City rankings that rankle

Can ‘most liveable city rankings’ predict how pleasant it will be to live in different cities?

Pity the people of Vienna in 2016. They didn’t live in the most liveable city in the world. The city of Freud, Mahler, Schubert and Schrödinger, replete with the glorious buildings of the Habsburg empire, had only scored 97.4 in the Economist’s ranking of the livability of world cities.

Robert Doyle, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, which had pipped Vienna to the title, was tweeting that it was a ‘Great day to be a Melburnian’. Melbourne’s winning score was 97.5, 0.1 above Vienna’s. At least the disappointed denizens of Vienna didn’t have to put up with life in Hamburg, which scored a mere 95.0 and languished in tenth place. Worse still, they could wake up one day and find themselves dwelling in London –down in 53rd place.


What a difference that extra score of 0.1 made. As the American poet William C. Bryant said: “Winning isn’t everything, but it beats anything in second place”. The headlines around the world were all about Melbourne. Rowing crews were pictured as they lined up on the Yarra river against a background of grassy banks, trees and surging skyscrapers that shouted modernity and prosperity. And Melbourne’s affluent beach-lined suburb, Brighton, got in on the act. Its residents could be seen tanning themselves on golden sands, fringed by gaily-painted beach huts, palm trees and sprawling mansions (median price: £1.6 million).


But it seemed that all was not well in this urban paradise. A press conference called by the Deputy Lord Mayor to promote Melbourne’s ‘top of the world’ ranking was interrupted by a woman shouting: “It’s disgusting!” and “Melbourne should be ashamed of itself”. She was protesting the 74% increase, over two years, in the average number of people who were sleeping rough in the city’s central business district. The current estimate was 247 people.


Then there was a survey that had found that nearly half of Melburnians were frustrated by the city’s high cost of living. And, while Melbourne had scored a perfect 100 out of 100 for its education, healthcare and infrastructure, the local paper could not resist contrasting this with the experiences of rush-hour travellers on the city’s Punt Road or the thousands of people awaiting elective surgery.


OK, nowhere is perfect, but a score of 97.5 looks pretty close to perfection to me. It raises the question of whether you can represent liveability (whatever that may be) as experienced by millions of people by a single number measured to one decimal place.


It turns out that the Economist’s table isn’t primarily designed to represent the experience of ordinary citizens in the places it covers. Instead, its main role is to provide guidance to multi-national companies when calculating the relocation packages that should be awarded to employees to allow for the gloom or pleasure of moving to a new city.  A score above 80, the Economist suggests, should attract no extra allowance, 70 to 80 is worth an extra 5% of salary, while 50 or less should earn mobile global talent an extra 20%. All of the criteria used in the ranking are focused on the needs of ex-pats. Its five main categories, with weights in brackets, are stability (25%), which covers factors such as threat of crime and terrorism, healthcare (20%), culture and environment (25%), education (10%) and infrastructure (20%). There’s no reference to cost of living, perhaps because this doesn’t concern global talent whose salaries already take this into account.


So the league table is actually intended as a ranking of ‘liveability of cities for people who work for multi-national companies and who are relocated there’. But that doesn’t make for crisp newspaper headlines or stories. As a result the distorted perception emerges that it’s a measure of liveability for ordinary folk. They might proudly announce ‘I live in the world’s most liveable city’, not knowing that the measure has little to do with them.


But are the rankings in the table even meaningful to ex-pats? What about aesthetics, friendliness and a sense of community? And look at those weights. Where do they come from? Who is to say that stability should have a weight of 25%, while infrastructure only gets 20%? I might be much more concerned about the awful road conditions on my daily commute than the remote threat of crime in the exclusive neighbourhood where I live.


Despite their scientific veneer the weights are arbitrary and, almost certainly, don’t reflect the differences between the best and worst performances on each criterion. Make a small change to those weights and the presses will be rolling triumphantly in Vienna, or even Hamburg, celebrating their city as the best in the world. In this case, there would doubtless be serious investigations and crisis meetings in Melbourne to establish why their city was suddenly in decline. And all because of a tweak in an anonymous league table compiler’s weights.

Paul Goodwin