Livable-Cities-List Blues

For once I agree with Joel Kotkin.  Livable cities lists are getting tiring.  Does this 2010 list from Mercer, released a month ago, look familiar?

  1. Vienna
  2. Zurich
  3. Geneva
  4. Vancouver
  5. Auckland
  6. Dusseldorf
  7. Frankfurt
  8. Munich
  9. Bern
  10. Sydney

A combination of efficiency and sheer prosperity — due to many causes unrelated to the character of a city and its inhabitants — seems to be driving the obsession with the Rhineland and Alpine Europe.  And do you think we’re giving rather a lot of weight to cultural homogeneity, or to factors that vary with it?   (The most culturally diverse city on this list is probably Vancouver.)

And Bern (pop. 123,000)?  Bern, where horrible things are clearly done to people whose red window-box geraniums are not in order?


Sydney, where I live, pops up in these things now and then, but I know very few Aussies who’d call it the most livable city in Australia.  It is, however, very good at dazzling tourists.  If livable cities were based solely on rankings by people who lived in those cities, Sydney might well be in the dungeon.

Here’s the top ten in Monocle’s new list:

1.  Munich
2.  Copenhagen
3.  Zurich
4.  Tokyo
5.  Helsinki
6.  Stockholm
7.  Paris
8.  Vienna
9.  Melbourne
10.  Madrid

Monocle’s top ten from last year:

  1. Zurich
  2. Copenhagen
  3. Tokyo
  4. Munich
  5. Helsinki
  6. Stockholm
  7. Vienna
  8. Paris
  9. Melbourne
  10. Berlin

Monocle clearly values the arts more.  They include relatively poor cities with some rough edges (Berlin) perhaps partly for their level of creativity and ferment.  They pick Melbourne over Sydney, and Melbourne really is a stronger centroid of the arts.  (As an opera-obsessed friend of mine likes to say: “Australia has one great opera house; the outside is in Sydney and the inside is in Melbourne.”)

But even Monocle, which looks beyond Mercer’s “bourgeois contentment” metrics, picks only one real megalopolis, Tokyo.

I wish the authors of these lists would start doing some size classes.  For better or worse, humans have invented the megalopolis, and a lot of great lives are lived in those places.  So what’s the most livable megalopolis?

And of course, the eternal question:  Why no tropical or subtropical cities?

Is urbanism inconsistent with tropical life?   Even Monocle’s top 25 includes only one tropical city, Singapore, and it’s well down the list.  Sydney is the lowest-latitude city on any of the top 10 lists; at 33.5 degrees latitude it’s well outside the tropics.  (And as Aussies will tell you, Sydney in the winter is “freezing”!)

Is livability like peaches, which require winter frost to deliver their sweetness?  Could high latitude ever perhaps be a negative for livability?  Could not seeing the sun for months make a place unlivable?  Or is it just that cold and darkness drive people indoors, where most cultural production happens, and culture is Monocle’s product?

19 Responses to Livable-Cities-List Blues

  1. EngineerScotty July 2, 2010 at 3:12 pm #

    Hong Kong’s quite the livable city IMHO, and it’s tropical.
    Unfortunately, the damn mosquitoes seem to agree with me. 🙂
    But–as I suspect you know already–these lists are mostly a waste of time. Many of them are done to draw page hits or sell magazines, and aren’t the result of anything resembling real research.

  2. ws July 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    I think an unlivable cities list would be most pertinent and less subjective.

  3. Alex_AniPac July 2, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    I should point out the obvious, that Vancouver is the homogeneity exception in that list, with half the population being non-white.
    Agree with Engineer Scotty regarding Hong Kong. Was lucky enough to live there for a year back in 2000. But they have a serious air pollution problem now. The HK government is trying, but a lot of it is out of their control ~ due to neighboring Shenzhen, China.

  4. EngineerScotty July 2, 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    Was there in April; the pollution wasn’t too bad. Shenzen isn’t the worst polluter in the neighborhood–the air in Guangzhou or its nearby cities (Foshan comes to mind) is terrible. And while these are a bit further away from HK, when the wind blows in the right direction…

  5. Brent Palmer July 2, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

    Besides being highly subjective, a big problem with such surveys is that they’re taken from the perspective of someone visiting, and using up money they’ve saved back home (if not chewing up the plastic!), as opposed to living and earning money in the same cities. Alan Davies’ blog, The Melbourne Urbanist, has a couple of must-read posts:

  6. jarbury July 2, 2010 at 10:20 pm #

    I can never believe how high Auckland ranks on these lists. I guess “quality of public transport system” must not be a factor at all in how the lists are calculated.

  7. Mark July 3, 2010 at 2:15 am #

    My first thought, especially while reading Joel Kotkin’s piece, was that there’s a reason it’s called “most liveable” and not “greatest.” They are not the same thing, are they? His column was talking about great cities. But if I’m not mistaken, those studies are done for a specific reason: to try and measure the quality and ease of life for an expat who is to settle there. I happen to be in Bern right now, coincidentally, and I could see having an amazing life here. It would really be easy and pleasant. But no one is is saying Bern is as “great” or as dynamic as New York. I remember that likelihood to be a target of a terrorist attack was something that brought down big, great cities in those studies. It made me think that being called “most liveable” (and I am a Vancouverite) makes me feel like when the girl in university told me “I like you so much, I think of you like my brother.” ie… the guy she might want to settle down with in 10 years, but not the one who makes her heart go pitter-patter. 😉

  8. J July 3, 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    It’s a list of “most boring” in my opinion. Taking the cities in these lists, that I have personally visited, I would rank them as follows (most boring to least boring).
    1. Helsinki
    2. Geneva
    3. Bern
    4. Zurich
    5. Stockholm
    6. Vancouver
    7. Paris
    8. Madrid
    I would much rather live at the bottom of the list. Yes, Helsinki is extremely quiet, low crime, extremely quiet (no seriously, it’s scary) and exceptionally clean. But….yaaaaaaaaaaaawn.

  9. jack horner July 3, 2010 at 11:38 pm #

    Sydney can be good if you’re rich enough to live within 10km of the city or the coast. For the other 3/4 of the people it’s just another big, ugly, traffic-choked city.
    Its compensations (eg predominance of house and garden rather than apartment living) come from the generally high Australian standard of living, not from anthing that owes thanks to Sydney’s planners.
    Urban planning has never had a secure or respected place in Australian political culture, and it shows. What is good about Sydney is mostly in spite of the last century of development, not because of it.

  10. Conor July 3, 2010 at 11:52 pm #

    I’ve given the climate/livability issue some thought lately. I’m currently living in Brisbane which I would not describe as a particularly livable city. And there’s no warm-weather city on the list of places I want to live. I’m toying with the idea that cold weather creates a slight amount of hardship, which builds community character. There’s nothing like shoveling your neighbor out or taking in a stranded motorist in the winter to bring the community together!
    The places that do well on these lists (i.e. where these sorts of people want to live) are those with character.
    I’m not sure if this is the reason, but let’s keep thinking about it!

  11. GD July 4, 2010 at 2:05 am #

    well, I’m sure Mogadishu is an exciting city, too.
    So I have to agree with Mark: This is not about the greatest, most dynamic, or bustling cities.*
    This is about the non-exciting safe and comfortable life that offers basic enjoyment (like easily accessible parks) and high culture (which is actually easy to get on the cheap in Vienna). And knowing Vienna, I have to say that I’d rather be poor here than in any of the oh so economically dynamic cities that Kotkin talks about. Maybe I could more easily strike it rich in a megalopolis, but municipal services (how boring) really have something to offer here in case I am one of the vast majority not making it.
    So yes, these lists don’t go for size, but that’s because it’s not their criterion. Liveability is something else, and it seems, easier to find in smaller places.
    *on the “bustling” thing: I’ve seen freaking dead boring spaces in Manhattan, Vancouver, Berlin, and Paris, and I’m not talking about suburbia. These staid cities may not have too much of an exciting reputation (there’s a famous joke in Vienna about our central cemetery: “Half the size of Zurich, twice the fun”) but you can get your bustle back here. We just don’t market ourselves that way.

  12. Brent C July 4, 2010 at 3:32 am #

    Here in Wellington NZ we often finish around 12th most livable city. No-one likes being beaten by Auckland (city of cars), whe Wellington is clearly streets ahead. Its not a matter of what city is better, but what city is more livable. Wellington is clearly more livable, accessable and has much more culture.
    Its a pity that our small population effects our performance rating! Yet our local politicians make a big song and dance out of these ratings- sad isn’t it!

  13. Bampa Owl July 4, 2010 at 4:25 am #

    Not a mention of Amsterdam – or Edinburgh, which is a great city to live and work in. The only reason I don’t do the former is that it’s too expensive – and I did the latter until being “released” last summer! But neither are really large – I have yet to come across a mega-city that I could want to live in.

  14. wanderer July 4, 2010 at 6:10 pm #

    Jack Horner I’m afraid I disagree. Maybe you’ve been in that corner too long. Don’t forget Sydney is cradled by National Parks on the 180 degrees that isn’t Pacific Ocean and the ocean side is studded with the best beaches in the world. The climate is temperate, suitably varied to be interesting but never intolerable. It is anything but another choked big ugly city. I’ve had visitors beg me to take them somehere ugly, and even Parramatta Road in peak hour doesn’t do it. The problem with Sydney is that it tends to take itself too much for granted, even little things, like the peerless blue sky.

  15. Mikko July 6, 2010 at 1:52 am #

    I’m Finnish and I agree with GD about boredom. To J’s comments about Helsinki: when did you visit? Or did you live there for a longer period?
    Helsinki is a relatively small city with high real estate prices and pretty bad weather for most of the year. A lot of Finns get out of the town in July and early August to spend time by a lakeside somewhere, which tends to make the place look dead to tourists.
    The way Helsinki is marketed to tourists tends to only show the boring standard sightseeing bits. What it has is not exactly bustle, but there is an interesting cultural life under the surface, if you know where to look. If you want Madrid-level bustle, go to Madrid. Try Helsinki in February for something completely different.

  16. John July 7, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    “Bern, where horrible things are clearly done to people whose red window-box geraniums are not in order?”
    The reference isn’t so clear to me. How do we know horrible things are being done to people? Am I just missing a joke here?

  17. Jarrett at July 7, 2010 at 9:08 am #

    John:  Yes, you're missing a joke.  Which is fine.

  18. GD July 7, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    of course, with those Alp-dwellers you never know. There are towns in the Tyrol with a bulding code so strict to make any libertarian cry.
    (I wonder if the village of Alpbach mandates flowers on balconies or social pressure is just so unbelievably strong)
    and just for the record: I’d never want to live in Bern. But that’s because I need some minimal dose of excitement in addition to all the liveability

  19. Mr. Kim Gyr January 5, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    I still don’t see much being done either to render existing cities more sustainable, or to design those that are 100% sustainable. Withdraw petroleum from total city inputs and they would all wither on the vine.
    There are wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and almost certainly soon in Iran over resources. Are there ways to design all human habitation to be 100% sustainable?
    Please view my suggestions at taken from a lifetime in North America and Europe!