The World’s Most Liveable Cities

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Do you live in the most liveable city in the world?

But what does that really mean? We love ranking cities and attaching fancy titles to them. Perhaps you live in a global city? According to the American Journal of Foreign Policy, global cities are the most interconnected cities, serving as hubs for global integration and helping to set international agendas. The top five global cities in 2014 were New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Those same cities appear in other rankings such as the Global Power City Index, the Global Economic Power Index and the Global City Competitive Index. In addition, Forbes magazine publishes an annual list of the world’s most influential cities that in 2014 was topped yet again by London, New York, Paris, Singapore and Tokyo.

However, the three rankings I want to discuss in this article focus more on liveability of a city than on economic power and global influence. As a social scientist, I am much more interested in what it is like to live in a city and how urban life compares in different parts of the world. The three rankings I look at here are the Liveability Ranking by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking and Monocle Magazine’s Quality of Life Survey. For what I can tell, these are the only rankings looking at how liveable our cities are. Before examining what is actually behind these rankings, let’s look at the top five cities in each.

Taking the rankings at face value, Vienna would clearly be the winner as it is the only city that appears in all three rankings. But what is going on here: New York or London don’t rate? How can a city be global economically powerful without being especially liveable?

Seeing the funny side

The honest truth is that if you see a newspaper headline along the lines of “Vienna is the world’s most liveable city!” then it is best not to take it at face value but rather with a pinch of salt, a healthy dose of scepticism.

Some view the whole ranking idea as being more about entertainment and increasing magazine sales. Perhaps lamenting the absence of New York in the Liveability Ranking, the New York Times took a humorous swing at the EIU stating that the “Economist clearly equates liveability with speaking English” and that the ranking was full of “old British Empire towns”.

One such town is Melbourne, which has been ranked the world’s most liveable city by the Economist since 2011. Having just moved to this fair metropolis, I can check out the “liveability” first-hand. It is certainly a city with a lot going for it. I particularly like the public tram system, which is the largest in the world.

Indeed, I must confess that a few months ago when I told my friends that I was leaving Tokyo to move to Melbourne I did rather smugly drop the following line into conversations on a number of occasions: “It is the world’s most liveable city, you know!” But imagine my shock when Monocle magazine recently announced that Tokyo was number one in their 2015 Quality of Life survey. To top that, in the first week after I arrived in Melbourne, I was sitting in an academic conference on urban sustainability when a professor told the audience: “Let me tell you about this whole liveable Melbourne thing. I have looked into it and basically these rankings are just designed to help multinational corporations determine what kind of relocation package they will offer to their professional staff who are seconded overseas. They are rankings for expats [expatriates].”

Melbourne, ranked the world’s most liveable city by the Economist since 2011, is certainly a city with a lot going for it. I particularly like the public tram system, which is the largest in the world. Photo: Alex Proimos. Creative Commons BY-NC (cropped).

Turns out that he is completely right. Mercer, the organisation behind the Quality of Living Ranking, is basically a human resource services company. Their expertise covers global mobility, remuneration surveys, salary trends, cost of living reports, housing and income tax, offering solutions based on length of assignment overseas. The quality of living survey covers “230 destinations for globally mobile talent”. So, for example, if you look at their criteria for schools and education in any given city, the focus is on the variety of international and private schools and not the quality and affordability of education or other topics like school dropout rates, competition for school places, teacher student ratios and many issues that may be very important for the “locals”.

The EIU’s liveability ranking of 140 cities makes two claims. First, it can be used for “bench-marking perceptions of development levels” and second it can be used “for assigning a hardship allowance as part of an expatriate relocation package”. A score of 100 means the living conditions are “ideal” and a score of 1 means the situation is “intolerable” and you are basically in a warzone. If you are relocated to a city that scores less than 50, the Economist suggests your allowances should be in the order of 20% (depending on your company policy). Melbourne scored 97.7, which means it is almost ideal.

I was fooled

I realize that I had somehow been confused about the liveable city title. I genuinely thought it had more to do with the life experiences of the citizens than the destination choices for globally mobile talent. How you can quantify “life experiences” of citizens is something I am wondering about. Now, some of you may be thinking “You idiot! Those rankings are made for gullible souls like you!” That is true. Oddly, I had not thought of myself as a “globally mobile talent” before, but I have lived in Edinburgh, Oxford, London, Kyoto, Tokyo and now Melbourne. Up until coming to Melbourne, I never thought about city rankings.

Am I the only one who was taken in? To test this, I started a conversation with the guy selling me the broadband connection for my apartment (yes, I know it is not what you would call a scientific research method, rather it was just a quick and dirty snack for my curiosity). By the way, this internet service would come under the indicator on “quality of telecommunications” in the EIU ranking. Anyway, I asked him (an Indian guy with Australian nationality who has lived in Melbourne for nine years) what he thinks of the city. He replied: “I like living here. It is the most liveable city in the world.” Honestly, I am not making this up.

So, I told him about what my professor said and he looked puzzled. He shrugged off my remarks with a “Well, things are easier to do living here than living in India”. Maybe that is what it is all about.

I also find The Quality of Life Survey by Britain’s Monocle magazine, which has been running since 2007, very interesting. According to Monocle it is designed to stimulate “lively debate”. That debate could mainly be along the lines of “my city is better than yours”. So, I watched the promotional video for the 2015 rankings, which includes indicators such as the number of flight destinations from the local airport, the price of lunch, the cost of monthly travel, number of libraries and percentage of cycling commuters.

The video narration finishes by saying something like “Tokyo is number one because we at Monocle think it is a cool city”. Perhaps the real reason is captured in an article about the Monocle ranking published by the Wall Street Journal which explains that Tokyo is number one “due to its defining paradox of heart-stopping size and concurrent feeling of peace and quiet”. Back in 2007, Tokyo was ranked fourth by Monocle. This does make you wonder what significant changes happen year on year to alter the rankings of cities. Again the Wall Street Journal explains: “For this year, the magazine said that they refined some of the marking system, adding 22 new metrics. The cities are ranked based on factors including housing, cost of living, and access to outdoors, as well as crime rates, healthcare and business climate.” But the reason for cities switching places in the rankings can sometimes seem less convincing. In this context, there is a story in the Huffington Post suggesting that Vancouver lost out to Melbourne in the 2011 EIU ranking because of a highway closure.

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As a social scientist, I am much more interested in what it is like to live in a city and how urban life compares in different parts of the world. Photo: Ju-Leo. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA (cropped).

Speaking of the EIU Liveability Ranking, let’s look at it in a bit more detail. It is really interesting to see that it covers thirty indicators in five categories weighted as follows: stability (25%), healthcare (20%), culture and environment (25%), education (10%) and infrastructure (20%). One criticism of the ranking is that it does not take into consideration the cost of living in the cities, even though, ironically, the EIU produces a worldwide cost of living survey.

The most recent cost of living survey for 2015 shows that Singapore is the most expensive city in the world, with both Sydney (at 5) and Melbourne (at 6) in the top 10 but not New York, London or Tokyo. The cheapest city in the world is Karachi. The survey covers 160 products and services including food, drink, clothing, home rents, transport, utility bills and so on. So, you have to ask: would the most liveable city be viewed less liveable if cost of living was taken into consideration? Perhaps not for expats. I would also like to see the cost of house purchase included. There is a ranking for that as well and it called the Global House Price Index, focusing on the rate of house price increase each year (for instance climbing by 18.7% in Hong Kong in the past year).

And one final point about the EIU liveability ranking. Under the category of culture and the environment, they use an indicator for level of corruption adapted from Transparency International. I am assuming that this is the corruption perception index. The ranking is by country, with Denmark currently identified as the cleanest, least corrupt country in the world. Australia is sitting in eleventh place. It is a vitally important indicator of how life is for people living in cities in those countries and I am glad to see it included in the ranking.

But there are other indicators that you could also imagine using. For instance, how about the World Happiness Index? Under that ranking, Switzerland is on top, followed by Iceland and Denmark. It includes some very important indicators like degree of social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, and generosity — very significant facets of liveability that tell us about the degree to which a society is a caring one.

There is a lot more to liveability

By now you may agree that there is more to liveability rankings than meets the eye. Perhaps many of you already knew that and simply appreciated their value as a conversation starter while at dinner with your friends. You may be wondering why I even care.

In part it is because I came across a recent announcement about a conference on making cities liveable here in Melbourne. As I read the programme details I could not help but wonder what they meant by liveability.

In part it is also because through my role working with the Global Compact Cities Programme I have been involved in a survey of our signatory cities that has been producing some fascinating results about what city life is all about.

In the survey we cover 157 issues under three main categories — city development, sustainability and governance. Focal points representing the local governments in each city were asked to rank these issues according to whether they were a critical concern or a key strength of the city. So, fundamentally it is a perception survey.

Fifteen cities have responded so far (a few more are expected soon) from Mexico, Colombia, India, Germany, the Netherlands, the US, Norway, South Africa, Poland, Turkey, Spain and Australia. We plan to compile a report with the results later this year, but the interim data is very interesting.

We are not ranking the cities, but instead we are ranking the issues. The radar charts below show a sample of the data and indicate how the cities rated various issues in relation to city development around social inclusion, adequate housing, health and well-being, and mobility and public transport.

The results suggest that some of the most critical issues (i.e., closer to 1 in the radar chart) include poverty, housing affordability, safe passage for bicycles and cleaner transport options (or lack of). These and many of the other 157 issues perhaps reflect more closely what liveability in cities for local people is all about. They are indicators that are not easily collected from existing data sets.

What these results also imply is that a liveable city would be one that is addressing these social issues, and is a place that takes into account all needs within the city (the elderly, minorities, disabled, unemployed, children, etc.). That would be the kind of liveable city ranking that I would like to see. In the area of urban sustainability that may be exactly what is going to happen with the launch last year of ISO 37120 on Sustainable Development of Communities — Indicators for city services and quality of life. The indicators cover the economy, education, energy, the environment, finance, governance, health and so on. This new standard could perhaps become the default for comparisons of liveability between cities. But that discussion is for a future article.

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