The ten most liveable cities for expatriates (source: EIU, The globabal liveability report 2017)

Melbourne was once again named world’s most liveable city yesterday in the 2017 edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) global rankings. The Lord Mayor of the City of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, was effusive:

No city in the world has topped the EIU’s Liveability Index for seven consecutive years in its own right. This world record is an amazing feat that all Melburnians should be extremely proud of today.

Seriously, a “world record” for years at the top of the table? Probably not as much a stretch as the Mayor of a municipality with just 2.4% of the metropolitan area’s population and 1.4% of its built-up area claiming all the credit for Melbourne’s success.

I continue to be surprised by the number of people who don’t know what a crock this ranking is. I’m less surprised, but disappointed, by the way the media continues to give the ranking credibility by using it as a straw man to dramatise the many failings it identifies in Melbourne e.g. see Is immigration ruining our cities?

I’ve reviewed each release of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index for the last six years. Very little has changed compared to previous years, so here’s a summary of the key points I’ve made on past occasions:

  • It’s a guide to companies on what they should pay their execs while they’re on assignment. It’s therefore not a 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.
  • It overwhelmingly reflects national or State-wide characteristics like health and education, not the attributes of individual cities.
  • The scores of the top 10 cities are so close the differences are inconsequential; it borders on frivolous to even make a distinction between No. 1 and No. 10.
  • There’s enormous variability in the quality of the data between countries and the methodology isn’t as transparent as it should be.

Whatever its usefulness for companies sending executives on assignment might be, the Index has little relevance for permanent residents of a city or for urban policy-makers. Of course politicians won’t be able to resist making political capital from the survey – and coming top provides a “city branding” benefit – but the rest of us should understand it means almost nothing in terms of informing policy.

Some will doubtless be amazed that the EIU rates Melbourne 100/100 on Infrastructure, and marginally ahead of second placed Vienna on Culture and Environment. And Vancouver’s well ahead of both on the Culture and Environment criterion? And Finland, whose education system is widely praised, scores well down on Education?

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. Six of the ten top-scoring cities are in Australia and Canada, which have, respectively, population densities of 2.9 and 3.7 people per square kilometre…Austria bucks this trend with a density of 106 people/sq km, but compared with megacities such as New York, London, Paris and Tokyo, Vienna’s population of nearly 1.8m (2.6m in the metropolitan area) is relatively small.

There are other ways of comparing cities in terms arguably more relevant to residents and city managers. In 2011 the EIU 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. I’ve no doubt many won’t agree with that assessment, but Mr Lovato also found that:

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.

Having said all that, Melbourne does do a lot of things really well e.g. see What’s Melbourne good at? It’s a great place, but high housing costs suggest it’s probably not at the top of the pile for permanent residence.