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City Livability Rankings, and the struggle for the Complete City

A few weeks ago, the Economist Intelligence Unit (the business side of Economist magazine) released its annual global Livable Cities rankings. Like the similar Mercer rankings, the EIU efforts aren't officially meant for urbanist's bragging rights - such rankings are used in human resource circles in corporate placements, related to such tools as "hardship allowances".
Brent Toderian | March 21, 2011, 4pm PDT
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A few weeks ago, the Economist Intelligence Unit (the business side of Economist magazine) released its annual global Livable Cities rankings. Like the similar Mercer rankings, the EIU efforts aren't officially meant for urbanist's bragging rights - such rankings are used in human resource circles in corporate placements, related to such tools as "hardship allowances". In this post I'll share some thoughts on such rankings and the debates they create, and put them into the context of a broader goal of complete city-building.

For the fifth straight year in the rankings, Vancouver Canada was named the most livable city in the world. Indeed, Canadian cities in general were singled out, with three in the top 5 (Toronto in fourth, and my former city, Calgary, in fifth). Australian cities also fared very well, with 4 in the top 10, led by Melbourne, which had overtaken Vienna from the previous year, moving from third to second.

As Vancouver's Planning Director for still a relatively short time (since 2006), my belief is that this consistent result reflects more than Vancouver's great natural assets including setting and climate, and the many bedrocks of livability that come from being part of the Canadian system. It also reflects the many generations of progressive urban thinking and leadership, with a deliberate livability emphasis in all of Vancouver's visioning and follow-through, in local city-building since the late 1960's in particular. This livability emphasis (observable in examples like the downtown "Living First" Strategy, the much larger-scaled Livable Region Strategy, the livability and "neighbourliness" emphasis in our design and architectural review, and so on) and resulting livability achievement shows that consistent vision, when implemented over years even in the face of many pressures, can actually achieve precisely what you set out to achieve. Other cities may not be able to replicate our setting, but they can surely replicate that vision and will - and many are.

As in previous years, these rankings sparked debate across pundits and urbanists across North America. Do such rankings have merit? Are the right criteria used? How can they leave out housing affordability? Do they have a bias against larger, denser cities like New York? What is livability anyway, and is it the same as "quality of life"? Does it reflect livability for everyone, or just the well-off? Is it too personal and subjective to be quantifiable or definitive? Should the most livable cities also be considered the "best cities" (some media reports seem to use these two terms interchangeably)?

There are also some aspects of livability that don't get enough attention or debate, in my opinion - for example, is a city's livability momentary and vulnerable, or will it prove ingrained and resilient, especially in the face of challenges such as climate change and the end of cheap carbon-based energy? Perhaps that's a topic for a future post.

Here in Vancouver, the ranking results always spark passionate discussion, illustrating a range of feelings and responses from pride of accomplishment, to reasoned self-reflection and constructive candour, to some occasionally aggressive city-bashing. Some locals ask "have they even been here", listing a range of complaints with their home town, often starting with affordability.

This year, on top of the affordability issue, the ranking result has spurred some media and blogs to question whether we are friendly and socially welcoming enough, or as one headline put it, whether we are "charming" enough. These are followed by calls for more random acts of kindness and friendliness, something every city could no doubt benefit from.

Don't get me wrong - many Vancouverites and Canadians feel a sense of accomplishment in our consistently high livability ranking, of course mixed in with our usual Canadian sheepish-ness around such attention. We feel a similar sense when Vancouver is referenced as Canada's or North America's greenest city (thus illustrating that sustainability and livability are completely synergistic), as one of the worlds most "visit-able" cities for tourists (according to Conde Nast and others), and even when we receive acknowledgments from odd places, such as when the international podiatrists named us one of the worlds most walkable cities (I guess they should know). Again, these accomplishments aren't accidental - they match things that Vancouverites value, and have set out deliberately to achieve.

But we're also a city that always knows we can do better. I'd say we're much more than the occasionally excessive booster-ism or self-deprecation that our local commentary or blogs can illustrate. Most Vancouverites constructively hold ourselves to a very high standard, and point out that there can be downsides to such successes, especially to lower income groups and vulnerable or marginalized populations. This constant self-reflection, when it IS constructive, is one of the things that makes Vancouver very special.

A frequent topic of such self-reflection, the affordability/livability relationship, always interest me - although I agree that livability is significantly influenced by affordability, it can also be seen as two sides of the same coin. The higher the quality of life (real or perceived), the more people who seek to access it, and the more demand and higher prices. Thus a lot of "great cities", are also expensive cities. Some suggest high cost-of-living doesn't necessarily lower livability, rather it may restrict who can fully access and enjoy that livability. This may allow a high livability ranking from the EIU for an expensive city, but it has an impact on its diversity and inclusiveness, two significant qualities of a sustainable, socially just and interesting city.

Like many, I find some aspects and results of the rankings questionable. For example, is Los Angeles really more livable than New York or London, as the rankings suggest? I wouldn't think so, although admittedly I've never lived in any of these cities. Even if we assume that the livability rankings are defendable, the question remains, is livability the only (or best) measure of success? Put another way, if Pittsburgh really is more livable than New York, would that mean Pittsburgh is a better city than New York? No disrespect intended to the Steel City, but since New York is one of my favourite cities in the world, there may be a lot more to a great city than livability. Or maybe this just illustrates how subjective and personal the concept of "best" is, for cities, or for anything.

It's likely that we just know there's a lot more to livability than the rankings include. To elaborate, an anecdote. Last year during some holidays, I was invited by my friend Kees Christiaanse (a European urbanist and professor I greatly respect), to lecture in Zürich on managing livability and density. One of the reasons I jumped at the chance, was my curiosity about Zürich, a city often competing for top global spot in livability (currently ranked #2 in the Mercer rankings, while sharing Vancouver's big challenge, cost-of-living). As part of the trip, several of Kees' urbanist colleagues gave me a wonderful tour of some very impressive redevelopment projects across the city.

During the tour, one of my guides gave me a copy of a great book that he had collaborated on, called "The World's Fairest City." 
The book was written to specifically take-to-task livability ranking systems. It contained a critique of Zürich (including the suggestion that it is "far too controlled", a comment I occasionally also hear about Vancouver). It critiqued the ranking approach, questioning whether it truly captured "what makes a city worth living in"? It preferred the goal of "fairest city", including livability for everyone, and proposed an alternative (and exhaustive) list of criteria, involving many provocative concepts. This is small sample from the really long list:

Are you proud of your city?

What charms you about your city? What inspires you?

How important are local heroes in your city?

Is your city beautiful? Is the city silhouette suitable for a postcard?

Are your senses overwhelmed by what the city offers?

How often do you meet someone you don't know in your city?

How do people greet each other?

Does the city give you a rush?

Does your city have a 24/7 culture?

Are there happy demonstrations?

Can you find your way without a map?

Do children go to school by themselves?

Does the city sometimes surprise you?

Can you improvise in your city?

Can you be what you really are?

How often do you feel on vacation when you are home?

Do you get homesick for your city?

Does your city make you dream?

With these less-traditional criteria, the authors invite readers to establish their own rankings of best or most fair city, for them. The writers acknowledged that many of these are tough or impossible to quantify, but that's ok - the purpose is for people to think about living in their city, not for HR experts to rank it. And as the saying goes, not everything that counts, can be counted.

In Vancouver, I think we can be proud of our great reputation for livability, while actively striving to broaden what livability means, ensuring our livability is resilient, and struggling to be so much more than just livable - seeking what might be called "the complete city". This recognizes that the most interesting, dare I say "best", cities are complex and complicated, not single-minded. They are so many things - livable yes, but also vital and vibrant; smart, cultural and creative; socially just, tolerant and inclusive; sustainable and resilient; economically strong and diverse; healthy; sociable and friendly; and surprising and fun!

Vancouver has made it a very high-profile goal to become the greenest city in the world by 2020
. In truth though, our very diverse work program as a city illustrates that we want to be much more than just livable and green. Of particular note, is our work around changing for good our past "no-fun city" stigma (something the hugely successful 2010 Winter Olympics did much to assist with). , and enlivening our soul and character as a city for people. Of course, there's only so much a city hall can do in many of these areas - often the best thing is for cities to encourage the creativity and passions of its citizens, and then try to stay out of the way. Whether it comes from outside or inside of city hall, such energy promotes a depth and breadth of urban success, a complexity and maturity that goes well beyond simple HR definitions of livability.

If we were just in a race for rankings, we'd note that Melbourne is coming on strong, and could unseat us from the number one spot if we take things for granted in our planning and city-building choices. But its not about being competitive - its about being a better city every day, a great city for people in every way.

In other words, a complete city.

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