Is Marvellous Melbourne about to lose the title of World's Most Liveable City?
Is Marvellous Melbourne about to lose the title of World’s Most Liveable City?

The Herald-Sun reports Melbourne is “set to lose its status as the world’s most liveable city” when the latest edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Global Liveability Index comes out next week.

Planning experts and city leaders have blamed lagging transport, dogbox apartments and struggling healthcare for jeopardising the city’s international rating… The Salvation Army’s Major Brendan Nottle said domestic violence, homelessness and mental health issues had reached “crisis” point.

Melbourne has topped the EIU’s rankings for the last five years so it wouldn’t surprise if it finally slips a place or two, but there’s nothing in the paper’s report that supports its confident claim that Melbourne is “set to lose”. Certainly none of the experts quoted by the Herald-Sun make that prediction so either the paper has inside info or it’s making it up.

One thing’s for certain though; if Melbourne does lose top spot in the latest EIU rankings it won’t have much to do with the issues – like “dogbox” apartments – nominated by the Herald-Sun. That’s because – as has been pointed out numerous times by me and plenty of others – the EIU’s ranking isn’t based on the attractiveness of each city as a place for ordinary people to live. Rather, it’s a guide to international companies on what they should pay their execs while they’re on assignment in other cities. (1)

As I routinely note each time an update is released by the EIU, these expatriates are mostly very well-paid corporate executives who are far more likely to live in mansions or penthouses than “dogbox” apartments; to live in an accessible up-market suburb rather than in a fringe growth area; to drive to work in a luxury vehicle with parking provided rather than take the bus; and to have their health care covered privately rather than through the public system.

It’s therefore an unsatisfactory guide to the best cities to live in permanently and it’s not at all useful for those who aren’t highly remunerated. It doesn’t take account of the cost of living for permanent residents or key issues like job opportunities and housing affordability.

The EIU’s Index shouldn’t logically be used to promote a city – like Lord Mayor Robert Doyle did last year – any more than it should logically be used to identify the failings gleefully identified by the Herald-Sun. Of course Melbourne has plenty of problems – like poor housing affordability – but this ranking is immaterial to those concerns. Whatever its usefulness for companies sending executives on assignment might be, it’s irrelevant to permanent residents of a city.

As much as critics might think the Index should favour dense, exciting cities like Paris, the EIU explained last year why cities like Melbourne are preferred for expatriates over arguably more interesting places:

Those that score best tend to be mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density. These can foster a range of recreational activities without leading to high crime levels or overburdened infrastructure…

Global business centres tend to be victims of their own success. The “big city buzz” that 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.

Those who like the idea of an international index that ranks cities on criteria relevant to the lives of permanent residents should look at this alternative index. It uses data on “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; Amsterdam came second while Germany had two cities in the top 10, Berlin and Munich.

Of course politicians and advocates won’t be able to resist making political capital from the EIU’s Index – whether Melbourne retains top spot or slides a few places – but the rest of us should understand it doesn’t mean much in terms of informing policy.

____________

  1. Hey critics, how about using “shoeboxes” in future rather than “dogboxes” when disparaging small apartments? It conveys your intent better and leaves dogs out of it.