What Makes a City “Liveable”?

In August, Vienna was named the world’s most liveable city. It was the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual survey, and the news was significant in part because it was the first time a European city had topped the rankings. It was also notable because, for the past seven years, the Australian city of Melbourne has worn the crown.

No one who hears the news will be too surprised. The Austrian capital has plenty of green space, good infrastructure, a rich cultural history and many famous former residents. It is said to be both “The City of Music” and “The City of Dreams” because it was home to the composers Mozart, Strauss and Schubert, as well as Sigmund Freud, the world’s first psychotherapist. We can assume it was also deemed “liveable” by the artist Gustav Klimt and the architect Otto Wagner, who are former residents.

Defining liveability

But what makes a city liveable? The answer seems obvious, and yet it’s hard to put into concrete terms. The EIU’s criteria include stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure, and the margins separating the best cities seem to be small. Tiny changes can nudge a second- or third-placed city into pole position, just as they can cause the leading city to plunge down the rankings.

Between 2002 and 2010, Vancouver was declared the most liveable city, but the closure of a single highway led the EIU to revise the city’s position. Now it isn’t even in the top five. Vienna only took first place this year due to a minor increase in its “stability”, which relates to a city’s crime rate and risk of terrorism or military conflict. Clearly it isn’t easy to separate “better” from “best”.

Cast your eyes over the top-ten rankings for the past few years and you won’t fail to notice a pattern. Since 2015, Australia and Canada have been dominant. In 2015, Australia alone had four entrants on the list and Canada had three. The EIU has been accused of being overly Anglocentric. The veteran journalist H.D.S. Greenway said the EIU “clearly equates liveability with speaking English.” But what this pattern also seems to show is that there are certain features—specifically a good healthcare and education system—which really have more to do with the country than the city.

Country or city?

Critics might say that it isn’t the cities that are liveable but the countries in which they’re found. If that’s the case, the argument might run, “what hope do those cities further down the list have of competing with the top ten”? It’s a valid point, and there will be a certain threshold of liveability that a country must pass before its cities can. But past that threshold, cities can still distinguish themselves in areas other than healthcare or education, and that’s the case with Copenhagen and Hamburg.

In 2018, Copenhagen, which came ninth, ranked especially highly for “culture and environment”—higher than the cities ranked third, fourth, fifth and seventh—but fell behind the others in “healthcare”. In 2017, Hamburg, which came in tenth, ranked higher in “infrastructure” than six of the cities in the top ten, but had the lowest rating for “stability” of any city on the list.

Clearly the country matters. But it isn’t everything. The examples of Copenhagen and Hamburg show that by developing the public transport system, for instance, or investing in arts and culture, a city can compensate for shortcomings on a national level.

Is liveability subjective?

But the EIU does not have a monopoly on defining liveability. There will be people who read the 2018 liveability ranking and came away scratching their heads. For one thing, what’s important to the older generation may not be so important to its younger counterpart. And recent immigrants to a city may have very different experiences of it to those who were born there and grew up within its boundaries. What is “liveable” to one group is not necessarily liveable to all.

And, what’s more, there is always an unknown “x” when we talk about cities. There is the hustle and bustle of New York; the beauty of Paris; the intimate feel of Amsterdam. Every city has its own character, and it’s hard to define. To try and quantify a city’s character, or reduce it to something concrete, is often a pointless exercise. Who can say that the historic atmosphere of Valetta is superior to the romantic feel of Venice? Or that Hong Kong’s go-getting ambience is in some way worse than the sleepy Auckland vibe?

And then there are the people who live in the cities—the friendly folk of Glasgow, to give one example—whose ways of being also play a major role in how a city is perceived and experienced.

Few would disagree that sound infrastructure, good schools and a vibrant culture all make a city more liveable. But there is more beyond these features, and to an individual, that can make all the difference.

Emily Taylor
Emily looks after Consumer Marketing for Zipcar, leading on our promotional campaigns and marketing communications. When she isn’t developing her passion for creating content, she spends weekends judging the UK’s ability to make decent coffee (we forgot to mention she’s Australian) and obsessing over dogs she doesn’t own.

Date published: 30 November 2018

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