Livable cities rankings: What do they actually mean?

Annual rankings of the most livable cities in the world have a halo effect on the highest achievers, but city planning and branding experts say these surveys can be misleading.

Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary all finished in top 5 of recent livability survey

Vancouver is a perennial favourite on lists of the most livable cities in the world. ( Canadian Press)

Many Canadians swell with pride over the fact that every year, one or more of our cities rank among the most livable places in the world.

This year is no different — Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary all finished in the top five in a list released this week by a research arm of The Economist magazine.

The rankings undoubtedly have a halo effect on the country as a whole, but city planning and branding experts say these surveys are inherently limited and unintentionally misleading.

"Being on a ranking like this is certainly a valuable marketing tool, but it doesn't mean that it's compatible with quality of life or even with being a great city," says Carolyn Ray, managing director at brand consultancy Interbrand Canada.

The ranking always makes for a great news story, but Ray says the measures of "livability" are insufficient, because they rely solely on quantitative information provided by international organizations.

To truly measure a city's merits, you need to get first-hand input from actual residents, says Mitchell Kosny, associate director of the Ryerson School of Urban and Regional Planning in Toronto.

"I think the real measure of livability needs to come from the people who live in those cities," says Kosny. "I think that's a piece that's missing."

The usual suspects

Kosny says the Global Liveability Ranking is also skewed in another way, in that many of the measures — including health care, education, even infrastructure — aren't actually the purview of cities, but are administered by the federal government or regional territories such as provinces.

Melbourne, Australia has held the top spot in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Livability Ranking for five years running. (Courtesy Grocon)

The fact that Canadian and Australian cities are perennial favourites on the list owes a great deal to the generosity of higher levels of government in those countries, he says.

In its annual report, 2015 Global Liveability Ranking, the Economist Intelligence Unit compares 140 cities based on 30 factors across five categories — stability, infrastructure, education, health care and the environment. The data is provided by agencies such as the World Health Organization and the World Bank.

Melbourne finished first, followed by Vienna, Austria. Vancouver and Toronto were third and fourth, respectively, while Calgary tied for fifth with Adelaide, Australia. Perth, Australia, ranked seventh.

Melbourne has topped the list for five years running. Prior to that, Vancouver held the title for nearly a decade.

In its report, the EIU acknowledges that the most livable places are usually "mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density."

This accounts for why megacities such as New York, Paris and London don't crack the top 10.

Owing to their age, population size and world importance, cities such as Paris and Rome must balance infrastructure upgrades with historical preservation efforts, says Kosny.

"I don't think many of the [top-10] cities are saddled with inheriting some of the issues that come with scale and history."

Also, expensive

One of the most glaring ironies of these reports is that, in many cases, the most livable cities have become some of the most expensive cities to live in, observes David Amborski, president of the Association of Canadian Urban Planning Programs.

In May, the Canadian Real Estate Association reported that the average price of a resale home in Canada had risen 9.5 per cent, and now stands at $448,862.

"One of the negative things that isn't addressed [in the EIU survey] is actually housing prices, which is something that is becoming more and more of a concern in our context," says Amborski.

Despite its shortcomings, the rankings do have their benefits, says Interbrand's Ray.

Toronto is another one of the usual suspects on lists of the most livable cities in the world.

Knowing that a city is safe, clean and agreeable to young families is important to companies wanting to move a main office or attract new employees.

"I think often [the rankings are] used as marketing tools to attract new business to the region and attract talent, investment and that kind of thing," she says.

But while livability is a popular metric for businesses, it's unlikely to translate into too much increased tourism, says Amborski.

And for all its prestige, the rankings don't generally change the course of municipal politics.

"Politicians might say, 'Look, we're one of the most livable cities, we've improved during my term,'" says Amborski.

"But I don't think cities are necessarily going to change their policy direction in an effort to improve their ranking."


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