WellUrban

Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Comparisons are bibulous

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There's been a lot of self-congratulatory stories about Wellington being named "the 12th best city in the world", two places up from last year, but several factors (such as Auckland coming in at 5th) made me wonder what they meant by "best". The company behind the survey, Mercer HR Consulting, designed the survey as a way for multinationals to work out how much hardship allowance they need to pay their employees for the inconvenience of being transferred to a crummy city with poor quality of life. To score highly, a city needs to have decent infrastructure, stable government, low crime rates, some semblance of cultural activity and a clean environment - in other words, to be as little like Baghdad as possible. Excitement, diversity, charm and creativity just don't come into it, which would explain why comfortable dullsvilles like Zurich, Dusseldorf and Geneva (the poster child for "bourgeois smugness") score ahead of renowned cities like Paris, Tokyo and Barcelona.

So how can you measure the less tangible qualities that make a city a lively and vital place? That's pretty tricky, but one measure that's often discussed is the number of bars (or cafés or restaurants) per head of population, and Wellington is often held up as a world leader in this regard. A friend recently pointed me towards an article about troubles with Sydney's licensing system, which said:
"...Victoria, WA, SA and the ACT have all liberalised their laws to enhance the grain and vitality of city life. It works, invigorating the town, enhancing tourism and actually - get this - reducing alcohol consumption. Even in Wellington, New Zealand, with just 163,000 humans, 697 licensed cafés, clubs and niche bars now enrich the scene; the highest bar-per-capita ratio in the world."
Another frequently-quote factoid is that Wellington supposedly has more restaurants, bars and cafes per head than New York. That's enough to make us glow with pride (not to mention stagger with intoxication and shake with over-caffeination), but where do these numbers come from?

I suspect that the Sydney article has been looking at the licensing figures for Wellington City Council: the 2004-5 District Licensing Agency Annual Report (573kB) has a list of 682 licensed premises, which is close. However, that list includes sports clubs, social clubs, bottle stores and every supermarket in town! If you restrict it to Tavern, Restaurant, Nightclub, Hotel and BYO licenses, then then total is more like 400. That still sounds impressive, but how does it compare internationally?

I can't look up figures for every city in the world, but let's take New York as a comparison. The well-known Zagat Survey lists 2176 restuarants in the whole of New York City, plus 841 bars and 1338 nightlife venues. For Manhattan alone, the figures are 1849 restaurants, 717 bars and 1178 nightlife venues. A lot of venues will be listed under more than one category (think of Matterhorn in Wellington), so without going through the full lists and removing duplicates, I'll have to make some rough guess as to how many unique venues that comes to. By taking the restaurant figures and adding half of the bar and nightlife numbers, we get roughly 3300 for NYC and 2800 for Manhattan. Divide by population and here's the comparison:


venuespopulationvenues per 1000
Manhattan28001,500,0001.87
NYC33008,100,0000.41
Wellington
400182,0002.2

So it's official, Wellington does have more cafés, bars and restaurants per head than New York! It wouldn't be fair to compare Wellington City to the whole of New York City, because otherwise we'd have to include the parched suburban hinterlands of the Hutt and Porirua. On the other hand, Manhattan and Wellington City both get their share of bridge-and-tunnel crowds, so I think that that comparison is reasonable. Even given the egregious inaccuracies and wild guesses in my methodology, I'd have to say that we kick Manhattan's abstemious butt.

Urbane bar and cafeOf course, quantity is not the same as quality, and I have to admit that a significant proportion of Wellington's bars are unfortunately on the same level as this week's not-so-mysterious mystery bar. Ross correctly identified it as Urbane, on the ground floor of its hideous eponymous apartment block on the corner of Webb and Hopper Streets. They've even gone to the trouble of replicating the bilious green external girders as a plywood decoration at the front of the bar.

I shouldn't be too harsh on it though, as they seem to know their market, and they'll probably do a good job of serving the burgeoning student population in the vicinity. However, the combination of their name and the sponsor's name produced a hilarious oxymoron on the street sign: Urbane Speights.

On the positive side, we have plenty of bars that would not look out of place in New York, and despite some restrictive licensing laws, it's even possible to have a good decadent night out during Easter. And let's not even mention coffee, for fear of embarassing the New Yorkers any further.

8 Comments:

At 1:25 PM, April 13, 2006, Blogger Baz said...

So in the last survey, we came behind Brussels? The meaning of "best" is clearly up for grabs...

 
At 1:43 PM, April 13, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Actually, I quite liked Brussels. There are some fantastic old narrow streets, some great restaurants, quite an active art and fashion scene, and the beer's not bad either. And can we boast a comic strip museum? I think not.

Good to see Birmingham surging ahead to 55th place.

 
At 2:19 PM, April 13, 2006, Blogger Baz said...

Birmingham ties with Glasgow (European City Of Culture 1990!), despite balti being so much tastier than haggis. We was robbed.

 
At 2:22 PM, April 13, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Why not both? Mmmm, curried haggis...

 
At 11:20 AM, April 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Capital Times reported the leading city, Zurich, as the "beast in the world", which may say something unsavoury about it's bestiality predelections.

Personally i found it a little smug and boring, as did Zurich's patch of resident heroin junkies, widely acknowledged to be one of the worst in Europe at the time, despite them living in one of the apparently best (or beast) cities in the world...

 
At 11:23 AM, April 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

still can't understand how Auckland makes it into the top 100 though, let alone crawl up to number 5. Perhaps they got it muddled up with the restaurant of the same name, which is, apparently, rather good. But surely ability to get around a city, by public transport or by private car, would come into it somewhere? On both counts of which Auckland would lose out big time.....

 
At 2:01 AM, October 09, 2010, Blogger Kendall said...

I know this article is old, but 3300 isn't nearly accurate. There are something like 18,000 liquor licenses in new york city, so that would actually be 2.2 as well.

 
At 11:40 AM, November 30, 2011, Blogger AvaGlows said...

yes, I agree, I just looked up Zagat and NYC has 21,088 restaurants

 

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