The Economist magazine has produced another edition of its annual liveability index for cities. Once again, Melbourne tops the list, with most of the remaining cities in the top 10 coming from British Commonwealth countries: Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Adelaide, Sydney, Perth and Auckland. Only Vienna in Austria and Helsinki in Iceland are not former British colonies; all are Western.

Economist magazine cover of annual livability index for cities

Meanwhile, the bottom 10 are almost exclusively black. The Economist Information Unit (EIU) notes that the top cities tend to remain the same each year and they “tend to be mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density.”

This is true. Cities in Australia and Canada have low population densities: of between 2.88 and 3.40 people per sq km. Finland and New Zealand both have densities of 16 people per sq km. These compare with a global (land) average of 45.65 and a US average of 32. Austria is an exception with a 100 people per sq km, but Vienna’s population of 1.7m people makes it relatively small compared with other cities.

It is legitimate to ask whether the obvious distortion in the ranking reflects the bias of the adjudicators: that the Economist, being a British company, using wealthy, business stakeholders, might therefore be filtering 'livability' through a distorted vision. Note that the top 10 does not include a single British city.

To find out, let's take a look at the cities surveyed, and the nature of the indicators chosen, to see whether they do reflect bias of this nature.

The index examines 140 cities. The full list is not given. But from the sample on the website there seems to be a fair spread across all types of country from poor and developing to rich and Western. So we can discount the possibility that the list was selected in the first place to exclude cities which are not predominantly inhabited by Caucasians. It's just that white, rich cities top the list. 

As for the criteria, every city is assigned a rating for over 30 qualitative and quantitative factors across five categories: stability; healthcare; culture and environment; education; infrastructure, and each is rated as acceptable, tolerable, uncomfortable, undesirable or intolerable. The analysis is derived from the Economist's own economic, financial, political and business risk analysis.

For qualitative indicators, a rating is awarded based on the judgment of in-house analysts and in-city contributors. For quantitative indicators, a rating is calculated based on the relative performance of a number of external data points. Indicators are then assigned a score of 1–100, where 1 is considered intolerable and 100 is considered ideal.

There is a certain amount of bias within the categories. Consideration is given to, for example, the availability and quality of private healthcare, as well as public and general healthcare indicators. Weight is given to sporting, cultural and consumer goods availability as well as the availability and quality of private education. Naturally there is also attention paid to the quality of international links.

These criteria would be of interest to business travellers and employees.

So now we can glimpse the purpose of this exercise. Multinational companies offer employees a bonus on salaries for living in more unsavoury environments. If you have to work in, say, Damascus, which comes bottom of the list, you would require and expect a huge amount of compensation compared to being asked to work in Vancouver.

The Economist has helpfully quantified such compensation in the following scale:

Rating

Description

Suggested allowance (%)

80–100

There are few, if any, challenges to living standards

70–80

Day–to–day living is fine, in general, but some aspects of life may entail problems

5

60–70

Negative factors have an impact on day-to-day living

10

50–60

Liveability is substantially constrained

15

50 or less

Most aspects of living are severely restricted

20

This survey should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt. It is self-avowedly designed to attract media attention with a view to soliciting consultation work based on the EIU's core revenue-generating activity of risk assessment for corporations, to hlp them formulate their own policies.

The list does not say anything generally applicable about any of the cities covered, being chiefly of interest to the Economist's potential client base. The rest of us cannot use it to determine whether we would be happy living in any of the cities studied, nor whether the majority of its indigenous inhabitants are.

Most serious discussions of livability tie it to wider indicators of quality-of-life and biodiversity. They include factors on higher density, cyclability and walkability, how cheap it is to live there, air quality, the number of parks and green spaces per person or per square mile, the level of income disparity, life expectancy, and so on, and are not confined to criteria that would only be of interest to business people who, let's face it, are less likely than indigenous inhabitants to put down roots and integrate with the community. If the going gets tough they can just move to another, more liveable city.

And would this be Melbourne? In their discussion of last year's EIU survey, the author from FutureCapeTown quoted Paul James, the Director of the Global Cities Institute (and a resident of Melbourne), on the EIU ranking which placed this city at number one last year as well:

“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.”

He certainly does not think much of the EIU's survey.

Sustainability is not the same thing as livability; they are closely related, but the former takes a more long-term and holistic view, looking at quality of life for all inhabitants and whether it will increase or decrease into the future. They should not be confused.

The Economist also publishes a Green Cities Index and the merits of this is discussed here.