The Value of Rankings and the Meaning of Livability

Every community wants to be considered the “most livable,” a title that can attract new business and investments, boost local economies and real estate markets, and foster community involvement and pride. Now, everyone from the Economist to seems to be getting in on the game of ranking cities for livability. The Philips Livable Cities Award is about to announce the winner of its new contest supporting new ideas in livability. Cities of all kinds have been described as the most livable—But what do residents think? And what does "livable" truly mean?

Since first using the term “livable cities” back in the 1980s to describe quality of life and the characteristics of cities that make them livable, IMCL has seen the term used in countless ways to describe standard of living, rather than quality of life. Every city wants to be considered the “most livable,” a title that can attract new business and investments, boost local economies and real estate markets, and foster community involvement and pride. The term has become so widely, if not overly used, that its meaning is becoming lost.

Now, numerous rankings of "most livable cities" exist, the most renowned being those from the, and more recently, Monocle. The Economist and Forbes base their rankings primarily on data from the Mercer consulting company, which annually measures "quality of living" standards, using data such as crime rates, health statistics, sanitation standards, and expenditures on city services. Their primary clients, government and corporations, are interested in assessing "the degree to which expatriates enjoy the potential standard of living in the host location. Quality of living also reflects the interaction of political, socio-economic and environmental factors in the host location." Mercer pride themselves on using criteria that are "objective, neutral and unbiased".  Such rankings can be a powerful tool for economic development, and there is cutthroat competition and lobbying by world cities to be ranked high.

The Economist, focusing on economic and business issues, places five Australian cities, three Canadian cities and two European cities in their most recent top ten, the first three being Vancouver, BC, Melbourne and Vienna.  By contrast, Forbes includes only American cities, and appears to have a more practical agenda by giving a boost to cities on the mend including Pittsburgh, PA and Trenton, NJ. Their criteria focus on "unemployment, crime, income growth, the cost of living, and artistic and cultural opportunities."

As a lifestyle magazine, Monocle's focus is on "the top 25 cities to call home". Their criteria include social and economic circumstances for residents, public health, infrastructure, and ease and availability of local transport. They define their highest ranked cities as "places that are benchmarks for urban renaissance and rigorous reinvention in everything from environmental policy to transport." Their top cities in 2010 were Munich, Copenhagen and Zurich.

Instead of ranking cities for the livability standards they have already achieved, the Philips Livable Cities Award, the most recent contest in livability, will reward the best ideas for improving sustainability and standard of living in urbanized, and economically challenged locations around the world. Joining the ranks of other corporations flexing their Corporate Social Responsibility muscles, Philips says the contest is designed to generate creative and feasible ideas “for improving the health and well-being of people living in cities.” The contest (comprised of open voting supervised by an international panel of experts) will award monetary grants for modest initiatives such as rainwater storage in Sana’a Yemen, where water is scarce during nearly 6 months of the year; installing lighting to keep sports facilities open longer in New York; or teaching sign language to deaf children in Embu, Kenya. These are not particularly new or glamorous ideas, but they certainly address very real challenges.

What does it mean to be ranked by Mercer the “most livable” city? These rankings are measuring standard of living, not quality of life. As Mercer themselves admit, "One may live in the highest ranked city in terms of quality of living [standards] and still have a very bad quality of life because of unfortunate personal circumstances (illness, unemployment or loneliness, etc)." It is precisely these quality of life issues that IMCL seeks to address, and evidence is now mounting that the way we shape our cities profoundly affects our quality of life - our physical and mental health, our opportunities for having friends and neighbors, and even how likely we are to find, and hold a job.

Once fundamental health and safety is achieved, standard of living issues are not directly correlated with happiness, with a sense that life is meaningful, that we are of value to others, and that there is much to be discovered and celebrated in the human and physical world around us. These are important aspects of quality of life and are profoundly influenced by the built environment - by a city's livability. The issues come more clearly into focus when we consider the needs of our most vulnerable members of society, children, elders, those who are economically or socially marginalized.

The question that spurred the International Making Cities Livable quest was “how do children become fully human, caring and responsible adults, committed to the welfare of others, whether familiars or strangers; how do some children grow up capable of experiencing beauty, joy and laughter, and other children become adults capable of aggression and brutality, without joy or interest in their fellow human beings? And what are the circumstances, the kinds of social, familial and physical environments that produce one or the other human being?” (From: The Forgotten Child)

The role of the built environment in shaping children's lives, facilitating their positive health and development is not easily measured in economic terms but it can be understood. The built environment influences how people relate to each other, the opportunity for community to form, and the depth of our social networks. It regulates how much incidental exercise is possible through walking and biking. Buildings and streets contribute to reducing crime when buildings support eyes on the street, and shops and services put a functioning community in control of the public realm. Pattern, complexity, and harmony in the built environment can stimulate curiosity, dicovery, and a sense that the world is meaningful. Beauty in nature, architecture and public places can lift spirits, raise endorphin levels, and improve physical and emotional health. These are just a few of the ways in which IMCL encourages a city to increase livability for all. The Mercer data provides valuable benchmark statistics, but a city may have to aim higher than to be placed top in these rankings to be truly “livable.”