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Urban Planning

Vancouver a ‘Most Livable’ City? Not for Most of Us

Calgary also is high in the Economist’s global rankings. A look behind the numbers reveals why.

Eugene McCann 10 Jul 2024The Tyee

Eugene McCann is a professor of geography at Simon Fraser University. He researches urban politics, policymaking and social movement activism.

There are few experiences of cognitive dissonance more profound than when we’re told we live in one of the world’s most “livable” cities. Even as we feel anxiety over increasing costs of living and massive economic inequalities, we’re assured we’re living the good life.

This mind-bending experience is especially acute when the annual edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit's “global livability index” of “the world’s most livable cities” is published, as it was recently.

Each year, leaders of highly ranked cities tend to discuss the index as objective, authoritative validation of their policy success.

This year’s top 10 livable cities, in rank order, are Vienna, Copenhagen, Zurich, Melbourne, Calgary, Geneva, Sydney, Vancouver, Osaka and Auckland.

“Livable for whom?” we might ask.

Not for everyone, surely?

And we’re right: this ranking and others like it are literally not for everyone.

Behind the numbers

To steady our heads, let’s investigate what the EIU is, why it creates its ranking, who the ranking is speaking to and what it is referring to when it speaks of urban livability.

After all, we are being encouraged to celebrate winners in a global urban livability game when the rules and goals are unclear.

The EIU is the research and analysis branch of the Economist Group, publisher of the Economist magazine. Its main clients are global companies and financial institutions, governments and researchers. It focuses on “inspiring business leaders to identify opportunities and manage risks.”

While the public gets the “news release version” of its annual livability index (basically a free advertisement for the EIU, since journalists report on it and politicians quote from it each year), one must spend between US$890 and US$12,000 for increasingly detailed iterations of this year’s data and analysis.

Who would pay for full access?

A major audience: global corporations with offices across the world who move staff around.

The livability ranking helps them understand which cities might present their expatriate employees with what the EIU calls “comfortable” living conditions, as compared with cities that are inconvenient, expensive, difficult, dangerous or unhealthy to live in as a corporate employee.

‘Hardship allowance’ or easy living?

Indeed, one of the features of a free summary report the EIU publishes each year is a “suggested livability scale” that suggests how much extra salary an employee should expect as a bonus for living in a particular city, what the EIU calls a “hardship allowance.”

Cities ranking high in livability would not necessitate any salary bump, while the EIU recommends that staff being relocated to those in lower reaches of the ranking receive supplements of five per cent, 10 per cent or even more.

An “expatriate relocation package” of 20 per cent is suggested for cities at the bottom of the scale — the lowermost three are Algiers, Tripoli and Damascus.

So, the livability ranking is definitely not for everyone. And the EIU does not suggest that it is.

The report is clear that it’s for people of a certain class and lifestyle, with specific interests and tastes.

It’s no surprise, then, that the cities at the top of the list are relatively safe, mid-sized, not-too-dense, well-resourced, pleasant places where it’s relatively easy for mobile corporate employees and their families to “hit the ground” for a few years before moving on. While the New Yorks and Londons of the world have more “buzz,” they take a bit more effort to live in, it seems.

A street shot of pedestrians crossing the street at a crosswalk in New York City. The sun is on the horizon and the pedestrians are flanked by multi-storey brick buildings and the busy traffic of yellow taxis.
New York City isn’t part of the top-10 list for the EIU’s 2024 ‘livable cities’ index. Perhaps in part because it may take more effort for a new professional resident to live in comfortably than, say, Calgary, Alberta. Photo via Shutterstock.

The EIU uses five weighted data categories when calculating its ranking:

The reasons for the categories and their weightings are not available, at least not in the public report. Instead, the ranking emerges from opaque, proprietary calculations and qualitative judgments.

Of the 30 factors employed to calculate the ranking, 26 use the personal evaluations of unnamed “in-house analysts and in-city contributors.” So we never get clear on how “livability” is defined. Maybe we know enough, though. We know that the ranking is largely intended (and priced!) for a few corporate clients, not the rest of us.

It’s clear that it also fits within a globally dominant “neoliberal” way of thinking about cities primarily as products to be sold and entities to be set in competition with one another, rather than as places of community and co-operation.

The format of the rankings — sports-league tables for the corporate and policy classes — reflects and reinforces this ideology.

Pedestrians walk along a tiled concrete plaza flanked by tall fluted white public art structures flanked by contemporary highrises for business.
Calgary is one of the EIU’s top five ‘livable’ cities for 2024. The reason? Its size, scale and resources make it ‘relatively easy for mobile corporate employees and their families to “hit the ground” for a few years before moving on,’ writes Eugene McCann. Photo via Shutterstock.

Livability is political. How to make sense of the index

Livability rankings are profoundly political because they echo and legitimize the priorities of those who govern cities and shape their economies, including politicians and the real estate industry, whose interests in attracting votes and clients benefit from good feelings about their cities.

The rankings are also political because their aura of external validation makes it difficult to effectively question existing government policies in highly ranked cities.

Those of us interested in how cities can be made more livable and just for regular, long-term residents should not simply ignore “best cities” rankings, however.

Instead, we can build on our knowledge of who they are for, what is known and not known about how they are calculated, and the local interests they serve to form a critical understanding of their politics.

Here are three examples:

  1. Sporting events are framed as a boon, with no critique of their wider-ranging social impacts.

    The EIU’s attention to the availability of sports in its “culture and environment” criterion led it to deduct points from the top-place city, Vienna, in 2024.

    The deduction, “owing to a lack of major sporting events,” shows the city being disciplined for not attracting a big game or tournament.

    On the other hand, Vancouver’s political and business leaders have been celebrating their success in securing some 2026 World Cup games, at an as-yet untold cost.

    Sports mega-events benefit the local development and tourism industries.

    So, the EIU’s emphasis on sports legitimates and encourages these investments, even as other residents question their wisdom.

  2. ‘Stability’ is evaluated on the absence of civil unrest.

    The ranking’s attention to “stability” means a city loses points if it has experienced any form of political protest.

    Disruption is bad, the EIU suggests, even when protesters are acting to secure a more livable, socially or environmentally just future for themselves and their communities.

    This aspect of the rankings can be usefully understood in the context of growing policing budgets and the general securitization of urban public spaces, including sidewalks, parks and even beaches.

    Again, the agenda-setting power of neoliberal rankings can be used to legitimate a narrow notion of safety, risk and security in contemporary cities.

  3. When even the EIU sounds the alarm on housing, we should all pay attention.

    Finally, there’s housing, one criterion in the EIU’s “infrastructure” category. The 2024 report is striking because Vancouver, Toronto, Melbourne and Sydney all saw their scores fall because of their housing crises.

    As the summary report says, “housing costs [are] emerging as one of the stickiest elements of inflation. The situation is particularly worrying in Australia and Canada, where the availability of rental properties is at an all-time low and purchase prices have continued to rise.”

    Even the global corporate expat class is feeling the pinch.

    If the sports and stability criteria still tend to legitimate neoliberal business-as-usual, the EIU’s comments on housing are a condemnation of contemporary policies and development models.

    When a bastion of capitalist markets raises these concerns, surely urban policymakers must give housing affordability the attention it has long deserved.

Despite seeming like a fun competition for bragging rights and being sold to us as external validation of business-as-usual, the EIU’s urban livability rankings are not for most of us.

And we should think critically about how they are used to serve specific interests and influence policies in the cities in which we live.  [Tyee]

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