City Index (Part 1)

This is the first of a two part series on how cities are measured and ranked.

Urbanist by definition study cities, and by nature many of us also love living in cities. When it comes to measuring and comparing how “liveable” our dear cities are there is still no consensus about the best method.

According to the Oxford American Dictionary liveable means, “an environment fit to live in.”  This definition of course is very subjective and leads me to ask can we really comparable all cities fairly as liveable?

The Economist’s Liveability Ranking and Mercer’s Quality of Living Survey are two of the leading guides for ranking cities based on liveability.  Mercer measures liveability by examining: “… 39 key quality-of-life issues. They include political stability, currency-exchange regulations, political and media censorship, school quality, housing, the environment and public safety.” The Economist uses similar standards within these five categories – Stability, Healthcare, Culture & Environment, Education, and Infrastructure.  So which cities are the most (and least) liveable according to these sources?

The Economist’s Most Liveable Cities 2011:

1. Vancouver, Canada
2. Melbourne, Australia
3. Vienna, Austria
4. Toronto, Canada
5. Calgary, Canada

The Economist’s least liveable city: Harare, Zimbabwe

Mercer’s 2010 Most Liveable Cities:

1. Vienna, Austria
2. Zurich, Switzerland
3. Geneva, Switzerland
4. Vancouver, Canada (tied 4th)
5. Auckland, New Zealand (tied 4th)

Mercer’s least liveable city: Baghdad

After examining public safety, political stability, pollution and “tolerable” climate it is not surprising that the top cities are in Australia, Canada and Europe. It is surprising though that these cities tend to be mid-sized, low-density, and rather rich.  Are these measurement tools then somehow inherently biased against megalopolises in poor countries?

Editor of the Economist report John Copestake notes that the mid-sized, low-density cities “tend to score well by having all the cultural and infrastructural benefits on offer with fewer problems related to crime or congestion.” Perhaps the bigger question though is not are these biased towards less dense cities, but who are these indicators targeted towards?  Here in lies one of the major pitfalls in these liveability measurements.

According to Tao Rugkhapan “how the indicators are chosen reveals the report’s pre-selected audience.” The audience for both Mercer and the Economist is the same: multinational companies looking to relocate employees on international assignments.  In short these surveys are ranking cities by how liveable they are for expatriates and not the local residents.  Perhaps the loaded word “liveable” then is not the best choice for ranking something as complex as a city.  Tao points out that this is an especially poor word choice when the rankings do not leave any room for “how liveability is locally perceived.”

Another pitfall of these indexes is in how they have been interoperated. Recently “best” has been used interchangeability with “liveable” in press reports. Of course being the most liveable does not make a city the best in the world.  In fact many people may not even want to live in these most liveable cities. For instance, Matt Kiebus, of Death and Taxes, believes “liveable” is not necessary a positive description, “No one wants to brag about residing in a ‘liveable’ city—it sounds mediocre, it conveys the impression that [they're] settling.”

Even Brent Toderian, the Director of City Planning in Vancouver, admits that one of his city’s biggest challenges is getting rid of its “no-fun city” stigma. He also raises the point that there is not much that planners and local policy makers can do through policy to make their city more interesting besides encouraging  “the creativity and passions of its citizens, and then try to stay out of the way.”

Obviously these two liveability surveys do not take a holistic approach to measure which cities are the best places to live according to both locals and expats. A ranking of the best cities to live in should involve a broader perspective than the current surveys.  Perhaps it should also compare cites based on their political power, ability to attract knowledgeable residents, sustainability, entertainment or recreational options, economic success, and importance within the global marketplace. In the end though liveability will always be a subjective measurement.

So how do you think we should determine the most livable cities?

- Melissa

Part two of “City Index” will look at alternative methods for measuring and ranking cities beyond liveability indexes.