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Is Melbourne really the World’s Most Liveable City?

Downtown Minneapolis - this is NOT a joke! Click to look around in Google Street View

Ho hum, another half-year, another chapter in the World’s Most Liveable City sweepstakes, this time courtesy of the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

In the latest release of the EIU’s bi-annual survey of 140 cities, Australian and Canadian cities once again dominate the top rankings, accounting for eight of the ten highest-rated metros. Melbourne remains the World’s Most Liveable City with Adelaide (5th), Sydney (7th) and Perth (9th) close behind. Brisbane however only ranks 20th.

According to the EIU, the highest scoring cities tend to be mid-sized, have relatively low population density, and are located in wealthier countries. This means they can “foster a range of recreational activities without leading to high crime levels or overburdened infrastructure.”

The strange thing is I have quite a few friends living in top-ten cities who would, if they were given the chance, elect to live in lower-ranking cities. They say they’d love to live in global city like New York, Paris, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or London.

These cities attract many migrants, but the EIU says global cities don’t rank high on the index (e.g London came in 55th) because they tend to be victims of their own success.

The “big city buzz” they enjoy can overstretch infrastructure and cause higher crime rates. New York, London, Paris and Tokyo are all prestigious hubs with a wealth of recreational activity, but all suffer from higher levels of crime, congestion and public transport problems than would be deemed comfortable.

But my friends find them desirable as places to live despite these problems. There’s evidently something about the appeal of urban living the EIU’s survey simply isn’t capturing. That’s not surprising because it has serious limitations.

The key one is it was never intended to measure the quality of urban life from a permanent resident’s perspective. It was devised as a tool for companies who needed to assign a hardship allowance to expatriate staff living in overseas cities.

Expatriates have a different perspective on what makes a city liveable. Factors that loom large for permanent residents, like housing costs and the quality of public education, don’t matter so much to expatriates because their (typically rental) housing and (typically privately provided) schools are often paid by their employer.

The 30 indicators used by the EIU don’t include house prices or rents. All that’s measured is the availability of the sort of up-market housing well-heeled expatriates can readily afford. Two of the three indicators of education quality relate to private schools.

So it’s not surprising the EIU’s methodology doesn’t capture the sorts of qualities that my friends feel make places like New York more desireable than Australian or Canadian cities.

For example, there’re no indicators of density, of human capital, or of demographic diversity in the EIU index. Not surprisingly given its intended purpose, it doesn’t have indicators of job availability or elite universities either.

There’s a lone indicator of Cultural Availability, but it’s combined with eight others that measure various attributes like climate, corruption, censorship and religious restrictions. Collectively, the nine indicators account for 25% of a city’s overall rating, so Cultural Availability only has a small impact. It’s not a patch on Boris Johnson’s effort.

As it happens, the EIU has been looking at other ways of measuring cities. It recently sought submissions on alternative ways to construct its index. The “winner” was architect and planner Filippo Lovato, who compiled a Spatially Adjusted index.

According to this report, he “added data on urban planning, including cities’ green space, (lack of) sprawl, natural assets, cultural assets, connectivity and (lack of) isolation.” The upshot was Hong Kong emerged as the world’s most liveable city. Moreover,

Instead of being dominated by Aussies and Canucks, European cities ruled most of the revised index. Amsterdam came second while Germany had two cities in the top 10, Berlin and Munich.

The only Australian city in the top ten of Mr Lovato’s index is Sydney, which came a creditable fifth place. The lone Canadian city, Toronto, came in eighth place. Paris, Tokyo and Osaka made it into the top ten, but no US cities. It’s evidently not a perfect match with my friends preferences, but it’s a closer fit than the original.

But both of these indexes are in any event of dubious value. There are huge compromises in reducing the various qualities of each one of 140 cities to a single summary statistic.

The World’s Most Liveable City index works when top-ranking Melbourne (97.5) is compared against bottom-ranking Dhaka (38.7) because, more than anything else, it implicitly compares countries rather than cities. It emphasises the basics of a comfortable western lifestyle, like personal safety and access to good services and infrastructure.

The differences between the leading cities – all in developed countries – are consequently so small they’re meaningless. As the EIU acknowledges:

Only 1.8 percentage points separate the top ten cities, and some 63 cities (down to Santiago in Chile) are considered to be in the very top tier of liveability, where few problems are encountered.

The shortcomings of the index aren’t going to stop politicians in the winning cities crowing about it though.

Note: re the Google Street View of Parkingapolis Minneapolis, see also this view of downtown Houston.

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  • 1
    hk
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    A very rational discussion covering liveability comparisons between urban regions. However consideration should also be given to allocating “walk scores” or even “cycle scores” to various sub regions of these top livable cities. My modeling indicates that the Melbourne PC3006 (Southbank) and environs warrants one of the highest urban walk scores in the World.

  • 2
    Russ
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    hk, with respect, you should check that model – or more likely your maps. Southbank is horrible to walk around: long blocks with no cross streets; indirect streets that don’t lead towards bridges/crossings; numerous major roads with lots of noise and inadequate crossing points; limited greenery, too much shade and high winds from some buildings; and a fairly bland urban environment (few shops, lots of blank walls and carpark entrances). A few parts are okay, but I walk through it every day by necessity, not choice.

  • 3
    hk
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Yes Russ, of course your observations are correct. The walk score used is primarily based and weighted toward destination points of interest and employment opportunities; and includes the concept of a soft edge to PC3006 for walking destinations that include the Botanical Gardens, Federation Square, St Paul’s and similar.
    If hell includes the quality of wind shear: then the base of Eureka Tower is it at times.

  • 4
    michael r james
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Deja vu. Walkscores are entirely screwy because they are a result of an automated algorithm that clearly has some serious deficiencies. Perhaps with time it will be refined, though one wonders if one can adequately model human perception. hk, I’m with Russ. Even within the same city I find Fitzroy, Carlton, Collingwood much better because of the streetlife and the university. The mere presence of huge parks is no guarantee of much interest–and my and surely most “city walkers” demand interest. (Joggers apparently do not, but I have never understood the mentality of joggers as it is the most boring pseudo-exercise in the known universe).

    Naturally, on the top of any list that ranks cities on walkability, there is simply no contest—way out ahead is Paris, because of its density of interesting streetlife (meaning also buildings of course), more human-scale green space (you know my opinion of vast lumps of space like Central Park or even Hyde Park; give me Jardin du Luxembourg any day, or even smaller intimate traffic-free spaces). NYC is NOT in the same league, in fact I always find it quite wearying because of the scale, the length of East-West blocks and–no avoiding it–the dullness of most of it at ground level. In fact HK is better in this regard but would lose points for the weather–there are too many times of the year that you really do not want to be on the streets (and I don’t know, somehow I cannot include air-conditioned walkways as a substitute). NYC has the same problem which is why places like Paris (4 seasons but mild by comparison) and Vancouver and San Francisco climb up the ratings. I don’t understand (or accept) that Toronto should be ahead of Vancouver; I mean has anyone who voted for it been above ground in winter? The wind makes the surface a death zone, even with good winter gear–think Windy City Chicago but with an additional 10 or maybe 20 degrees of chill factor. You have to keep your car (and ok I prefer to live without one) plugged in all the time–including or especially–on the street where they have special sockets to keep your electric blanket around your engine to stop it freezing. And there is also no doubting that Vancouver and San Fran rate the highest amongst this lot, for multiculturism–of the type that feels good in both cities. But again, Vancouver has to win against SF because, even though it has become a lot more expensive over the last 2 decades, it is still a place anyone can live. Whereas all my friends who were working at UCSF when I was there, all moved elsewhere in the US because of two main things: schools and housing. Both too expensive for middle professionals like scientists (private schools were simply too expensive even if you could get into them; eg. the SF French Lycee had a waiting list of ten years or something) and the public schools in inner cities in the US are terrible.

  • 5
    michael r james
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    AD, these city ranking exercises need to be conditioned on age of respondents. Most of these world cities are really only suitable for DINKs or SKIs (Double Income No Kids, Spending the Kids Inheritance), ie. at either end of the middle period when many are encumbered with families, big mortgage and no time to cope with horrendous commutes (if they want to live in suburbs or cannot afford inner city because of the kid factor) and are in extreme time poverty.

    But if you are unencumbered then you can both afford (partly because of having more resources at that end of life, or happy to compromise on smaller apartment-single bedder etc) and don’t have to worry about so many other complicating factors.

    In fact, Paris is a bit different to the other world cities in having made strenuous efforts over decades (since the 70s at least) to keep a good mix (meaning families that otherwise tend to desert inner-cities) in the city (ie. intra-muros, not talking banlieus here). Look at Hollande’s modification, just last week, of the rent-control laws (returning some of the conditions that Sarko got rid of) that allow regular people and families to afford to continue living in the city. Of course it has been a tough battle but Paris has done a lot better than other cities. If you don’t believe me, just look around next time you take a walk on the streets of Paris, and you will see plenty of Ecole Maternelle and kids playparks (often areas within existing parks). And if you live there with a family you will find all kinds of tax relief and state subsidies that others don’t get.

    On schools, even Ed Glaeser (who wants to build hi-rise on the Champs Elysee or even the Marais, and another hi-rise CBD around Montparnasse! in fact he advocates removing all restrictions so as many people as wish, can live in central Paris, thus wrecking all the reasons why people want to live there in the first place!) admits that Paris has some of the best public schools in the world. (public=state) Though I wonder about accessibility, some of them must surely also involve waiting lists you have to get the fetus on ie. from before birth? But nevertheless the French system does try very hard for egalitarian high-quality schools for everyone. This is something NYC has also tried hard to correct but largely failed (despite a small number of highly-selective charter schools). Alas Australia is going the way of the US, ie. where the only guarantee of a good start is to send kids to expensive private schools (which incidentally then impacts on urban planning and quality of life issues because it necessitates much long-distance commuting by parents for the school drop-off).

    So on this ranking issue, for the small slice of over-paid and pampered expats it doesn’t matter much because all the hassle and costs are covered by their employer. But in my experience (however obviously I don’t mix with the latter) most expats, or for that matter my peer group of locals, most of these world cities are a strain. IMO, all but Paris and Vancouver (ok Toronto if you don’t mind 6 months of arctic weather) and the Australian cities (arguably Sydney has written itself out and only sentiment and ignorance keeps it on these lists) remain viable and rewarding. If you choose London, NYC, SF, HK or Tokyo you will be forced into big commutes which will be counter-productive to seeking the benefits such cities provide (in France I always advice such people to think about some of the terrific provincial cities like Lyons, Toulouse, Montpellier etc). And the fact is that Australian cities don’t really deserve to be on the world city register except for the monied/pampered classes–unless “safe and secure” is the priority but then that is not the criteria for being on a World City list.

  • 6
    wilful
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    quite simply and obviously, these ratings games are for mugs. how can you and why should you generalise what is appealing to an individual across a broad range of incompatible factors to come up with some contrived nonsense. It’s a beauty contest and nothing else, and liek a beauty contest, it is entirely i the eye of the beholder.

    For mine, I moved out of Melbourne and to regional Victoria because I found the traffic, the housing costs and pollution excessive. Others may laugh at that, and say they couldn’t do without the shopping the restaurants and the theatre, and that i must now have a desperately impoverished social life.

    the point is, to each their own…

  • 7
    Daniel Borton
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Depends on where you move to wilful. I moved to Bendigo 9 years ago, predominently for housing costs and work opportunities (my employer was based here). I’m amazed at the range of Cultural facilities Bendigo has, especially over the last 5 years. Although sport still dominates. Best of all, the size of the city, and the significant time I save commuting enable me to actually take advantage of these activities.

    There’s also plenty in other towns around Bendigo, Castlemaine is half an hour away, Daylesford is an hour, Macedon Ranges is an hour. While the distance is further, time-wise, it’s not much futher than travelling around Melbourne.

    Yes, others may sneer at those of us that have moved to regional Victoria, but it’s certainly not all the cultural wasteland so many people expect.

    Many Melbournians are making the move to regional cities, due to the Capital’s lack of liveability. They’re predominantly young families, or retirees who are seeking different things, and find regional towns more ‘liveable’ than Melbourne. I guess it all comes down to how liveability is assessed.

  • 8
    melburnite
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Interesting that Melbourne still no 1 despite increased PT congestion – though perhaps compared to London and Tokyo, I guess its still mild ! And yes property prices / affordability (incl rent) should be factored in somehow – if it were, Im sure the results would be very different – with maybe Paris winning in rentals, and most US cities (and perhaps now Dublin?) winning on purchase; but then whether locals can afford it (including Melbourne) is another weighting thats waiting.

    melburnite: The EIU has an indicator titled Quality of Public Transport. I’m not shelling out $5,250 to buy the full report but I very much doubt it includes a measure of public transport passenger loadings relative to capacity. AD

  • 9
    michael r james
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    AD: I very much doubt it includes a measure of public transport passenger loadings relative to capacity.

    Did you really mean to say that? Surely it would be useless without such a measure? London would drop several notches (crowded and expensive and less convenient than other world cities), ditto Tokyo (super-crowding that most Westerners would want to avoid; also poor security for women (so bad that they have instituted separate carriages). etc etc.

    I suspect Melbourne’s PT congestion is relatively mild compared to many other cities. A recent phenomenon (last 5 or so years) is that Australian PT is now very expensive compared to most of the world, certainly compared to say the Metro/Subways in NYC, Paris, Tokyo, HK. London on the other hand is world’s worst: a report during the Olympics mentioned how going two stops on the Underground cost almost 3 quid. (cf. Paris and NYC Metros are flat fare for the whole city at 1.10 euro/$1.90). People from a long way outside London pay a minor fortune for season commuter tickets but have to stand all the way (one hour +). Seems like we have chosen the awful British model.

  • 10
    Alan Davies
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    michael r james #5, #9

    Agree these sorts of comparisons only begin to make sense if the demographics of the audience who they’re made for is taken into account. It would be better if there were multiple “lifestyle-specific” indexes (though there’re still heaps of problems).

    Yes, I meant to say that about PT congestion and it is indeed a useless survey, at least for distinguishing meaningfully between the top cities. Most of these sorts of exercises use simple indicators because the data has to be readily available across cities. I’m guessing at best they used some approximation of mode share.

    PS – watching Catalyst tonight, it seems the PT providers could make a virtue of SRO!

  • 11
    the-melbournian
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    You wanna live in a sh__t hole like Nottingham Uk where a suburb’s liveability is catagorised by the probability of being mugged or burgled and the amount of burned out cars per square mile. I moved to Melbourne from the God forsaken place and managed to get refugee status.

  • 12
    Krammer56
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    The problem with most of these sorts of measures, as you and others point out, is the demographic at which they are aimed. Even your discussion about those who want to live in NY or London because of the “buzz” is clearly about people who have the choice, and presumably the wherewithall to live a moderately comfortable existence.

    Living as a low-wage earner in the outer burbs of London or Paris or the far flung outer boroughs of New York with long commutes on crowded trains (yes they do have crowded trains elsewhere) or congested roads (yes they have them too) would be far less attractive. Especially if where you live is not the trendy part of Manhattan, but a seedy part of Harlem.

    Thus any ranking is as meaningless as any other, as the context of the ranking or the viewers limit the relevance for most people. This is especially so when the measures are subjective rather than quantative. A good example is Mr Lovato’s measure that includes sprawl. Is sprawl inherently bad? If it is at what level does sprawl become a problem. Presumably the opposite of sprawl (i.e. high density) can also be bad, but when is it too dense? Yes you can measure it, but what is good and what is bad? Scales like muggings per 100,000 people are at least clearly better in one direction.

    That said, I’d far rather live in Melbourne than London, Montreal or Dhaka! Although Vancouver’s pretty nice.

  • 13
    andyb23
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    McKinsey’s ‘Most Dynamic Cities’ is a much better measure of where people actually want to live (and therefor the most ‘liveable’ cities):
    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/08/13/postcards_from_the_future#0

  • 14
    Timothy Davis
    Posted August 20, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Crime in Tokyo? Having lived there for the past 8 years, there is no risk of random violent street crime, robbery or theft. No drunken violence, etc.

    Public transport is great, no need for a car. Cost of public transport is also mostly irrelevant, as employees get the weekly cost of homeoffice trip paid by their employers.

  • 15
    veritas
    Posted November 17, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    It’s blatantly obvious to those of us who are, less delusionery, that EIU’s liveable cities ranking does not apply to the real Melbourne. Where shall I begin? Transport? HK, Singapore, even Milan, they all have safer and efficient metro systems. Would anyone travel on, say, the Hurstbridge line in the evening? Or the Frankston line for that matter? Safety? Who, in their right mind, would venture into sections of the CBD , Fitzroy or Chapel streets in the weekend? Istanbul or Rome at 1 a.m. is safer than busy Bourke Street at 7pm. The funding cuts in health and education has taken Melbournians to the bad old days of the Kennett days. Melbourne doesn’t have a cohesive planning strategy that maintains its integrity. The plethora of cafes does not necessarily make the city anymore liveable or safer. And f you’re a cyclist, the centre of Amsterdam is heaven compared to St. Kilda Rd. And I haven’t even mentioned Paris, Barcelona or Venice………
    I know that liveability means different things to different people. However, apart from apartments that do not generate street life, where are our city dwellers a la Naples (except for Carlton. Fitzroy and Collingwood)?
    Alan Davies has, at least, thrown a better light on this “most liveable city” spin. As Michael r James so accurately pointed out, liveable cities are for “overpaid expats”, not us, ordinary and honest living citizens who don’t have the resources to avoid paying taxes.

  • 16
    General Belgrano
    Posted November 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Are you joking me! Did they forget to assess public transport in Melbourne?

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