The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where are the happiest Europeans? Not in big cities, survey says.

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Reading about European news in the United States can sometimes create the perception of a failing continent: a growing terrorism problem, an ongoing economic crisis in parts of the European Union, high unemployment and the looming Brexit have not helped to improve Europe's image abroad.

But the continent's troubles are more prevalent in the south, according to new data released by the statistical office of the European Union (Eurostat). In an unprecedented survey, E.U. researchers asked residents of 75 major cities in Europe how satisfied they were. Surprisingly, the continent's largest cities are also the places where respondents were least satisfied with their lives. Moreover, the poll showed a striking south-north divide, with citizens in Spain, Greece or Italy being particularly worried.

"The highest levels of satisfaction were often recorded in smaller, more provincial cities," the report's authors concluded. The capital cities of France (Paris), Portugal (Lisbon), Spain (Madrid) and Italy (Rome) ranked particularly low, despite being popular holiday destinations for tourists and Europeans living in the "cold" north of the continent.

But satisfaction in Europe, it appears, is concentrated in cities that are far away from most major tourist hotspots: Aalborg in Denmark, Leipzig in eastern Germany and Cardiff in the United Kingdom were ranked highest. Leipzig, for instance, has become particularly popular among younger Germans who have moved there to escape rising rents in other major cities.

A closer look at population changes in European capitals between 2001 and 2011 revealed last year that an increasing number of urban residents had fled city centers and had moved to the cheaper suburbs. Others might have moved to smaller and cheaper cities altogether.

Life in European cities appeared to be hardest for residents of Palermo and Napoli in Italy, and Athens in Greece, as well as Istanbul in Turkey, according to the Eurostat survey.

Apart form a south-east divide, the report authors also asserted that Europe remains divided between east and west to a certain extent. "Those living in cities appear to be aware of the challenges they face, insofar as city-dwellers in large, Western European cities are often less satisfied with life than those living in towns and suburbs or rural areas," the researchers wrote, referring to inequality and poverty being increasingly prevalent in Western European capitals.

Paris, for instance, has frequently been singled out as accepting the existence of "banlieues," in which many members of ethnic minorities are concentrated. Riots have broken out in some of those suburbs in the past, and dissatisfaction with the slow progress has most likely impacted western survey results.

In most of Eastern Europe, the researchers observed the opposite: "A higher share of the population living in the cities of eastern Member States are satisfied with life, whereas lower levels of satisfaction were recorded in the rural areas of eastern Member States where poverty and social exclusion tended to be concentrated."

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