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.