The messy problem with global city rankings
Friday, October 13, 2017
For those of us looking to see how our home city stacks up against the rest of the world, there is now no shortage of places to find comparisons — the "Quality of Living" index made global headlines, as did the Economist Intelligence Unit's widely cited ranking of the "world's most livable cities."
But how much can they really tell us about what makes a city a "good" place to live?
Quantifying your city
These indices are one of the results of the modern age's relentless quest to quantify.
In its "livability" index, the Economist has repeatedly put Melbourne on top, while Mercer's latest analysis found Vienna to be the city with the "highest quality of living." So what kind of figures are fed into these ratings systems?
The five categories used by the EIU are stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. Mercer has similar categories, but clearly weights them differently. While the UK-based Livable city platform has come up with its own City Analysis Methodology (CAM), this time firmly prioritizing carbon reduction — which doesn't go hand in hand with "livability" for everyone.
The slippery nature of "quality of life"
The problem is that these crudely quantified indices fail to capture the wide range of different experiences between those who live in a city.
"Qualify of life" is one of the most subjective concepts around. Once used mainly in healthcare debates, it has now become a catch-all term thrown around by everyone from politicians to video game manufacturers.
It means different things to different people. A report by Al Jazeera spoke to residents of some cities that scrape the bottom of generic global rankings about why they love their city. One described the "architecture, personality and solidarity" of the favelas of Caracas (123rd in the EIU's 2015 rankings).
Beirut doesn't score too highly on stability indices either, but provides "good energy and inspiration" for another interviewee — perhaps more so than neat and tidy Singapore (noted by Mercer as the best city in the world for infrastructure). But how much "inspiration" can be found on Singapore’s punctual, cost-efficient trains?
And what about older people? Well, of course, there is an index for that, too, where the most vital indicators prioritize health infrastructure over nightlife. There is also finally long-overdue attention to the idiosyncratic demands of women, and mothers in particular, in cities.
Together, they show the diversity in what we want from our neighborhood.
Terrorism and "livability"
The EIU has been criticized since it was revealed that the British city of Manchester slipped down eight places following the terrorist bombing of the Manchester arena. Can terrorism really be associated with how comfortable we feel in a city?
This illustrates how misleading it can be to bundle all of these indicators into one single ranking that defines somewhere as a place to live. It creates a simple, succinct picture but lacks meaning on the way.
Beyond ticking the boxes
We live in an era when the hype over "creative cities" has led cities to compete for global business and the young mobile talent who might work there. Those young people demand not just a livelihood but "quality of life" in their chosen hometown — however you understand that.
However, while they make for neat "Buzzfeed-esque" headlines, the contradictory, surprising and often-inexplicable pull cities can exert on their residents is difficult to reduce to a rank. Cities should not just be ticking boxes to shine in the headlines.
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