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How does the quality of life compare between London and New York City?
Both are among the greatest cities in the world, financial powerhouses, centers of fashion, entertainment, media and academic excellence. As far as quality of life is concerned, however (and assuming affordability is not a problem), London is ahead of New York.
For me, the equation for this is relatively straightforward. As of the late 2010s, London has pretty much all of the positives of New York without most of its negatives. It offers the same convenience, entertainment, dining and shopping without the burden of crumbling infrastructure, substandard sanitation and anti-social behavior. Central London’s hubs manage to convey the pulse and excitement of the densified areas of Manhattan without resorting to its chaos and excess. Above all, the city marries this urban experience to layers of culture and history that US cities can only fantasize of.
London is inexorably on the rise as a global city, even in its tumultuous transition to a new economic paradigm. This is something we were assured would be impossible by economic models which underestimated the city’s axiological advantages. In contrast, New York has suffered intractable problems since Lehman Brothers imploded in 2008. Though domestic direct investments and real estate have been enjoying a boom, the municipal and state governments are still coping with strangulated services (the MTA, DSNY, NYCHA all struggling with funding) and ongoing ablation of the middle class.
Two points need to be clarified before a city-versus-city comparison of this kind.
1. London is currently changing at a frightening pace. A survey of the horizon shows a panorama of construction cranes and new high-rise developments. Public spaces everywhere are being renovated. Given the pace of change, it is likely that many of the points raised in this answer will be outdated within 3 or 4 years after posting or updating. This also means that care has to be taken when weighing anecdotes based on visits more than a decade ago.
2. Central London, the metropolitan area’s equivalent of Manhattan, is similar in aesthetic and density to areas such as the Flatiron District, SoHo and Central Park East. However, because this zone is nestled among vast conurbations and not delineated by natural geographic features or high-rise clusters, people often draw upon a wider dispersal of experience in London. This means that they sometimes, unfairly, compare areas as far out as inner London and the suburbs with the high-rise hubs of Manhattan.
To avoid skews such as this, my answer will compare Manhattan specifically with Central London. That is not to disparage the idea that there is more to New York than Manhattan (likewise for Central London and Greater London), but comparing the outer boroughs is a much more lengthy and complex subject probably deserving of its own topic.
Neighborhood and Area Equivalents
The West End – Midtown West
City of London – Financial District
Knightsbridge – Flatiron District
Fitzrovia/Bloomsbury – Greenwich Village
Chelsea – SoHo
Victoria – TriBeCa
Kensington/Belgravia – Upper East Side
Mayfair/Marylebone – Upper West Side
Camden Town – East Village
Shoreditch – Lower East Side
South Bank – Brooklyn Promenade
Regent Street – Prime Fifth Avenue
Bond Street – Madison Avenue
Oxford Street – West 34th Street
Trafalgar Square – Times Square
Covent Garden/Somerset House – Lincoln Center
Exhibition Road – Museum Mile
O2 Arena – Madison Square Garden
Royal Albert Hall – Carnegie Hall
Their signature cityscapes are worlds apart. Manhattan is a feral urban jungle constrained by towering edifices of industrial concrete and brownstone whereas Central London is essentially an ancient city retrofitted with high technology, in which you see a dynamic synergy between history and the ultra-modern.
Because of this juxtaposition, London intimates its modernity in a number of interesting ways, for example, in the glass spires of its embryonic skyline or the historic buildings with futuristic or minimalist interiors. London is currently constructing dense clusters (of the order of 500+ high-rises, either under construction or in planning, as of 2018) mostly as part of mixed-use masterplans along the riverside and seems fully committed to building a skyline impressive enough to reflect its global standing.
In contrast, the housing stock and many commercial buildings in New York are some of the oldest in the USA. Manhattan has been incorporating bolder architectural designs into its skyline, but its predominant architectural style remains that of the early 20th century. Rectangular art deco motifs lend the city a romantic dignity and inspiring appeal.
Both cities are distinguished by their intangible factors. By this, I mean a transcendental quality or a magic in the air that defies simple description, which is independent of the more tangible beauty of places like Paris or Rome. New York’s intangible feeling is one of an unparalleled sense of opportunity, where underdogs are filled with aspirations of ‘making it big’, whereas London dazzles you with its dynamism and sophistication.
New York has an amazing culture of drive and ambition that is prevalent among blue collar and service sector workers, giving the city a very visceral, gritty “rat race” street vibe and physicality, which many refer to as the energy or pace of the city. In London, the prevailing atmosphere is more like a jetset prestige and a sense of dimension transcending the physicality of New York. Accordingly, my experience is that New York is more stimulating to those who dream of success, whereas London is more exciting to those who are specialized and established.
Global connectivity in Knight Frank’s its work environments.. The international jetset community revolves around London, reflected in the ambiance of
Manhattan’s grid arrangement and density allow visitors to access many of its amenities without need for regional foreknowledge. Walking to and from points of interest is straightforward and there is a geographic synergy between adjacent neighborhoods due to this ease of movement. The convenience of this cannot be overstated to those who have lived in cities such as Los Angeles, which is an urban sprawl undergirded by minimal public transit infrastructure and where owning a car is essential. In Central London, the streets are arranged organically in the classic European style, with thoroughfares flanked by quieter tributaries. Some may argue this is a more interesting layout, but this is also much more demanding of your local knowledge or map-reading skills if you’re a newcomer to the city.
The preconception from a generation ago is that New York is more crowded than London, but that distinction has become blurred ever since London’s transformative developments, along with its recent boom in retail, tourism and international dining, started transfiguring the street-level environment. Some footfall statistics are now showing London’s public spaces to be busier during the daytime.
Both cities have concentrated hubs around which most street-level activity occurs. In New York, this would be parts of Midtown and the Fifth Avenue corridor. In Central London, activity is concentrated around the West End and Kensington. Both areas are similar in size, geographically, but the crowds in London are more orderly, create less congestion and demonstrate more diurnal variation. Paradoxically, surprisingly large areas of Manhattan beyond the theater district are often tired-feeling and depressed during the working day. This is something that you rarely encounter in Central London, or even inner London.
In my experience, the evening environment in Central London is more vibrant than that of Manhattan, but most business activity comes to an abrupt halt after 2 AM. London has an increasing selection of 24-hour convenience stores and all-night eateries and there are usually large crowds around the tourist hubs well into the small hours, but there is no question that it falls far short of the night-time culture of convenience in Manhattan. That may change once 24-hour Tube operations extend to most lines, but as it stands right now, limited opening hours encourage a binge-drinking culture in London that can be an inconvenience for non-alcoholics seeking a quiet night out in the city.
Gotham rules the night. The nocturnal environment in Manhattan is New York City at its most entrancingly beautiful, due to the illumination of thousands of high-rise windows and concealment of the grittiness that is evident by day. Not everything is open at this time, but the city offers nearly every possible amenity for night people, shift-workers and insomniacs from every walk of life.
New York is a veritable wonderland of affordable dining for the average food enthusiast not plugged into the latest word-of-mouth-disseminated culinary trends. The success of its dining scene is as much to do with retail density and accessibility as availability, areas in which the city’s mixed use developments come into their own. Not to mention, the service culture is in a different league compared to that of London. Though London is making waves within the global foodie scene, too much of it seems overly specialized or exclusive to a small minority. Assuming one is reasonably well-connected, though, it doesn’t take painstaking research to discover world class dining venues in London, and the gastronomy here is catching up quickly.
The shopping in London is more luxury-oriented. The quality is also noticeably different, excluding bulk-imported brands, with bespoke clothing and accessories made of more durable materials and careful craftsmanship. Manhattan offers greater variety and cost-efficacy, from prime Fifth Avenue to the boutiques in SoHo. However, the West End offers a more convenient and elegant arrangement of high quality retail than Midtown. Central London also doesn’t suffer from the blight of empty storefronts that is progressing through many parts of Manhattan, from the northern reaches of Broadway in the Upper West Side, the Village and areas south of 34th street, even Madison Avenue. A row of empty storefronts in London generally signifies redevelopment, whereas in Manhattan it signals regress.
The public realm is where Central London shines in comparison to Manhattan. The historic architecture is a sublime mix of orderly elegance and grandness, the infrastructure is second only to the likes of Tokyo and, thanks to extensive streetscaping in recent years, the whole environment radiates a surreal beauty in fine weather. Excluding major events, the core of the city is very clean for a major western urban area.
London is one of those rare cities in the world where the quality of the urban environment is distributed evenly throughout the city core. A cross-sectional expedition will take you through Edwardian shopping avenues with white stone facades, Victorian public squares with stuccoed Regency and Georgian townhouses, Italian plazas, palaces, shopping arcades, courtyards and sprawling public parks. Walk many blocks away from arterial routes such as the Strand, King’s Way, Brompton Road, Exhibition Road or Pall Mall, and you will continue to come across grand public spaces and architecture for quite some distance, in many cases, much more impressive than the main avenues themselves. Or you may stumble upon a street full of luxury apartments or a road full of beautiful terraced houses, all underpinned by decent infrastructure.
London’s irreducible edge, however, is in its internal environments. From marbled opulence to high technology, ornate versus minimalist, vast glittering ballrooms in glass-front high-rises to cramped lofts in Chinatown brimming with paraphernalia, the internal environments in London are by far the more varied and interesting of the two.
Unlike New York, London is portrayed poorly in social media, and it’s rare to come across videos and images that convey the first hand experience. The video below, however, comes reasonably close. Note the attention to streetscaping, such as the floral displays.
In New York, exploring the city beyond the high density hubs and main avenue facades (many of which don’t even bother to paint the sides of their buildings) occasionally yields something interesting, such as the regenerated neighborhoods around the High Line, streets with charming Federal Era row-houses, or secluded 19th-century gardens with ornate stone statues, but for the most part it is seldom fruitful. And often you will be coming across neglected areas that can be unpleasant or shady. The New York cityscape presents its most interesting assets up-front, like the towering art deco and beaux arts edifices around its transit hubs, but it doesn’t reward exploration like London does and simply lacks the beauty and cache of its sister city.
That is not to say London isn’t without its share of ugliness. An embarrassing number of dilapidated 1960s concrete buildings still remain from post-war reconstruction, originally intended as a stopgap to replace the historic buildings cratered by the Luftwaffe in the Blitz. Unfortunately, these carbuncles are in high profile areas, such as the South Bank Centre, which occupies the Thameside opposite the neoclassical facade of Somerset House. A redeeming factor is that they are now being replaced with more attractive buildings.
For those acclimatized to meticulous urban areas such as Tokyo, be warned: Manhattan is unapologetically and irredeemably filthy. Subway stations are covered in layers of mystery grime that have stratified over decades. Sidewalks in many neighborhoods are falling apart with weeds growing through the cracked paving. Dog waste and fecal markings are everywhere, even on subway platforms and other transit and access hubs.
The Manhattan silhouette is visually stunning from across the Hudson, in films and photographs, but, up close, the whole experience is a little underwhelming. You notice quickly that many of the tall buildings are in variable states of disrepair, with garish, drab textures reminiscent of the Corbusian style of socialist architecture. The street-level furniture hasn’t been renovated for decades in many areas, and the city often reeks, especially in Summer, when the mountains of trash start festering in the humidity. Only Central Park and a few areas with very new developments, such as Columbus Circle or Battery Park City, are clean by any reasonable standard.
Inept governance and local culture are equally to blame for the mess that the city is in. Infrastructure is often left languishing in a badly deteriorated state even as billions of private money are poured into shiny new greenfield developments, many of which misfire badly due to poor planning. If the streets, sidewalks and underpasses are crumbling and poorly maintained, people feel less inclined to take care of their urban environment. This is exacerbated by an ingrained cultural mentality towards littering and poor pet waste discipline. The best hope you have is to become desensitized to it over years while you do your best to convince yourself that it’s not so bad. It is bad, but cognitive dissonance or oblique coping strategies are sometimes essential to surviving in New York.
From the perspective of someone brought up in the Midwest, native Londoners generally come across as radiantly classy. Many of the pre-Millennial white collar men, in particular, have a poise about them that is distinguished compared to those in New York. It’s difficult to make generalizations about the women in both cities, but personally, I find New York women more attractive and pleasant as an overall impression. In London, however, you are more likely to encounter young women who are at the extreme ends of elegance and beauty, very rare as they are in both cities.
Londoners usually dress formally or politely, wearing unobtrusive, balanced colors. They form orderly lines at checkouts, use trashcans properly, don’t push you around if you stop in the middle of a busy sidewalk and they don’t hold their car horn down for 20 minutes straight, in the middle of the night, outside your apartment.
The downside to this formality is that native Londoners are sometimes notoriously reserved, class conscious and difficult to befriend when compared with New Yorkers. If you are happy putting up with episodes of in your face New York bluntness, the open and interactive attitude of native New Yorkers comes across as much warmer and more soulful than the considerate, yet often distant, politeness of Londoners. When you are not with friends or family, riding in a busy Tube train can be as private an experience as eating breakfast alone in your apartment.
Looking superficially at crime statistics will show higher annual records of homicide in New York City (333 versus 82 in London), and higher rates of violent crime in London (950 per 100,000 versus 639 per 100,000 in New York). This discrepancy arises because the UK adopts a broader definition of violent crime.
, violent crime is defined as: “…where the victim is intentionally stabbed, punched, kicked, pushed, jostled, etc. or threatened with violence whether or not there is any injury”.
, violent crime is defined as: “murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault”.
56% of Police Recorded Violent Crime in the UK results in no injury at all. Crimes resulting in cuts and bruises that would be categorized as Actual Bodily Harm in the UK would be considered a misdemeanor in the state of New York and not even recorded in felony crime statistics. For a fairer comparison, New York needs to compile and publish all 3 degrees of misdemeanor assault, not just the figures for felony assault. Adjusting for semantic disparities like this is not a simple task. The US’s Aggravated Assault is defined more stringently than the UK’s Grievous Bodily Harm and there are methodological differences in how crime figures are collected and compiled. The numbers are also affected considerably by differences in the attitude, culture and training of law enforcement.
Despite recent news concerning violence in London, the roughest neighborhoods in London, such as Brixton, are tame in comparison to the roughest areas of the Bronx. Serious gang warfare and the general rate of public misdemeanor is much more evident, and lethal, in the streets of New York than in London, despite the progress that was made under the Giuliani administration.
Public transport in Manhattan is categorically unpleasant. Subway stations are cluttered, crumbling and, doubling in function as public bathrooms, sometimes so foul-smelling that they make your eyes water. At the turnstiles, you’re accosted by aggressive pan-handlers and people begging for free metrocard swipes. In crowded subway cars and on the platforms there are high school dropouts doing somersaults in your face. For most people doing 9–5 jobs, there’s no escape from this subterranean ordeal every rush hour given that commuting by bus is often slower than walking. And given the traffic and state of the roads, owning and driving a car is generally more hassle than it is a convenience.
The chronically underfunded MTA may seem to be performing well despite its workload, and its services are generally functional, reliable and cheap. However, as a showcase for the premier city of the leading industrialized nation of the western hemisphere, it is an embarrassment, beset with allegations of corruption and inefficiency, and lumbered with aging infrastructure that will require costly and time-consuming asbestos removal from wall linings to upgrade to the standard of other global cities. London has been investing billions into visionary, new transit infrastructure, such as CrossRail, which is on course to meet its schedule and cost targets. By comparison, New York’s 2nd Avenue subway extension has been stuck in limbo for decades and is only now beginning to make progress, albeit significantly over budget and at a frustratingly slow pace.
Compared to the Subway, the London Underground is refined, clean and technologically accomplished. Many Tube station interiors are spectacularly modern, combining futurism with a distinguished brutalist style. Live departure boards are at regular intervals on every station platform providing arrival countdowns in minutes, and underground lines are color-coded consistently across the network. London’s new buses are cutting-edge modern, operating a regular service, and the city is now phasing in 24-hour Tube operations which will transform the night-time environment. Contactless payment is also integrated seamlessly into the transit network, including the buses, whereby you can use a credit card (or any NFC-enabled device) in the same way that you use an Oyster Card.
The downside of all of this is the cost. A single journey within zone 1 currently costs £2.20 (around $3.00 at the current exchange rate) if you use Oyster or Contactless. The price of a journey rises if you move across zones, in contrast to the flat flare system used in the subway. Also, the Tube carriages, though modern and plush compared to the Subway’s versions, are more compact and more liable to become crowded during rush hour.
London’s new buses are cutting-edge modern. Not to mention, beautiful to look at.
Both subway services are equally plagued by planned maintenance, breakdowns and other contingencies from time to time, though they are more consequential in London due to its single track system. However, TfL broadcasts scheduled closures far in advance and notifies commuters of any problems through a more comprehensive variety of media.
Mindset is an important factor in any quality of life assessment. From dozens of discussions I’ve had on this topic over several years, I find that many people gravitate towards one of two dominant personality types. The first prefers discordant, gritty urban environments, is averse to gentrification, typically socially liberal and not so bothered by uncleanliness or aesthetic nuances. The other is drawn to qualitative properties such as elegance or refinement, holds socially conservative views and prefers orderly and organized cities. The use of conflicting vernacular can sometimes make things confusing (“vibrant” means something different according to your personality type), but I find that those of the latter mindset tend to favor London overall, whereas those of the former mindset tend to prefer New York. There are plenty who don’t fall into this trend though.
A good way of describing the lifestyle dynamic in New York is as a constant struggle for limited resources: Parking, seating on the train, a table at a restaurant, waiting in line or even personal space. There are constant hassles in every imaginable form at every turn that make even the most trivial of tasks needlessly challenging. For example, New York’s Citibike scheme markets itself as a fun and convenient way to navigate the city. Reality has little resemblance to brand image, however, because riding a bicycle in New York is tantamount to gambling with your life. Navigating from Central Park to SoHo along the cycle lanes, you’re forced to merge into traffic numerous times to avoid joggers, confused pedestrians, double-parked cars, cabs that pull over without indicating and vehicle doors opening at random. Apply that frustration to just about every other task you do on a daily basis and you have a reasonable idea of what to expect from your life in New York. For the first few months, all of it may seem new and exciting. Beyond that, anyone with the barest residue of sanity will start to dread every new day that begins.
The typical native retort is that you are simply burnt out, or not appropriate for New York if you can’t cope. In reality, the rat race is undignified and dehumanizing. For those without a cohesive social network, constant exposure to the stress and hassle can spill over into deep-seated resentment or even outright loathing of the well-being of others.
A good day in New York is a simple roller-coaster thrill, whereas in London even the feelgood factor is nuanced. Swiss Toni would describe a great day in London as like the electrifying feeling men may feel around a beautiful woman. And while we’re talking cultural capital (in the vein of further Swiss Toni macho-isms), if New York is a swimsuit model, London would be a runway model. The atmosphere is more refined and elegant, somewhat more delicate, and evokes deeper feelings in a classical sense.
An entertaining op-ed on the residential real estate market in London referred to it as “the largest oligarch whorehouse on planet Earth”. A sizable proportion of Central London is set aside for luxury real estate and there is, for now, more concern in London than New York that the city is morphing into a massive Monaco full of spas, services, retail and luxury accommodation catering only to the ultra-wealthy. Even when compared to the aggregate old money wealth of the Upper East Side, London offers palatial levels of opulence for the brazenly rich in the way of exclusive cultural offerings and events from the Platinum Triangle to the City.
Whether or not this is a good thing, in ethical terms, is down to individual polemic, but what is undeniable is that this high society culture renders nearly everything in London more expensive, aside from rent, which is roughly equivalent.
An approximate rule of thumb to follow when calculating spending in London is that, at the current exchange rate, one will usually pay in British pounds for goods and services that will cost the same number of US dollars in New York City. This can be tough to those within certain income brackets seeking a reasonable quality of life in Central London. Most property here is now unaffordable to all but those in the ultra-high net worth bracket. New York City offers a very decent lifestyle on a relatively more affordable scale, but cost of living in both cities is high in absolute terms. I think that anyone, regardless of socioeconomic bracket, would do well to pursue a frugal and moderated lifestyle should they choose to live in either city.
Stuccoed townhouses in London’s “Platinum Triangle”. As in Manhattan, many of these residences are left languishing in an empty state by absentee owners based abroad.
Residential real estate prices in London are decoupling rapidly from income levels.
New York is effectively uninhabitable for much of Summer due to brutal humidity and the urban heat island effect. Winters are often bitterly cold and miserable, though the snow can make the place look magical. New Yorkers often celebrate the thaw come Spring, but this time of year is often too rainy to be enjoyable. Fall is the most pleasant time to be in Manhattan, a meteorological Goldilocks Zone of several weeks during which the weather is not too cold and not too hot, but just right for normal human habitation. This lasts for a month or two before it suddenly begins to rain, then sleet, then snow heavily while temperatures drop precipitously and people cower indoors.
London is miserably grey and damp over 2-3 months in Winter. The weather during this time rarely has the dignity to rain or snow properly, but subjects the hapless to an intermittent drizzle that can be intolerable for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Post-Christmas blues here can be considerably more depressing than the bitterly cold, yet interesting, snowy winters in New York City. Fortunately, short daylight hours during this time of year usher in earlier evenings when the architecture is under-lit and the city switches to a nightlife ambiance. Spring in London is characterized by sunny spells randomly interspersed with sudden heavy downpours to harass unwary tourists.
Late Spring, Summer and Fall in London is magical. Temperatures in Summer reach around 80-85 degrees with mild humidity and a cool to warm breeze. Light scattered clouds and an abundance of sunshine make for some spectacular days out.
London seems to be trending towards a southern European climate pattern. Many natives still have memories of London in the 1970s/1980s with the constantly grey skies, but London today is a very different creature climate-wise. Spring thaw sets in earlier, skies are much clearer from Spring to Fall, Summers noticeably hotter and Winters a little warmer. Downsides are the lack of snow, heavier and more unpredictable periods of rain, with more frequent extremes of sunny and wet weather. In contrast to previous decades, there is now a burgeoning need for air conditioning in Tube carriages. This is something to bear in mind for those who balk at the idea of being stuck deep underground in sweltering heat.