If we must rate our cities, let's do it on the stuff that really matters – like goats

As York gives up its crown as the UK’s ‘best place to live’, I’ve come up with some alternative criteria

When I moved back to my home town in 2018, it was the year York was crowned “best place to live in the UK”. I know that, because people kept sending me this information, approvingly, as if I had made the move based on inside knowledge. “Rich history,” read the bland summary above the article awarding the city this arbitrary honour. “Cool cafes, destination restaurants … the perfect mix of heritage and hi-tech.”

This was not the first or the last time York topped one of these lists. The local paper keeps track of our standing, relaying the sad news that this year Stroud and upstart Ilkley have beaten us as overall national and regional champions. Obviously, we will be assembling as a city to debrief on where we went wrong and strategise about how to wrest back our crown: civic pride is at stake.

Did someone let slip that our much-vaunted “fastest internet in Britain” is a pipe dream in the city centre, because all the Roman and Viking rubble – sorry, artefacts – make it impossible to lay fibre? Have the “themed petits fours” at one restaurant, highlighted in 2018, lost their lustre? Perhaps we should plant more daffodils, discover more ghosts or get the historical re-enacters to fight even more dramatically (I really hope it’s not this one)? Someone needs to work out how to make the Shambles (“Prettiest street in Britain 2017”) look even quainter on Instagram.

Of course, a handful of indices on broadband speed and Ofsted ratings cannot tell you anything meaningful about a place. What you love – or do not love – about where you live tends to be less easily listed and scored. It’s as much about people as place, and it shifts over time, and in response to unexpected external factors.

The pandemic exodus from London and other big cities in search of space and a closer connection to nature was fairly dramatic, but I wonder if, as cultural life starts to reassert itself, as cities get back the colour and texture that gave them meaning, there might be a move in the other direction. Pictures of Old Compton Street in London transformed into one giant, joyful outdoor bar-restaurant last summer made even me, a career misanthrope, sigh with longing – and this spring will bring much more of that kind of expansive outdoor socialising to our streets.

But if we must rate our cities, let’s at least do it on the stuff that really matters. Here are my suggested indices.

Wildlife
I can’t be alone in having looked up house prices in Llandudno last spring, after its majestic goat invasion. Now, the town’s caprine overlords are back in even greater numbers (having evaded contraception thanks to the pandemic), queueing at the chippy and chewing street furniture. I honestly can’t think of a better reason to move. Here, we must make do with angry, stupid geese hissing at tourists, invading Tesco Metro and necessitating the existence of a goose management taskforce.

Bins
Like all people of my age (yes, no exceptions), I am obsessed with refuse collection. The more regularly the bins are collected, and the narrower the categories into which I can obsessively sort my recycling, the more at peace I feel. I should probably move to Switzerland, but I am unsure of their goose situation.

Local eccentrics
From the Bristol chicken man to Disco Kenny in Cambridge or the Nottingham Xylophone Man, people like this give a town heft and character and stop it from sliding into magnolia blandness. I will not say anything about ours, except that they exist and I salute them – respectfully, from a distance.

Smells
You need to like how a person smells to be attracted to them and the same holds for places. One of the things I loved most about living in Brussels was the way the metro system smelled of hot waffle: yeasted dough and vanilla. Here, when the wind comes from the north, the chocolate factory blows After Eight vapours all across the city, greeted even by lifelong local residents with raised noses like the Bisto kids. Beat that, Stroud.

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