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The Problem With All Those 'Livability' Rankings

Why is it that smallish cities in western Europe always score so well? Perhaps the underlying assumptions behind ostensibly data-driven "livability" rankings cater to a certain audience and leave most of us out.
July 3, 2019, 9am PDT | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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Max Stolbinsky

Basing his critique on a recent livability ranking from Monocle, Feargus O'Sullivan argues that the way many media outlets approach "livability" among cities is highly suspect. "All are no doubt largely prosperous, high-functioning places," he writes. "But an overall feeling emerges from this cluster of familiar entries. These rankings provide less a universal assessment of livability—a word that comes with its own baggage—and more a snapshot of their compilers' tastes and worldview."

Zurich, for instance, which topped Monocle's list, "is a still-stratified society where high wages compensate for a degree of social stagnation, with migrants and Swiss from the wrong backgrounds enjoying good benefits and excellent tram links on the way to low-skilled jobs."

O'Sullivan also points to "a curious anti-urban slant" across many livability assessments that favorably pits cities of a few hundred thousand against megacities like Beijing or Bangkok. He writes, "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."

Though data-driven rankings may seem dispassionate, they still operate upon unstated assumptions. "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."

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Published on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 in CityLab
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