Does the Ideal Life Depend on Your City?


I’m Canadian, but I’m currently living in the south of France. And, for the last five months, I’ve been doing something I never would have considered back home.

I’m not talking about drinking wine, eating baguettes or speaking French (although I’ve been doing plenty of those things).

No, I’m talking about riding a bicycle.

For the last 5 months I’ve commuted with my bike practically everywhere. I’d guess I bike at least 5-10km every day. And, while I’ve occasionally had a bike in Canada, that becomes agonizingly impractical when there is several feet of snow.

Location as an Underrated Factor in Pursuing the Ideal Life

I believe location is an underrated factor in pursuing the ideal life, but not in the obvious way people assume.

The obvious assumption is usually spoken in stereotypes. New York is fast paced. Paris is romantic. And if you want to start a technology company, you have to move to San Francisco.

I won’t argue with the specifics of these stereotypes, since I’ve never lived in New York, Paris or San Francisco. Maybe all the things said about these types of places is completely true.

What I will argue is that your location can have an unexpected impact on your lifestyle beyond the details that are most obvious when choosing a place to live.

The Unexpected Impact of Geography

Bike riding is a perfect example. The idea of biking everywhere I go wasn’t something I thought of when imagining life in France. Indeed, if I had chosen to live in a larger city like Paris or Lyon, the metro stations would more probably be my major source of travel.

Despite this, I think bike riding has had a major impact on my day-to-day lifestyle. For one, by biking 5-10km per day out of necessity, I’ve been getting a lot of exercise. Second, I’ve spent more time outdoors, which if you’ve ever experienced a winter in Winnipeg, is definitely a plus.

Location Independence and Choosing the Perfect City to Live

For most people, location is simply a matter of opportunity. My parents had moved to find jobs, and many other people will locate themselves wherever makes sense for their career.

However, there are a growing number of people who are drawing the majority of their income from location independent sources. Freelancers, web entrepreneurs or even at-home workers could theoretically live anywhere.

I think once you remove the job demand criteria as the #1 factor for where to live, a whole new area opens up, namely, picking the perfect city for your ideal lifestyle.

And, I believe this decision becomes more complicated for the reason I previously mentioned. Most of the salient details of choosing the perfect city are hidden, or at least obscured by popular stereotypes.

Finding the Perfect City

I’ve just started this journey, so I can’t weigh opinions about which cities are best. However, I think there are a couple factors worth mentioning, that are guiding my process of finding it:

  1. Perfect is time sensitive. The ideal city, I believe, will be different when you’re 25 to when you’re 55.
  2. Perfect won’t be obvious. I can’t be sure, but I’d guess that the ideal cities for most people are probably places they haven’t heard of yet. Or at least given serious thought to. The most popular destinations are also the most expensive and crowded.
  3. Perfect needs defining. The size, weather and infrastructure that makes Montpellier an ideal city for biking is part of my definition of a great city. It will be different for every individual.

Of course, I’m not ruling out the importance of building relationships within a particular location over time. My argument isn’t that the ideal way to live means being a perpetual traveler. There are benefits to just picking a spot and then getting to know your neighbors.

However, just as the person you marry will have a major impact on your life, I believe the same is true of the city you live in. And, for a growing number, that decision will no longer be based on job openings.

  • Dave @ 30 Days At A Time

    That is an interesting observation. I live in Washington, DC, but am hoping to leave soon, not because I don’t like it, but because I want to experience something new. One place I’ve thought of living is the LA area, but I can’t stand traffic, and driving stresses me out, which pretty much rules that out. It is easy to focus on the weather and forget about the traffic though.

  • Karen

    Great article, Scott

    The topic has been on my mind for a while now ever since I moved from Toronto to Winnipeg.

    Richard Florida has written an excellent book about this called, “Who’s Your City”
    and here’s a related article from Business Week:
    on the same topic.

    We sometimes underestimate where we live’s impact on our career, relationships, bodies, etc. Until you are exposed to a different environment, you never realize the possibilities for your life. It’s great that you are taking advantage of learning this while you’re young.

    Btw, it was -36 today with the windchill. Hope you are enjoying France 🙂


  • Chris

    Economic Geographer Richard Florida wrote a book about this. Maybe you’ve heard of it: “Who’s Your City: How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life.” His characterizations of cities’ and regions’ personalities are a little wonky, but his discussion of why place matters is pretty fascinating. Overall, a compelling read.

  • Travis

    It’s very true- You will also fall in love with a place for your own reasons. When I lived in Madrid for four months, my favorite thing about the city were the expansive parks (which I ran many miles in). The night life, however, did nothing for me- despite that it’s one of the biggest attractions for young people.

    Wherever you go, you forge your own path. I would say that living in a variety of places will give you best guidance for where to settle down – a lot like dating before getting married.

    As a second semester senior in college, I appreciate the post!

  • Daphne

    Hi Scott,

    I LOVE this post. I’m Canadian too (Vancouver-based) and I’m a big walker. This mostly suits the weather here (wet but not too cold). You are quite right that it’s important to recognize that “perfect won’t be obvious.” I think this is true of geography, writing living…. -daphne

  • Richard Shelmerdine

    hmm, a nice thought provoking topic. I live in the UK and the weather is a nightmare and unpredictable. I might look into this.

  • Baker

    This is an excellent article. This post makes me want to travel more. I live in America, want to go to other countires as well, and bike. 🙂

  • Armen Shirvanian

    Hi Scott.

    Cool concept you bring up here. Your bicycle example is very valid. The stereotypes of a city are not necessarily that relevant in relation to what our interests or plans are. Perfect to one person might be being close to a place where there are many nightclubs, while another person might see perfection as a location where it rains often so they can do writing under an outdoor patio, and another person might see perfection as a place where they can go surfing regularly.

    It’s an interesting thing that we see or seek the things we have as our desires, and others see or seek the things they have as their desires, but we interact with each other along the way.

  • Alex

    Agreed! I’m from Chicago but study in Washington, DC, and I enjoy very much my time spent on campus and in the city… (1) weather is stupendous as compared to the Midwest (2) DC is a compact city of pedestrians, so I get a lot of exercise, (3) public transportation system is great and a car isn’t the absolute necessity to get around. Transportation definitely plays a key role.

  • Olle Linge

    Interesting. The problem is that cities, unlike many other things closely associated with our daily lives, are quite tricky to “try”. It’s financially and practically difficult or impossible to do 30-day trials in some interesting cities (no, I don’t believe visiting a city counts in this case).

    I’m Swedish and I lived in the same city for 24 years, at which point I moved to Taiwan. Here, I’ve moved twice and I’m planning on moving again. I think that moving the first time opened up my eyes for the ought-to-be-obvious possibility of finding locations better suited to pursuing my goals.

    However, I’m strongly convinced that this is not what most people mean when they say “This city sucks!”; they most likely mean “My life here sucks and I think that if I move, perhaps I’ll be able to find a better life!” If they don’t understand that a good life is something they have to construct, not something they will stumble upon by accident (although probably that happens), I think they’re very likely to be disappointed wherever they move.

    So yes, I agree with you. Location is important, but not in the obvious way people assume it to be.

  • Earl

    Hi Scott – This is a solid post that I immediately connected with. When people learn of the random places I’ve lived over the years, I must explain the reasons why I chose them. And more often than not it was because of subtle aspects of life there which were in line with what I was trying to accomplish at the time – a focus on sustainable living, laid-back atmosphere, opportunities to connect with people I seldom come into contact with, or being able to walk anywhere without needing transportation. There are so many places out there that everyone can find a more suitable location with a little research.

  • Craig Thomas

    I think where you are plays a big part on your life. You have to be happy with enough space to express yourself, in my opinion.

  • Rob

    I’m not so sure Scott. You seem to be restricting cities, andlimiting what they can offer to each different character. I hope you don’t mind, but this post really got me thinking, and I’ve written a response post directed at this article here; http://burgeoninglist.wordpres… I’d like to know how you seem to clump together cities into single entities when they can offer so much more…

    It seems that although some cities may suit us more than others, the major factor seems to be where within those cities we choose to be. Many of us would be equally happy in an area of Beijing as we would in an area of Madrid. They key is to find the area, and the kind of area that suits us most. In this sense we can be truly happy and exultant in almost any large, developed city (provided we’re a city kind of person), and we need not feel that relationships with friends and families are preventing us from leading the ideal life we could have if only we lived in that perfect city, for, fortunately, this ideal city doesn’t exist.

  • Jonny |

    Of awesome cities I have lived in I would recommend Bangkok in Thailand as the very best to date.

  • Wendy (Give Love Create Happin

    Very True! Where you live definitely has an impact on your happiness, just as marriage does, in ways you might have expected and ways you could not have known. Married to a Canadian I moved from NY to the Okanagan, to Vancouver. The Okanagan was not the best fit for me personally, however Vancouver makes me happier but it is more expensive so you either have to work to earn more or make lifestyle changes. For me the increased happiness is partly due to the larger population with more people from different areas of the world, many not even born in BC or Canada, helping me find new friends easier. As well as better access to more things I was used to coming from NY. Being from different coasts and different countries we seek the freedom you speak of to work from different areas, doing fulfilling work. The freedom to move around here and there when conducive to my family is very appealing to me. Sometimes one area is “perfect” for now, but as you grow and change it may not always be.

  • shreevidya

    I liked your post. But the picture you posted is little disturbing to the eyes. just wanted to share:)