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World: Eastern Bloc Cities Far Down The List As Zurich Rated Most Livable City

An international survey of more than 200 cities identifies Zurich as the best place in the world to live. The top of the list is dominated by cities in Europe, but none of the cities of the former communist Eastern bloc makes it into the top 50. The survey, however, does have lessons for citizens in transition countries. Just behind Zurich on the list is Vienna. This shows that Central European cities, with proper investment and planning, can evolve into highly desirable places to live.

Prague, 14 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A recent survey of 215 major cities reveals that citizens in the Swiss city of Zurich enjoy the highest quality of life of anyone on the planet.

The annual survey, by the international consulting company William M. Mercer, considers 39 quality-of-life criteria in making its assessment. These include political stability, economic development, and environmental quality, as well as access to culture, education, and health care.

The list this year is dominated by cities in Europe. Vienna is rated the second-best place to live in the world. Frankfurt, Bern, Copenhagen, Helsinki, and Munich all make it into the top 10.

At the bottom of the list is the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, along with Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, and Khartoum in Sudan.

No city in the former Eastern bloc makes it onto this year's top 50. Budapest is the highest-rated city in a formerly communist country, placing 73rd. The Czech capital, Prague, is second at 76th place.

The survey is intended to help international companies make decisions when relocating expatriate personnel. But it considers factors that are of vital concern to permanent residents, as well.

Slagin Parakatil is one of the authors of the survey. He lists some of the factors taken into consideration.

"The internal political stability, the relationship with other countries -- if there's a civil war, an ongoing war, in a country. And then we take into account pollution. The air pollution is also an important factor in our quality-of-life research and surveys. And finally, we take into consideration the climate. In certain cities the climate can be to a certain extreme."

In general, cities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union fare relatively poorly on this list, compared with their Western neighbors. After Budapest and Prague come the three Baltic capitals: Vilnius in 81st place, Riga at 94, Tallinn at 101. Further down on the list is the Slovak capital, Bratislava, at 114, then Bucharest at 118 and Sofia at 123.

Moscow places 150th out of the cities surveyed. Belgrade is judged to have the lowest living standard of any major European city, placing 193rd out of the 215 cities.

Parakatil says that, compared with their Western neighbors, Eastern European cities still lack for adequate environmental and transportation infrastructure.

"The issue where I could notice is essentially in the Eastern European cities. The waste removal and sewage was not having a perfect or a [fully developed] infrastructure. Most probably this was due to lack of funding or governmental initiatives."

To be sure, some Eastern European cities are hurt by factors outside their control. Moscow, for example, gets low marks for climate. Belgrade is still tinged by prospects of further unrest in the Balkans.

Nevertheless, Parakatil says the picture for Eastern Europe is improving.

"The overall sense, since the 1990s, is that there has been an improvement that we have noticed in [the Eastern European] countries. I mean, they are doing an effort to bring up new solutions, environmental solutions. Logistical information [and] communications [are] improving. When you take into account all of those points, then certainly those cities are improving."

Residents of cities like Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest can take some encouragement from neighboring Vienna's excellent rating.

In the past two decades, Vienna has made enormous capital investments to improve its transportation system and clean up its air and water. Parakatil says residents benefit from the low crime rate, good hospitals and schools, and the city's varied cultural life.

But Parakatil says it's not clear to what extent other cities can mimic Vienna's model because, he says, no two cities are exactly alike.

"But nevertheless, each city is different. Each city has its own structure. I mean finance, budget. Everything varies [from] one city to the other. There's also the [issue of] cultural behavior -- that has an impact."

In any event, Eastern European cities are in good company. Many of the world's most celebrated cities, such as London, Paris, and New York, fail to break into the top 30, while Hong Kong even fails to make the top 50.

Parakatil says these megacities are suffering from sprawl, congestion, and rising crime.

(More information about the survey can be found at

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.