Forget London and Paris: An Inside Look at Europe's Coolest Cities

By Erich Follath and

London is passé. Berlin has missed the boat. A fierce competition has broken out among Europe's leading cities for a new, creative class of urban professionals. SPIEGEL tells you where they are heading. The answers may surprise you.

There are cities that epitomize boredom: with their nondescript architecture, cookie-cutter shopping malls and corporate-franchised culture, they exude a dull vibe that can be found anywhere around the world.

And then, of course, there are the grand cities of the past that conjure up magical images simply by mentioning their names: mythical places like Atlantis swallowed by the sea, Babylon from the Old Testament condemned for its hubris, or Pompeii buried by a volcano.

Some metropolises make all of humanity proud: eternal Rome, fun-loving Rio de Janeiro, and indefatigable New York. Others are examples for the rise or fall of an era: colonial Calcutta and the British Raj, or Manchester, the cradle of modern capitalism. More recently, Detroit has come to symbolize first the boom and later the slow decline of the US auto industry.

Asia’s dramatic economic success has reinvigorated mega-cities such as Shanghai and Mumbai, which are once again chasing the superlatives of the future after their previous incarnations under colonial masters.

It’s déjà vu all over again. Where once entrepreneurial adventurers and unscrupulous exploiters bet their fortunes, history is repeating itself. Not as a farce -- but rather as unlimited promise. Some cities seem to have the ability to revitalize themselves and regain the world-class status they once held. Hong Kong is a perfect example: Once a leader in mass production, it morphed first into a trading hub and later transformed itself a banking and communications center. The city remained dynamic in spite of occasional setbacks and its people never lost their confidence.

The world is going through a largely unseen revolution at the moment -- and an important historical watershed. For the first time ever, more people live in cities and towns than in the countryside. The 21st century is the first truly urban era.

Monster-sized cities in the developing world are growing like cancerous tumors. But it's a trend that can be misleading. Even if the big cities are getting bigger, it’s the mid-sized ones that are growing even faster. Half of all city dwellers live in metropolitan areas with 500,000 inhabitants or less. Especially in the Western world it’s the so-called “second cities” rather than the overpopulated metropolises that are growing and are often culturally more interesting: San Francisco instead of Los Angeles, Barcelona not Madrid, and Hamburg instead of Berlin.

Companies and their employees try to avoid mega-cities, if at all possible. In a world increasingly tied together by globalization and technology, second cities have an easier time flourishing away from larger urban areas. “As soon as a city reaches a certain size, its economic productivity starts to sink,” says Mario Pezzini, a deputy director at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. An expert on regional competitiveness, he believes the turning point comes once a metropolitan area reaches 6 million inhabitants. After that, higher rents, commuter distances and general urban chaos begin to drag a city down and “create a situation where at best the center remains a desirable place -- but only for the rich.”

Enormous urban agglomerations like Lagos, Mumbai, São Paulo, or Mexico City are pretty much ungovernable. The plight of the poor engenders a standing army of foot soldiers for organized crime. The wealthy protect themselves since they can no longer depend on the state authorities to do so. In such situations the drug trade starts to flourish.

But the crisis hitting megalopolises is an opportunity for second cities. Few would contend that Manila is a cool city. To be cool a city needs to have a manageable size, be safe, offer chances to improve one’s lot in life, and have an identifiable elite innovative enough to ensure progress and prosperity. San Francisco is cool. Barcelona is cool.

More than anything, such cities are cool because they are magnets for “creative classes” of people that inspire and stimulate each other. Both the British sociologist Charles Landry and the US urban researcher Richard Florida have helped develop the concept of such a class of workers, including graphic and fashion designers, computer freaks and software developers, musicians, scientists, engineers, poets, analysts, journalists, actors. It’s a diverse and colorful group, exemplified by the ability to create ideas that can flow into companies -- that will in turn attract return-hungry investors with plenty of start-up capital.

It’s particularly striking just how heterogeneous the creative class is, but they can be broadly placed into three groups: “rational innovators” like engineers, scientists and computer experts; a “creative middle” such as businessmen, advertising people, and designers; and then the “artists” including musicians, actors and painters.

There is little doubt as to the economic importance of such people. Creative industries have created more than 20 million new jobs in the United States alone and around half of all wages and salaries paid in America are for this knowledge-oriented part of society. Around a third of all workers in the industrialized world are part of this creative segment of labor.

It’s this creative class that many experts consider critical in making a city cool and trendy. Scientific centers and high-tech industries sprout up where these people are. That’s how to segue from the post-industrial age into one of science and knowledge. When it works, when fantastic ideas become practical, the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates can’t be far behind.

The model for this theory is easy to spot: it’s Silicon Valley in the 1980s that laid the groundwork for capitalism's most recent revolution. Urban researcher Richard Florida, who teaches at George Mason University, says that it’s on the West Coast of America that the “Three Ts” -- Technology, Talent, and Tolerance -- came together.

It’s easiest to explain what Florida means with technology. If a city wants to attract creative people it’s advantageous when there are already IT companies, an art scene or biotech firms based there. For talent, a solid education is necessary -- if not always a university degree, as demonstrated by the textbook case of college dropout Bill Gates. And Florida defines tolerance as “openness, willingness to integrate, as well as ethnic, racial and lifestyle diversity.”

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