns, published yesterday, European cities dominate but not the European cities that you might imagine. Paris comes only 33rd, between Adelaide and Brisbane. London comes 38th, jointly with Yokohama.

The city with the highest quality of urban living in the world, according to the survey, is Vienna, followed by Zurich and Geneva. Auckland and Vancouver come joint fourth. All of these cities have a reputation – perhaps undeserved – for crashing dullness. Cities with romantic, glitzy reputations, from New York (49th) to Rome (55th), fare badly.

The Worldwide Quality of Living Survey is, arguably, more suburban than urban. The league table of 215 cities reflects the criteria set by Mercer, an American management consultancy which specialises in advising companies on the relocation of executives. Political stability, security, air pollution, schools, supermarkets, environment and transport rank highly. Cutting-edge culture, architecture and excitement count for relatively little.

Unsurprisingly, the city that comes bottom of the table is Baghdad with a score of 14.4 (encouragingly up from 13.5 last year). The top city, Vienna, scores 108.6, overtaking Zurich, which has led the table for eight years. No American city comes in the top 25. The highest is Honolulu in Hawaii, scarcely a city at all, which ranks 29th.

Of the top 10 most liveable cities in the Mercer table, seven are European; three are German (Dusseldorf, Munich, Frankfurt); three are Swiss (Zurich, Geneva, Berne) and one is Austrian (Vienna). Auckland and Vancouver tie for fourth place. Sydney comes 10th.

What faith can one have in a table that ranks Brussels (14th) above Paris? Is Vancouver (fourth) preferable to LA (59th)? Is Vienna, city of waltzes, cream-cakes, coffee-houses and Sigmund Freud, truly the most liveable city in the world?

Otmar Lahodynski, European editor of Profil magazine, based in Vienna, believes that it is. "There are few cities in the world in which you can walk safely in the street after midnight. In Vienna, you can. There are few cities in which you can swim, for free, in clean water in the centre of town in the summer. In Vienna you can, in the Danube canal."

Vienna is not a small city (population 1,800,000) but it has no suburban sprawl. It was built as an imperial capital for up to 6,000,000 people and so has a wonderful feeling of spaciousness. It has delicious tap-water piped straight from the mountains. It is clean and green.

But isn't Vienna rather a, er, dull city, compared to, say, London or Paris or Amsterdam? "When I moved here in the 1970s, it is true, that the city was rather a grey place that closed at 10pm," Mr Lahodynski said. "But now there are bars and restaurants open until late. There is as much culture as anyone could need – music of course, also theatre and wonderful art galleries. The collapse of the Iron Curtain changed everything. Vienna used to be at the far end of western Europe, the end of the democratic world. Now we are in the centre."

OK, fair enough for Vienna. But what about Zurich, city of gnomes and spires, often said to be the wealthiest city in Europe? Surely Zurich is just a teensy bit dull. "Not a bit of it," said Bill Hall, a former British newspaper correspondent in Zurich. "Berne, yes, there's a dull city. Boring Berne, they call it. How Berne gets so high in the table is a real mystery.

"Not Zurich. Zurich is the most liveable city I know. Much more liveable than Vienna, because it's smaller, only 376,000 people. In Zurich, I've had some of the best meals I have ever eaten. There are little bars and coffee houses for young people. The trams and trains always run to time. People are friendly. Prices never seem to rise. Great walking and skiing are only two hours away. Zurich is just a great city, a city that works."

Tom Armitage, 31, a British insurance executive in Zurich, agrees wholeheartedly. "A few years ago maybe Zurich was a sleepy place," he said. "Not any more. There is a lively new media scene, a much more international population."

The criteria used by Mercer to rate cities include political stability, crime, medical services, schools (especially international schools), public services, transport, recreation, shops, housing, climate and pollution.

Superior cities? The survey's top 50

1. VIENNA

For Clean, green, safe city, packed with music, theatre, art, history, coffee-bars and trams.

Against Full of grumpy old fur-coated ladies and sad historical ghosts from its formerly heavily Jewish past.

2. ZURICH

For Great public transport, services and restaurants. Beautiful buildings and accessible mountains and lakes.

Against Miserable, dull winters; high cost of living; conservative and narrow-minded older Swiss population.

3. GENEVA

For Great public transport, services and restaurants. Swimming and yachting from centre.

Against Achingly dull city populated by stand-offish international bureaucrats and far-out radical Swiss youth.

=4. VANCOUVER

For Greenest city in North America. Sea-sports just to the west; skiing, climbing and walking just to the east.

Against Culturally dull city. It is a long way from almost everywhere.

=4. AUCKLAND

For New Zealand's most ethnically mixed and friendly city.

Against Poor infrastructure. Crime and other urban problems. It is a long way from almost everywhere.

6:Dusseldorf

7: Munich

8: Frankfurt

9: Berne

10: Sydney

11: Copenhagen

12: Wellington

13: Amsterdam

14: Brussels

15: Toronto

=16: Ottawa/Berlin

18: Melbourne

19: Luxembourg

20: Stockholm

21: Perth

22:Montreal

23: Nürnberg

24: Oslo

25: Dublin

=26: Singapore/Calgary

28: Hamburg

29: Honolulu

=30: San Francisco/Helsinki/ Adelaide

33:Paris

34: Brisbane

=35: Tokyo/Boston

37: Lyon

=38:Yokohama/London

40: Kobe

41: Milan

=42: Portland/Barcelona

=44: Washington DC/Osaka/Lisbon/Chicago

48: Madrid

49: New York

50: Seattle

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