What Makes a Great Place to Live?

City managers, or at least this city manager, think(s) a lot about what makes a community a good or bad place to live. Managers are presumably hired to make a positive difference; so it’s natural we that we would be interested in whether the city we serve seems to be pleasant or unpleasant and what makes it so.

I’ve spent the last two weeks visiting a number of cities in Eastern Europe, and I’ve come home with some fresh perspective on Albany’s strengths and weaknesses. We have great water. Tap water in the countries I visited was clean but tasted bad. Restaurants almost never provided water with meals unless you ordered bottled water. By any measure, our water was superior to anything I tasted in Germany, Poland, Austria, Slovakia, or the Czech Republic. I could never find a drinking fountain in any of these places.

We do not have, to the best of my knowledge, a problem with pickpockets in Albany. I will concede this is probably not a big problem in any city of our size, but it is a major issue in large cities where tourists congregate. There is even a new twist with thieves using specialized electronic gear to steal information off of credit cards in our wallets. My wife purchased special shields for our cards to use while traveling.

Compared to the places I visited, we have no graffiti problem. Graffiti covers apartment buildings, commercial structures, and even historic landmarks in many places; and there seems to be no program in place to do anything about it. We do not, for the most part, top trees in Albany, while the practice seems to be common in Eastern Europe. I saw a number of butchered trees in public places in Vienna and Prague. Many things were really expensive.

The worst aspect of life in Eastern Europe from my perspective was the endless rows of high rise, concrete block apartment buildings. These structures provide shelter and basic services for many people, but they are not attractive and offer very little living space. I stayed in a friend’s apartment in Poland and got to experience firsthand what life in a communist-era apartment block is like.

I was envious of the transportation infrastructure in the countries we traveled through. Their highways were better, cleaner, and safer than ours from what I saw. Public transportation was cheap and easy to use everywhere we went, although I don’t know that it was any better than what we have in Portland.

My wife had to see a doctor while we were in Poland, and she received great care at no cost. I don’t think this can happen in the U.S., and it may have only happened in Poland because my friend was a friend of the doctor.

Just as I think we enjoy a great advantage with private space, I think Europeans have much better public space. Great public art, wide sidewalks that accommodate outdoor cafes, beautiful parks, compact urban centers, and countless historic attractions make these cities interesting places to visit and add to local residents’ quality of life.

Unemployment ranged from 30 percent in northern Poland to less than 5 percent in Slovakia, and this is obviously one of the most important factors in determining whether a city is a good place to live. Availability of goods and services is also important to the local economy, and Albany compared well to the places I visited.

I think the cities I saw were generally cleaner than similar cities in the U.S. In Prague I noticed a sidewalk sweeper and vacuum unit that I wish we could afford in Albany. I think people there seem generally less inclined to litter than people here.

After adding up the pros and cons, it’s probably not surprising that if I had to choose between Albany and some attractive communities in other parts of the world, I would choose home. Family, friends, and familiarity, not to mention all the scenic places that make Oregon special, really determine for me what makes a great place to live. Visiting other places is both a good reminder of all we have and a positive incentive to make it even better.