What makes a city liveable? And, where are the best places to live?
As they did in 2012, the Economic Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) latest ranking of the World’s most Liveable Cities, the Global Liveability report has been published, with the Australian sporting capital of Melbourne topping the list once again. According to EIU, the liveability rating quantifies the challenges that might be presented to an individual’s lifestyle in any given location, and allows for direct comparison between locations. Every city is assigned a rating of relative comfort for over 30 qualitative and quantitative factors across five broad categories: stability; healthcare; culture and environment; education; and infrastructure. The top 10 are:
- Australia, Melbourne
- Austria, Vienna
- Canada, Vancouver
- Canada, Toronto
- Canada, Calgary
- Australia, Adelaide
- Australia, Sydney
- Finland, Helsinki
- New Zealand, Auckland
Challenging and formulating a definition of liveability
While there has been much discussion and debate about the usefulness of these sorts of rankings (the bias, the criteria and relevance), I have been giving some thought to the concept of liveability, specifically around the concept of the “everyday life”.
In Tshwane in 2012, I presented on the idea of “Liveable Cities” as part of the Tshwane Vision 2055 process. My approach was not to present the elements I thought were needed in the city and metropolitan region, but it was rather to challenge those present to formulate their own views of liveability, by asking a series of questions. This in the context of it being the capital of South Africa.
These questions included e.g.
- Whether citizens loved the city and loved to live there
- Whether the city was a place to live or retire
- Whether it was considered liveable for business people or tourists from elsewhere but not its own residents
While most of the audience were left more confused, it was important to convey the message that there were in fact multiple sides to the liveability coin and unpacking the true values and ambitions of the city, were at the start of the process of becoming more liveable.
Some of my more recent thoughts have been around aspects like the weather, suicide rate, the next generation needs and the cost of living.
I am somewhat puzzled by a city being in the upper echelons of liveability, but its location means that weather is not great for over 6 months of the year. How does the persistent snow and dark and gloomy skies contribute towards the liveability of city, in particular, when this can span 8 months in some parts of the world. Does this mean that a city can be the “most liveable” for only 5 months of the year, and the rest of the year, the great amenities are not useful or being used?
Secondly, given the high suicide rates in some cities and countries, what does say about the “happiness index” and its relation to places with high liveability rankings?
Thirdly, what about those without choice? Many people move to cities to pursue a better life, and to support their families, but for many the city in which they live is and was never a choice, and rankings which point towards more liveable cities may mean very little to those unable to relocate. How can liveability rankings influence where people live, and assist them in making a choices about this, if they are not businesses looking for a new location or base.
Fourthly, I am also interested in the relation between the population of a city and its liveability. Perhaps larger cities are indeed more liveable for more people, because of the agglomeration and concentration of business, academia, government, civil society and other institutions (and ideas), but at the same time are less liveable, because smaller cities might be easier to manage, especially where resources are not that constrained.
What do the rankings suggest if Tokyo, New York, London or Sao Paulo are not in the top 10 of the rankings? Are these cities which house a sizeable part of the global population living in cities inadequate, and, is their size a hindrance in achieving a top 10 ranking? Or is this something they should aspire to at all? Larger cities may be making life easier and more comfortable for large parts of their population, and if we do our maths correctly, this is more people than those who currently live in Vienna or Helsinki. The large city’s ability and potential to transform the lives of more people within the same area, should be given more thought outside of existing thinking around “mega-cities”.
And what about the next generation? In London this week I also found myself in conversation with an entrepreneur who moved to London because, according to him, his home country of Switzerland “did not feel like real life” and his town of Basel did not offer what London could. This is not to say that Swiss cities are not the most liveable but are these rankings forward looking enough to accommodate the idea that the next generation, who may in fact be more mobile, would be looking at a different set of criteria in choosing where to live. Which cities would be included in a “next generation” ranking of liveability?
How liveability rankings could prove useful
Without attacking the rankings or similar surveys, what else may we be interested to know? Which statistics and which other rankings could be helpful?
I am interested to know based on the data of any set of rankings, which cities have improved the most over the short and medium term. It might help to unveil which projects or series of projects and events in a city have led to a significant improvement in the lives of most of its citizens. Is it a new transport system or a the fruits of a new housing policy or perhaps the end of decades of war. Can this be replicated in your city?
The EIU have included information on those cities which have seen the sharpest rise in liveability. Bogota stands out since “the threat from terrorism, violence and kidnappings related to guerrilla activity has declined”, while our neighbours Harare (disputed elections) aside has risen due to perceived improvements in stability, coming from a low ranking in the bottom five cities. We also recently learnt of the news that Harare is looking at a 5 year city development plan which aims to “attract investment and improve service delivery and job creation in the city”.
Other cities include Dubai, Taipei, Colombo, Bratislava and Algiers, and it would be useful to study and understand why some cities, in particular African cities, have made inroads in terms of their ranking.
Ozzie, ozzie, ozzie?
Australian cities are once again out in full force in the EIU top 10. Apart from Melbourne, Adelaide is ranked 5th, Sydney 7th and Perth 9th. The report states that “those that score best tend to be mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density. This can foster a range of recreational activities without leading to high crime levels or overburdened infrastructure”. It is unclear whether this is a a reasonable conclusion to draw in particular when density is being used to make the case.
In a recent article at The Conversation, Paul James the Director of the Global Cities Institute (and a resident of Melbourne), questions whether the EIU rankings are indeed a good reflection. He says:
“Melbourne by any measure is a bloated, sprawling, congested and completely unsustainable city. On sustainability measures such as urban footprint we rank as badly as London and worse than New York. For every person in the city, we own almost one petrol-consuming vehicle, and that figure includes all the babies who do not yet have a licence and all the elderly who have stopped driving.”
This adds another layer to to think about. Are we interested in the cities that are great places to live in today or in 10 or 20 or 30 years? Based on this description – by a thought leader on both Melbourne and cities – how forward looking are these rankings. Are sustainability and liveability as concepts still related?
I think they can be correlated terms but they should not be confused. We could think of sustainability as the promotion of the future liveability of a city, while liveability is perhaps a snapshot of what it is like to live in a city for a period of time. Because, if Melbourne does not address sprawl, congestion and its urban footprint in general, as highlighted by Paul James, its liveability ranking today may mean very little in future, if it doesn’t trigger a change in thinking and planning.
It is clear that we, and I, have much more to think about and ponder in terms of liveability. Thinking about the future viability and sustainability of a city should probably come first, but this is not to say that current rankings and surveys of cities could not contribute and assist in supporting the longer term and bigger picture. In the meanwhile I hear Auckland is a great place to retire.
Feature imaged courtesy of Angela Rutherford at flickr.com
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