Death to Livability (Scores)!
July 5, 2019 9:48 PM   Subscribe

The problem with "most livable" city rankings is they all look pretty similar, from Monocle's top 25 and Mercer Mobility Exchange's top 10 for 2019, or Economist Intelligence Unit top 50 for 2018 (via Business Insider) -- they're very white, and very western. City rankings are a window onto the projected tastes of a highly specific elite... it’s hard not to wonder why these rankings tend to tap wealthy, smaller cities when larger, less wealthy ones may be making more radical, transformative improvements in life quality. (Citylab)

That's not to say that there aren't also similar lists for other parts of the world. Africa.com listed the Top 10 Most Livable cities in Africa in 2012, and Naijaquest has a similar list for 2019.

Lists for Southeast Asia appear to be more commonly written by expats than local people, so lists from Nomad Capitalist and Fly Everyday feel less like they're celebrating local culture and communities and more about business opportunities. ArchDaily has a similarly western-focused list from Mercer for Latin America.
posted by filthy light thief (31 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don’t know Mercer Mobility Exchange, but the readerships for Monocle and Economist (“the journal of record of Aspirational 14%), are both pretty similar and a close fit for Citylab’s critique. A problem with most-livable city rankings is that they’re written for people who read these magazines and buy the things advertised in them, including the choice of what city to live in.
posted by migurski at 10:22 PM on July 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


They assess, broadly, how much potential a city possesses when seen from a privileged point of view: that of a straight, affluent, mobile, and probably white couple who works in something akin to upper management and has children. Remove even one of those characteristics from the equation and the results often seem way off the mark.

I'd love to see a few "livability ratings" lists based on different assumptions about the residents' lives. "Best cities to live if you're within 10% of the poverty line" would be an actual useful list, as opposed to an ad for the tourist industry.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:22 PM on July 5, 2019 [39 favorites]


I'd love to see a few "livability ratings" lists based on different assumptions about the residents' lives. "Best cities to live if you're within 10% of the poverty line" would be an actual useful list, as opposed to an ad for the tourist industry.

I agree with the interest in seeing lists complied from differing sets of assumptions, but all of it is mostly fluff rather than anything all that useful. Anyone wealthy enough to be able to move to whatever city they like around the world hardly wouldn't be likely to need a list since travel and interests would already be pretty defined. The same for people near the poverty line. While it'd be nice to know what cities would be best to live in, actually moving and trying to establish oneself in such a city when you're poor can be close to impossible since you don't have the resources to just up and move to wherever might be better.

Moving in general is usually tied to other things, family or relationships, jobs, school, or potential opportunity. While there certainly can be some leeway and some situations where one has more freedom to choose, like just starting out as a young adult or after retirement perhaps, most people seem to have ties that keep their options limited, making the lists more for fantasy than use.

Drawing attention to the bias though is useful and always good to consider, even as having bias is sometimes completely understandable given the purpose of those drawing up the lists. One could approach these sorts of lists from many angles, but only some are going to interest those who are most likely to read them and make sense for those who do the rankings to choose. I wouldn't trust Monocle to rate the best cities for living near the poverty line any more than I would, say, Entertainment Weekly's list of best movies outside Hollywood. Their knowledge is more or less as limited as/to the interests of the readership they serve.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:08 AM on July 6, 2019 [3 favorites]


In a past life, one of the things I've done is to construct indices like this for clients. Often clients with a specific agenda.

With the right criteria and the right weights, you can order cities, companies, whatever any way you want.

Even if the items you include seem reasonable, the weighting is everything. The items might be independently quantifiable but the weights are just things you make up based on your preferences.

There are even ways of making the weighting less obvious:
-Equally weight everything: that looks neutral but is still a choice. If ratio of median income to median rent contributes the same to index as presence of a first tier opera, that is not a neutral choice!
-Add more parameters in categories you want to over-weight. One category for housing costs, but then separate ones for ballet, opera, concerts, and theatre and suddenly housing costs has a weight just a quarter of entertainment.

The CityLab article points out that this puts an authoritative sheen on top what in the end are arbitrary calculations driven by parameters chosen to suit the producers of the index.

Even on something simple like housing costs vs incomes there are a lot of choices to make. You can measure median housing costs vs median income but also bottom quartile costs vs bq income. Those will show you different things.
posted by atrazine at 2:15 AM on July 6, 2019 [32 favorites]


I always have mixed feelings about being ranked. I mean, it feels flattering... Until it's not.
posted by cendawanita at 2:16 AM on July 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


Even on something simple like housing costs vs incomes there are a lot of choices to make. You can measure median housing costs vs median income but also bottom quartile costs vs bq income. Those will show you different things.

Yeah, even when you're attempting to rank something simple, like a list I saw recently for "cat friendliest cities", there are things that get left out. I live in a city that made that list, and while it's true that cat ownership, cat/vet care, and places to buy pet items are plentiful, the amount of apartments that accept cats are quite few and hard to find since it's also a college town and housing is at a premium, so no pet clauses are pretty standard for apartments since demand for housing outstrips supply making pets a non-option for the rental agencies in order to avoid potential damage costs in turnover.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:32 AM on July 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


the weighting is everything

Yeah, yeah, but the computer says...
posted by Segundus at 3:06 AM on July 6, 2019 [5 favorites]




I'd love to see a few "livability ratings" lists based on different assumptions about the residents' lives. "Best cities to live if you're within 10% of the poverty line" would be an actual useful list, as opposed to an ad for the tourist industry.

You may be interested in the annual Demographia survey of middle-income housing affordability [pdf], which compares incomes to housing costs (for un-subsidised non-luxury housing), which is often reported by the press as a proxy for how straightforward it is for most residents to live in cities. This year the least affordable cities were (worst offender first):
  • Hong Kong
  • Sydney
  • LA
  • Inner London
  • Toronto
  • Outer London
  • Miami
  • New York
Still, the most perceptive thing I’ve ever read about “livability” indices remains this long-forgotten blog post from a long-dormant blog:
Britain comes 29th, which sounds about right until you realise that this is 22 places behind Iceland. Iceland!– if the editors of The Economist had any faith in their own index they would vote with their feet and move to Reykjavik, in search of the good life. But they don’t, because it is plain even to them that their index is tosh.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 6:07 AM on July 6, 2019 [11 favorites]


How on earth does San Francisco even make the list anymore? Sure, the weather's great when it's not suffocating from Forest fires, and incomes are high for some, but even at 6 figures you need roommates, while homelessness is pandemic.

These lists are always "cities for multi millionaires" but the thing is rich people can make anywhere they live the most livable place
posted by dis_integration at 6:09 AM on July 6, 2019 [10 favorites]


As a resident of a city that keeps showing up on these lists, one thing I notice is that they're not usually very clear on their definition of what they consider a city. From what I can tell, most of them are looking at stats for the entire metro area which results in a ranking that doesn't tell you much about living in any specific place in that MSA.
posted by octothorpe at 6:55 AM on July 6, 2019 [6 favorites]


the annual Demographia survey of middle-income housing affordability [pdf], which compares incomes to housing costs (for un-subsidised non-luxury housing)

That survey seems to only cover eight countries. (Or seven countries plus the city of Hong Kong, depending on how you look at it.)

Even among that small subgroup, I'm surprised that San Francisco doesn't rank higher in unaffordability.
posted by Umami Dearest at 7:08 AM on July 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


That survey seems to only cover eight countries. (Or seven countries plus the city of Hong Kong, depending on how you look at it.)

True (or six countries, plus the city-states of HK and Singapore, to look at it another way). Although the study captures many of the cities that feature highly on “livability” indices.

It’s apples to oranges, and I’m on mobile so apologies for the not great links, but The Economist also has affordability rankings for countries, US cities, Chinese cities, and British regions. (You may need to play with their chart settings to provide just affordability.)

Demographia also had a go at ranking Chinese cities by affordability back in 2014 [pdf], but a lot has happened in the Chinese property market since then.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 7:30 AM on July 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


Yeah I've always felt that these lists were more about cities getting something to put on their website, not that people actually used them when choosing where to relocate. How many people, and at how many points in their lives, actually get to sit down with a magazine and say "hmmm, I wonder what city I should move to?" I mean I'm aware of my privilege, but that's... not something that I've ever seen occur. Maybe there's some lofty reaches of 0.1% where people do that, but I also kinda think those people probably go to the cities they're familiar with, because their families have always gone there, or they go to cities that are important in terms of their business dealings.

The only time I can think of people actually sitting down and clean-slate deciding where to live is when they're considering retirement. That is a thing that happens, I suppose, and the "best cities to retire in" lists probably do factor into some people's decisionmaking.

But really it seems more a way to reward/nudge cities for certain behaviors, because then the city managers / planners / etc. can claim their work led to the city being named "54th Most Livable City (With Population Between 40,000 - 40,300) in the USA".

And in terms of nudging planners and politicians towards more walkability, it's at least... well, it could be worse: it could be just ranking them based on "lowest taxes" and celebrating nothing else. That's what a lot of those retiree lists are.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:35 AM on July 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure I've ever met someone who moved to my city based on it's constant ranking high on those livable city lists. Every non-native I know moved here for a job, school or because their spouse had family here.
posted by octothorpe at 8:44 AM on July 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


Well there are some people, not that many perhaps, who might have an opportunity to transfer to a post at a branch office of their company from time to time, and maybe a high ranking on a list like this might influence them.

I live in a very livable city (at least in my opinion), and most non-native people I know who have moved here did so because they wanted to live here, not for family, job or school.
posted by Umami Dearest at 9:00 AM on July 6, 2019


(On the other hand I can't imagine moving to Vienna or Zurich because I read about it in a magazine.)
posted by Umami Dearest at 9:04 AM on July 6, 2019


I've also met my share of "nomadic workers" - they do actually exist - but they tend to prioritize low cost of living over world-class opera.
posted by Umami Dearest at 9:09 AM on July 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


I always assume that these list are at least in part based on tourism boards coughing up ad dollars.
posted by praemunire at 9:13 AM on July 6, 2019


Frustratingly, the field of urban planning is still very much into the concept of livability as a goal.
Livable for whom we should ask!

Truly, urban planners should also append "for who/whom" to the end of every claim or aspiration, our version of the fortune cookie "in bed" as a small nudge toward justice. Now that I teach urban planning, this is basically my entire syllabus.

I've used the example of living in San Francisco in my early 20s (long long ago when you could afford a non rent stabilized apartment split among 2 or 3 underemployed people). If you had let me design my livable city it would have looked similar to some of these metrics, but if you just dig a bit you see the flimsiness of the concepts:
1. walkable (unless you are using mobility aids)
2. diverse (though getting way less diverse as the exodus of African American residents to other Bay Area counties continued)
3. open space / parks (with a higher concentration in wealthier neighborhoods)
4. cultural hub / thriving arts scene (this was the one that was key for me at the time as I was a non-profit arts administrator type, but I had yet to read Richard Florida's creative class hogwash thank god)
5. cultural hub / diversity - foodie destination (luckily the Yelp-assisted colonization of immigrant enclaves had not begun but the SF Bay Guardian still sent us to low income neighborhoods to eat (Tu Lan any one?) as advance scouts for gentrification)
Honestly, in my 20s, my ideal "livable" city just needed a lot of bars in walking distance that I could stumble home from, a few cheap eats (thank you Mission District taquerias), and my friends.

Livable for my 21-year-old self did not include-
- transit equity (for some boneheaded reason I decided to bring my car when I moved to SF?)
- small businesses such as bakeries, print shops, or the old school "production, distribution, and repair" sector that was getting squeezed out of SoMa already
- well run and well funded public school system
- day care options and affordability
- etc

The term that is guaranteed to make me a zillion times angrier than livability is WORLD CLASS [insert noun]. And these kinds of global rankings just exacerbate this comparative impulse.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:33 AM on July 6, 2019 [4 favorites]




You may be interested in the annual Demographia survey of middle-income housing affordability [pdf], which compares incomes to housing costs (for un-subsidised non-luxury housing), which is often reported by the press as a proxy for how straightforward it is for most residents to live in cities.

Hey, speaking of livability indices that are seemingly authoritative and make questionable implicit choices. Amongst the implicit choices these guys make (they're a non peer reviewed think tank for the sprawl lobby) are that it's literally impossible to live in an apartment, a townhouse or a rented house, and your transportation is free. (As is your time spent on transportation.) So it's a good guide for all those people. For folks who spend money on transportation or who would not die if they didn't own a house with grass on all four sides, it's bullshit. Here's the long PDF debunk, or a shorter article.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:10 PM on July 6, 2019 [7 favorites]


Man, you would have thought dubiously funded thinktanks would have better web design. Thanks for the heads up, Homeboy Trouble, and sorry everyone else. Do you have any more reliable sources re affordability?
posted by chappell, ambrose at 4:59 PM on July 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


I agree with this in principal -- these rankings definitely don't measure things I consider make a place liveable -- but I will point out that least four of the Economist's top ten are not majority white (Vancouver, Toronto, Tokyo, Osaka).
posted by borsboom at 5:02 PM on July 6, 2019


I guess in many ways I am a reverse economic refugee. My hometown of Vancouver is somewhere I priced myself out of by leaving to live abroad, now in later age there is no way I can ever go back. I think most of these places are similar.

Most livable cities! Step one, get a million dollars to buy a house!

Fuck off.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:56 PM on July 6, 2019


Yup, the first thing I thought when I read those lists is...most liveable cities for the 1%. I mean Sydney isn’t even the most expensive city on the list - you can’t buy a house here for less than a million dollars (it won’t be a nice house either) and rental availability is generally around 1.5%. So the idea that your average person can just move here, and get a place within two hours of the city without hemorraghing cash is just a beautiful dream.
posted by Jubey at 12:06 AM on July 7, 2019


You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Orson Welles/Graham Green in The Third Man
I often think of this in relation to liveable city indices. The problem with well organised, sensible cities is that they have had a lot of their madness filtered out: crazy festivals, peculiar foods, bizarre local laws. These kinds of quirks contribute a lot to what makes a city a great place: they contribute to its individuality, its sense of community and its grit. Yet often these quirks themselves are the result of crowding, poverty, extensive immigration, incompetent planning or corruption - precisely the qualities that the surveys try to filter out.

Rio de Janiero is a great example: when slaves were freed in the city they moved to the areas of high ground - oten immediately adjacent to the rich areas but considered too steep to build on. The resulting favelas have given the city high crime and inequality - but also wonderful food and music.
posted by rongorongo at 3:04 AM on July 7, 2019


I don’t know Mercer Mobility Exchange, but the readerships for Monocle and Economist (“the journal of record of Aspirational 14%”), are both pretty similar and a close fit for Citylab’s critique. A problem with most-livable city rankings is that they’re written for people who read these magazines and buy the things advertised in them, including the choice of what city to live in.
This doesn't sound like a problem at all, but rather perfectly pragmatic from the point of view of the publisher. I mean, why would you be wasting space in your magazine publishing something of no relevance to your readers and catering to people who will never read it?
posted by Hal Mumkin at 5:04 AM on July 7, 2019


Ever since deciding to ditch Seattle for New Orleans, I have been pleased to consistently *not* find NOLA on lists like these. Because that means Richie Rich looking for a new city to ruin isn’t going to have this place on his list, and maybe I can afford to live here a good long time.
posted by egypturnash at 10:50 AM on July 7, 2019 [1 favorite]


hmmm, I wonder what city I should move to?" I mean I'm aware of my privilege, but that's... not something that I've ever seen occur.

It could also be used when deciding between jobs. I'm in a niche portion of my industry so if I want to change companies I have to move. But because of my expertise in a niche field, I get 2-3 offers from companies in different cities. Stuff like this could help. I think last time I was comparing cities to move to, it was cost-of-living and how many of my bands came through on tour. Which just adds to evidence that these rankings are bullshit because was is the most important for someone is not the same for someone else.
posted by LizBoBiz at 6:52 AM on July 8, 2019


Boy, these lists.

I remember years back, seeing Tokyo listed as being the most expensive city in the world to live in, or something equally nonsense, and discovering that the guidelines were essentially based on having a suburban American life in the middle of a dense city. So, like, owning a house with like a quarter acre of land, two cars, etc.

I suppose there's something to be said for that "lies, damned lies, and statistics" line.
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:18 PM on July 8, 2019


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