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Little big city top in world survey

Zurich, the 'little big city', is officially the best place in the world to live in

(Keystone Archive)

Zurich, which likes to call itself "little big city", has come top in a worldwide quality of life survey. Switzerland's business capital tied with Vancouver for joint first place as the best city in the world to live in.

The survey, conducted by the consultancy firm, William Mercer, assessed factors such as political stability, public transport, health and education, and culture.

For years, Zurich has been regarded as a somewhat staid place, dominated by banks and financial institutions. But Robert Blancpain, director of Zurich city council's business development office, says this image is now out-of-date.

"When I was a student in the 1960s, Zurich was really dull," he says. "Everything closed at 11 o'clock. But nowadays that's all changed. Zurich is often called the most trendy city in Europe, and that is a reflection of a new generation."

Employees at Zurich's tourist board are understandably jubilant at the city's number one ranking. President of the board, Edith Strub, says a number of factors have brought Zurich success.

"We are a small city with all the cultural advantages of a big one," says Strub. "We've got 30 art galleries, loads of museums, and about 1,700 restaurants. And we also have a beautiful lake and a river, and in no time you can get out of the city into the countryside. And let's not forget our public transport system - and our fantastic shopping!"

What Zurich has too is money. The financial services sector has long brought business into the city, but now other industries are booming as well. Unemployment stands at just two per cent, and some firms are struggling to find suitable employees.

Charles Zijderveldt is a Dutch national who has lived in Zurich for 16 years. He runs a business start-up, and believes Zurich is an especially dynamic place to do business right now.

"There is a unique cooperation here between the private sector, the politicians, and the universities," says Zijderveldt. "Everyone works well together, and everyone is very down-to-earth.

"There's much less red tape and bureaucracy than I have experienced in other cities. It's a very friendly environment for new businesses, and for businesses who want to expand."

Zijderveldt agrees that culture in Zurich has blossomed over the past few years. "If you look just at the variety of restaurants in town, it's amazing how much there is. Then there is the opera, the theatre and all the new exhibitions."

So how has Zurich shed its old stuffy image? Like all Swiss cities today, Zurich has a large immigrant population: over 30 per cent of the city's inhabitants are foreign. Robert Blancpain believes the newcomers have played a key role in transforming Zurich.

"We have people from all over the world," says Blancpain. "But especially from the Mediterranean countries: Italy, Spain, Portugal, and also Turkey and Greece. And now, as soon as spring arrives in Zurich, the city gets that Mediterranean feel: the restaurants put their tables out, and people sit by the lake. This was just not the case in my youth, but now that ethnic mix is part of daily life in Zurich."

But Zurich has had more than a boring image to overcome in recent years. In the early 1990s the city was best known internationally for its open drugs scene. Robert Blancpain remembers well when heroin users could be seen shooting up in the city's parks and squares.

"We had a very big problem with the drugs scene, and the international media had a field day. But I think we have solved that problem now by getting all the relevant parties together to discuss things. It was a long hard lesson to learn, but now that system of cooperation is normal in Zurich; we use it for all sorts of issues."

Zurich managed to close down the drugs scene through a combination of strict policing, and a series of progressive treatment policies for hardened drug addicts. They are now entitled to use injection rooms, and even to receive heroin on prescription if doctors consider it necessary.

Today, the once infamous Platzspitz - known around the world as "needle park" - is an oasis of green in the city centre.

So a mixture of sound business practices, a thriving cultural scene, progressive social policies and good public infrastructure has brought Zurich the title of number one city to live in.

But a really great city is also supposed to have that electric atmosphere of excitement, more commonly associated with New York, Paris or London. Does Zurich have that? The city's young people seem to think so.

"We certainly think Zurich is cool and trendy," says Urs Brodmann. "I enjoy living here and I've never thought of living anywhere else. Zurich has all the cultural advantages of a big city, and yet at the same time in an hour from the city centre you can be in the mountains skiing."

Student Ruth Imholz agrees: "Just take a look at the papers; there are hundreds of things to do every night. The difficulty is deciding what to do. Zurich is a great place to live."

by Imogen Foulkes


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