Does being the most liveable city in the world mean anything?

EIU's ten "most liveable" cities in the world (scores out of 100)

The good thing about ‘winning’ the World’s Most Liveable City gong is that it might help market Melbourne to overseas tourists, students, investors and maybe even buyers of our services. Unlike the Grand Prix, it costs us nothing. And while it won’t stop some Melburnians from pissing in trains (like this guy in case you missed him in yesterday’s post), it might give many others greater pride in their city. The thousands of Melburnians who travel overseas for business or pleasure each year can now be ambassadors for their city with this neat and handy marketing tool.

But of course league tables like The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) annual Liveability Survey are all bunkum and sensible people shouldn’t be sucked in. The EIU’s Survey purportedly provides an objective ranking of world cities based on 58 variables measuring dimensions like political stability, health care, environment, culture, education and infrastructure. However, as I’ve explained before (here, here and here), there are a number of reasons why liveability league tables are best left to the marketeers.

The EIU’s Survey is designed primarily to assist companies with formulating appropriate living allowances for staff posted to overseas cities. These people are transitory and well-heeled – they don’t experience the city like the average permanent resident. They usually rent somewhere convenient and salubrious, so they won’t care too much about high housing prices and inadequacies in outer suburban public transport.

There are also difficult methodological problems involved in arriving at a single summary ranking of a city’s “liveability”. These sorts of surveys typically have lots of variables – some are easy to measure, others are very subjective. The analysts often make the convenient but unrealistic assumption that they’re all of equal value (weight). Not all of them can be ‘added’ together in any meaningful sense, yet they have to be to arrive at a simple league table.

The differences between top cities in these sorts of surveys are in any event miniscule and hence of little consequence. For example, the top five ranked cities in the EIU’s survey all scored 97 points out of 100 (see exhibit) – this would be swamped by the margin of error in the estimates. The EIU acknowledges that “some 63 cities (down to Santiago in Chile) are considered to be in the very top tier of liveability, where few problems are encountered…. Melbourne in first place and Santiago in 63rd place (can) both lay claim to being on an equal footing in terms of presenting few, if any, challenges to residents’ lifestyles”.

Defining “liveability” is itself a difficult challenge (I’ve discussed this before in the context of the ‘Sydney vs Melbourne’ debate – see here and here). The EIU finds the concept so slippery it comes up with this tautology: “The concept of liveability is simple: it assesses which locations around the world provide the best or the worst living conditions”. Arriving at a consensus definition is extremely hard because it depends on a number of factors, like the characteristics of the observer – for example, their ethnicity, their income, their stage in the life cycle and so on. The vibrant centre of Melbourne might add nothing to the city’s liveability for someone who’s elderly, or on a low income, or a member of a cultural group that is under-represented in the city.

It’s not surprising the EIU’s top ten cities seem to be all of a one. They’re all medium sized cities (no megalopolises here), they’re practically all low to middling density, they’re all in first world countries and, with the possible exception of Sydney, they all have cool to cold climates. What seems obvious is that the ranking is shaped much more by the characteristics of the host country than anything else. Factors like political stability, health and education – which loom large in the selection calculus – are pretty much the same whether you’re in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide or Auckland.

I would be more inclined to focus on the attractiveness of a city and measure how sought after it is (perhaps by looking at the difference between wages and housing costs). It’s instructive, I think, that few of the cities in the EIU’s top ten are the sorts of places young people around the world seem to aspire to live in. Let’s be realistic, Australian cities don’t have quite the drawing power of places like London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Paris.

The slightly different methodology used by the rival Mercer Quality of Living Survey ranks Sydney 10th and Melbourne 18th. This is a big drop in ranking for Melbourne compared to the EIU Survey, but again the difference in ranking is far larger than the difference in absolute scores, which is small.

A survey of the potential for urban success of 26 world cities by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Cities of Opportunity, also includes a measure of liveability. Sydney is the only Australian city included but ranks 2nd (behind Frankfurt) out of 26 cities on this particular criterion. The survey defines a liveable city as one that offers a range of viable housing options, manageable commute times, pleasant weather, first-rate health care, superb educational and cultural opportunities, a high proportion of working age adults, and a diversity of nationalities.

While it has the usual methodological issues like no weighting of variables, once again differences in liveability between the top cities are small:

Frankfurt and Sydney lead overall, but the results in this indicator reveal a remarkable degree of parity. The eight highest-ranking cities, representing four continents, all scored within striking distance of one another.

So being the world’s most liveable city doesn’t mean much. One possible conclusion that could be drawn from these surveys, however, is that liveability might not be as compelling a strategy for building the economic competitiveness of a city as is usually assumed. It could be that a high level of liveability is necessary just to be ‘in the game’ but won’t take a city any further. Many cities, it seems, are liveable, so a city that wants to increase its competitiveness in the modern economy might have to do much more.

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4 Comments on “Does being the most liveable city in the world mean anything?”

  1. Johnyboy says:

    I hope it helps bring in tourists. The aussie dollar is pretty high.

  2. You are right in downgrading the significance of some of the more ‘functional’ of these measuring sticks … there are many highly vibrant cities loved by their residents that seemingly paradoxically do not measure up on such measures. Mumbai being one of them.

    The reason is simple, it is the more intangible elements defining the cultural and sub-cultural lives of a city coupled with the underlining and predominant community values (defined to a large extent by the sum total of the personal and social values) that really make a place and seemingly matter most to daily pleasure and happiness.

    There is also the longstanding contradiction between cities ruled by highly restrictive and excessive governing regulations and laws and those applying far less government constraint, definition and ‘direction’.

    In the first instance, these can sometimes be ‘biased towards wealth’ and satisfying the interests and the values of the ‘well off’ at the expense of those less ‘fortunate’ or be simply unnecessarily bureaucratic and costly, verging on outright silliness. (Many can involve regulations to theoretically protect people and improve a place – including overly restrictive uses of public spaces and parks, building codes, planning requirements, food/restaurant regulations, and fire codes designed more to protect buildings more than people, etc.)

    In the second instance, what (from one perspective) might be regarded as failures or omissions by government and its planning regulations can also facilitate the exercise of greater freedoms which, while possessing some downsides at times, can e.g. create far more interesting approaches to less ordered/more ‘anarchic’ and frequently more interesting, built environments … as well as much freer community and individual uses of various public domains and spaces.

    These freed up uses can by way of example loosen the grip on community festive events, allowing more diverse and more inclusive expressions of creativity that are not inhibited or unnecessarily constrained by officialdom or by at times excessive public safety standards.

    Protecting people from themselves can be taken way too far … one contemporary manifestation being the steps taken to rope off cliffs or high points at sites of natural beauty … another a ban on hot food served from street stalls. Some would also add forcing cyclists to wear helmets

    In the second instance, whether by omission, accident or design, a greater sense of accepting responsibility for your own decisions and undertaking things at your own risk is allowed to be at play. Such differentiating outcomes can often also be a direct consequence of differing cultural values. And these ‘most liveable city’ assessments do seem outrightly and unfairly incapable of measuring such things.

    They also largely only measure the big, theoretically measurable things about cities when it is so often the sum total of all the little (and personally loved) things about a city that really define its liveability for locals and visitors. However in saying this I would definitely exclude a city’s predominant ‘civic values’ from any notion of ‘little things’ as I definitely believe it is these, when present in the most desirable of forms and manifestations, that really make or break just how great a city might be (and from bottom up, not just top down)!

  3. Alan Davies says:

    An interesting update on the EIU’s survey via Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. He says:

    “One of the reasons for the downgrade (of Vancouver from first spot) was “recent intermittent closures of the key Malahat highway [which] resulted in a 0.7 percentage point decline in the Canadian city’s overall livability rating.” The only problem is that the Malahat is on Vancouver island, a 1.5 hour ferry ride and at least an hour or so of driving from Vancouver”.

  4. Russell says:

    Hadn’t looked at this, after all Perth didn’t ‘win’, but now I look at your table I’m very pleased to see what dragged down our score: while all the others scored in the 90s for culture, Perth is languishing in the 80s. Maybe seeing it so obviously presented, the government will spend a bit of money on the arts!


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