livability vs dynamism (quote of the week)

On livable cities lists (like this one):

Ricky Burdett, who founded the London School of Economics’ Cities Programme, says: “These surveys always come up with a list where no one would want to live. One wants to live in places which are large and complex, where you don’t know everyone and you don’t always know what’s going to happen next. Cities are places of opportunity but also of conflict, but where you can find safety in a crowd. “We also have to acknowledge that these cities that come top of the polls also don’t have any poor people,” he adds.

And that, it seems to me, touches on the big issue. Richard G Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s hugely influential book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009) seems to present an obvious truth – that places where the differential in income between the wealthiest and the poorest is smallest tend to engender a sense of satisfaction and well-being. But while it may be socially desirable, that kind of comfort doesn’t necessarily make for vibrancy or dynamism. If everybody is where they want to be, no one is going anywhere.

Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times

Heathcote’s whole article is superb.  (Small caution: anyone who loves Vancouver will need to stifle some outrage at the sweeping and sometimes false generalities about the city.  But the larger point is worth taking in.)

28 Responses to livability vs dynamism (quote of the week)

  1. Alon Levy May 15, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    No need to be apologetic. Judging by any regular dynamical criteria like economic growth and income mobility, Scandinavia is plenty dynamic – much more so than the US and UK. Just because an Anglo-American Thatcherite is convinced that only his system promotes some nebulous dynamism doesn’t make it true.
    Another thing you should note about such articles is that they only praise adversity among the poor. The implication about inequality is that if the rich are richer, it won’t stifle creativity; only the poor and middle class need to be impoverished.

  2. GD May 15, 2011 at 9:16 am #

    well, living in Vancouver these days, I indeed found this a bit sweeping and simplifying (he doesn’t attack my hometown Vienna, but I see some of his points. What to do on Sundays indeed). And to whine about beauty not being included in these rankings — err, has the man seen Vancouver?
    Anyways, there’s one criterion he completely omits, and that I find is very much a big point on the livability scale. I wonder whether being concerned with this is indirectly proportional to being the jetsetting type, and maybe I’m being unfair, but in any case:
    Is an “exciting/dynamic” city by Heathcote’s definition the place where one would like to raise a family? Let’s be democratic here: for a majority of people, that matters. And safety and stability certainly come in there, as do amenities such as nature. It’s just maybe that these people don’t write as profusely and constitute the glitzy classes (to make a sweeping and overgeneralizing statement myself)
    a final point, of course, would be to ask how dynamism is measured? Percentage of young people? Income gap? Congestion? Crime? Migration?

  3. Danny May 15, 2011 at 9:21 am #

    I loved the article. I read it a couple days ago, and I was hoping to see it discussed on some of the other blogs that I read.
    The second paragraph you quoted is my biggest gripe with diversity analyses. They are always static analysis…this city has this gini coefficient, or this city has this proportion of black people, or this city has this proportion of people below the poverty line.
    With a snapshot static analysis, you can only see where people are…not where they are going. People can be poor because they are perpetually and inescapably poor…but they can also be poor because they just immigrated from somewhere else where they were inescapably poor and 10 years from now they will be fabulously wealthy.
    I bet if you surveyed people that move to cities, nobody will care about where they are…they all care about where they want to be in the future. In translated terms, they care about dynamism far more than they care about security. That is why these analyses and rankings fail them…they use nothing but static analysis.

  4. Jarrett May 15, 2011 at 9:52 am #

    Because some readers will falsely claim that I’m stating a strong view of my own here, this is a good point to clarify that I completely agree with ALL three comments above!

  5. Matt T May 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    I have always found those lists to be weird. I can remember Melbourne boasting on its tram stops, circa late 90’s, that it was the world’s most livable city, but it doesn’t even have a train to its airport, and I lasted only 10 weeks living there before I just had to get out for my own sanity. Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Auckland always seem to rate highly, but they all have traffic problems, are dominated by cars, and need bike helmets. And it always struck me that smaller cities are nicer than large cities, and I’ve lived and worked in Cairns, Mackay, Palmerston North, Toowoomba, all of which I’d rate as nicer places to live than the bigger Antipodean cities.
    I’ve also worked in Chicago, Biloxi, Hattiesburg, Phoenix, Kodiak, Parma, Bodoe, Killarney, Broome, Thursday Island, Wellington and Dubai. In Chicago I couldn’t afford the money or time to catch the train from the suburb I was in and it was quicker to go to Milwaukee. Biloxi had just been blown away by a hurricane. Hattiesburg had abandoned it’s centre for highway strip malls. Phoenix was hardly of a compact form and it got to 122 degrees. Kodiak smelt of fish and walking in the hills there was a chance of being eaten. Parma was lovely except for the two stroke scooters. Bodoe was above the Arctic Circle and I couldn’t afford to eat. Killarney was full of American tourists smoking cigars (which should be a capital offence), Broome was too hot, Thursday Island has sharks and crocodiles, Wellington is windy and if it isn’t it can be polluted, and Dubai is the gilded turd with a 14 lane freeway with suicidal drivers and a 1 kilometre tall building you can’t see through the smog.
    My guess is that if a truly objective study was carried out with weightings of the various factors done to a universally agreed set of criteria then the world’s best city would not have more than 80,000 people living in it, and still I wouldn’t want to live in it.
    The things I value most in a place are clean air, abundant bird life and lots of greenery. So for me I think I’ll go live in a forest, on an island, by myself, with all my friends.

  6. Matt T May 15, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    For those wondering why Melbourne didn’t do it for me, it wasn’t solely the lack of rail to the airport, but the fact the job I got was in the CBD, and I couldn’t get from Southern Cross station to my workplace without getting swamped by cigarette smoke on the way (and the last thing I’d ever want is a daily dose of cigarette smoke). That and the very high cost of housing, where I couldn’t afford anything less than an hour train’s ride away. I couldn’t realistically contemplate driving into the CBD with all the hordes.
    So housing affordability, commute length, and air quality were all important to me. Big cities quite frankly are awful, and my profession limited me only to work in bigger cities, so I went back to university, and then I could live in a small town, or better still on a rural block, bicycle distance from a small town.
    Melbourne, by some accounts, is the world’s most livable city.
    And it leaves me wondering, why don’t they actually find out what people actually want from a city and build us some of them, rather than tell us that the cities we already have are fantastic, when we struggle to actually deal with their built environment on so many levels?

  7. Wad May 15, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

    @Matt T, they actually do find out what people want and build them.
    The bad news: It’s Irvine.

  8. Eric O May 16, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    Is Honolulu not diverse? To some extent, livability is still a measure of local leadership, the ability to deliver effectively what citizens need and value. What’s striking to me about cities on these lists is their leadership. These cities have a collective sense of who they are and where they are going…
    All cities are inherently dynamic…even in cases where their populations are repressed.

  9. TrabsitPlannerMunich May 16, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    Well, it is definitely Munich.
    And yes, there is lot to do on a sunday afternoon, I never feel bored here. Apart from excellent museums, eshibitions, wonderful parks, the mountains and lakes close by, the beer gardens, street cafes and people/tourist watching. Or simply making a long walk through some nice neigborhoods.
    To be honest, there is probably nothing that you can do in New York or London that you cannot do here… except maybe shopping, cause the shops are closed in Germany on sundays, except bakeries maybe.

  10. Tsuyoshi May 16, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    I think the best way to measure how livable a place is is by how many people go to the trouble of living there. This is distorted by immigration laws, of course.

  11. Alon Levy May 16, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    Immigration laws, cross-regional subsidies, and livability relative to the rest of the nation.
    But it’s one thing to be skeptical of livable city lists, and another to think that it’s bad that cities don’t have poverty.

  12. P.Yorezko May 16, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    It’s the age-old question. Flexibility and adaptiveness which make up dynamism are a prerequisite for resilience in light of a dynamic environment (as opposed to set-in-stone statism). But then I have to wonder: favelas and slums are very dynamic and adaptive (self-organizing). They are just not places where the spoils of civilization that guarantee health, security etc. can be found easily. They’re not going ‘anywhere’, either.
    What the author of the article seems to want for is the ongoing rapid change to the positive and the pleasant anticipation of it. Places that are booming even in a chaotic way have some hope of a better economic future. ‘We’re not finished. We still have room to grow.’ The places that have arrived are still changing but aren’t undergoing the rapid transformation of ‘adolescence’.
    In short, ironically, the author is nostalgic for those times when the Western world was rapidly evolving. Additionally, there is the fear that we have reached our zenith and others will be driving forward the course of civilization.

  13. TerryLW May 16, 2011 at 3:12 pm #

    Having just had to dig through a variety of liveable cities indices to find out the importance of transport functionality, it is surprisingly high. But what really struck me was that they are all focussed on how wealthy people with wads of cash and time would enjoy working in the city, not how the average employee of those CEO’s is likely to find it. So Sydney is great if you have a million to lay down on an inner city pad (triple for a view), but if you work in the call centre you live in the middle of nowhere with terrible transport. As for dynamism, cities churn continuously. Districts rise and fall. Planners fret about what is lost and just sometimes celebrate what is gained. But the single greatest thing to kill dynamism is the urban development authority. Docklands, Canary Wharf, Darling Harbour and the Rocks and a hundred others around the world. Just mega malls developed with central control and authority in a backroom full of planners and accountants. And, the best thing I have to say from a downunder perspective is migration. I am old enough to remember the anondyne culture of Aus before the big non-English and non-Euro migration waves came and it was horrible. Right now it is the Sudanese and Afghani populations that are desparate, but in a few years they will have the hottest culture in town.

  14. Mark May 16, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    The impression I got from this article was that the writer was confusing livability with another concept, perhaps “visitability”. I’m definitely up for visiting New York or London any time, but would need a significantly bigger income than I have now to live there in anything like the style I currently enjoy in Victoria BC. As to my former home Vancouver, nothing to do on a Sunday? No poor people? He didnt look too hard on either count.

  15. GD May 16, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    absolute ditto on the last comment. The article confuses “having an image of excitement” which is “listed” through media attention in general, with a completely different set of criteria. Zurich, Vienna, Auckland, Vancouver, etc. etc. keep rocking in that certain set.
    Livability is simply not the same as excitement, and, at least for Heathcote, upward mobility. In the first case, Heathcote is attacking a straw man (most livability lists don’t claim to rank the cities for their “social drama” and cosmopolitan cachet), in the second, I’m not a 100% sure whether he really is right.
    Scandinavia is not known for being exciting, but I’d be interested in the social mobility there. Not as the media represent it, but in hard numbers.

  16. Alon Levy May 16, 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    @GD: follow links here. The Cliff Notes version is that Scandinavian countries have high social mobility, but so do capitalist Canada, Australia, and (not in the link) Singapore; the US and UK have low social mobility, but so does lemon-socialist Italy.

  17. Chris M May 16, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    Alon – they’re all capitalist, just in marginally different forms.

  18. Rational Plan May 17, 2011 at 5:01 am #

    Believe me, some cities are more exciting than others and it is also part of their culture. The German Swiss Austrians all part of that of Mittels Europa conformity. From not being able to use your washing machine after a certain time, or flushing you toilet in the middle of the night. Only being allowed to mow your lawn at certain times, certain neighbours willing to go through your rubbish to make sure you recycling properly.
    Just a certain,, at times suffocating conformity and rules. Which on one hand could make you feel safe on the other on a Sunday afternoon made you feel if boredom was trying to burst out of your skull.
    I’ve read several articles about former hedge funds that had fled London for Switzerland to escape higher taxes have now started to drift back as the difficulty in keeping young staff is getting too much.
    Unless you love sailing and hiking etc there is not that much to do. While there is high culture it is quite limited compared to London. For younger people the lack of variety in nightlife or decent fashion shops at the cheaper end of the market.
    At the end of the day it all depends what you want. But the bigger the city, the bigger the job market. So not just higher wages, but much higher demand for quite niche jobs, it is much easier to hop around between employers when there are dozens of companies that can employ you than if there are four or five.
    On the leisure side, especially when you are young, even if you don’t have a lot of cash going out is much more rewarding as there so much more to do and chose from.
    It is when you have a family that the cost of the big city can weigh you down. It depends on your career at this point. If you have a high paying specialist job then you will stay in or near the city, on the other hand if your job is only slightly better paid in the big city compared to a much cheaper town not to far away then you might just move out.
    I can’t afford to live in London, but I like living just on it edge, I’m lucky my local train station is on a fast route into London, just 10 minutes walk from my house, is just 35 minutes from Central London. Of course I could move away to be near my parents and sister, I’d get a nicer house for less money in much more rural coastal area. I don’t go to London that often as my friends are no in the stage of life where they find it difficult to go out and not spend a £100 in a night as we now have to have a meal out before we go out clubbing.
    Plus being Gay means I’m reluctant to go to a rural area where there is one pub that has a gay night once a week. God, even the nearest port city only has three gay venues. It’s not as if I need to go out on the town that often, but it’s nice to be able to. It’s very pretty where my parents now live and in the Summer the beach is five minutes away, plus there are various nearby music festivals, country fairs, sailing regattas (more for the drinking that goes on shore). June to August you can’t move for excuses to drink bask in the Sun, either side it’s pleasant to sit in the Garden and walk along the coast or in the Woods, in the Winter though the tourists are gone and a lot places shutdown there is nothing to do, at all.

  19. Hearth May 17, 2011 at 7:52 am #

    Lots of interesting things in this.
    Yes, these rating systems are done by people who don’t live there, and thus don’t see a particular city as a place they can make, over time, into a place for them to grow. It has to be perfect from the get-go.
    The point about cities being boring if there isn’t enough diversity is correct. Compatibility is the wrong metric; complementarity is the right one. Jane Jacobs, in Cities and the Wealth of Nations points to this in her idea of what increases the wealth of a city; it also views the city as a place for people to grow and succeed (with the requisite failures along the way).
    Zoning makes this same mistake, using compatibility, instead of focusing on getting neighbourhoods that contain people whose lives need to be complemented by others who will stimulate and challenge — and complement their skills when an invention needs to be nurtured. for instance, a new neighbourhood with only young families creates a problem finding babysitters.
    During our lives, we have to travel a road that has danger on one side, and boring ennui on the other. We find our own position on it based on the level of risk and stimulation we want and can handle. Ottawa, for instance, represents an experience closer to the safe side, a “nice place to raise a family” and full of great open spaces for recreation. Works for me.
    I found when I migrated here in 1969 (after a short stay in Toronto), Ottawa had a slower pace of life, which caused me to set up camp permanently.
    BTW, I also liked the book, Soft City, by Jonathan Raban. His later book, Hunting Mr. Heartbreak , also has some great stuff abut NYC:
    “There were the Street People and there were the Air People. Air People levitated like fakirs. Large portions of their day were spent waiting for, and traveling in, the elevators that were as fundamental to the middle-class culture of New York as gondolas had been to Venice in the Renaissance. It was the big distinction — to be able to press a button and take wing to your apartment. It didn’t matter that you lived in the sixth, the 16th or 60th floor: access to the elevator was proof that your life had the buoyancy that was needed to stay afloat in a city where the ground was seen as the realm of failure and menace.” (p. 80 in 1990 UK edition; p. 66 in 1991 U.S. edition).
    Later he puts in very prescient terms: “In this steep and unkind city, downward mobility took extreme forms. You could get rich quick, and you could get poor just a quick as you got rich. One week, you’d be soaring over Manhattan in a tuxedo, martini in hand; the next, you could find yourself in Riker’s Island, locked in the Company of Street People.” [p. 96, U.S. edition).
    Chris Bradshaw

  20. Vin May 17, 2011 at 10:36 am #

    @ Matt T: It sounds to me like you’re just not very fond of cities.
    Which is an entirely valid and defensible view, but I’m not a big fan of chocolate, and so I don’t really think you should ask me who the world’s best chocolatier is, you know?

  21. TrabsitPlannerMunich May 17, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    Well, for rational plan:
    I found that there are more rules existing in a city like New York, and they are indeed enforced.
    Indeed I enjoy the freedom to drink a beer in the park – where maybe some people have a nude sunbath – or walk around late at night in any neigborhood without being afraid.
    I have never had someone searching through my garbage or using my washing machine after midnight if it was neccessary (a modern German machine that you cannot hear even in the next room, but I would not use one late at night if it would wake up the neighbor, maybe that is boring but I find it sensitive).
    That you cannot flush your toilet I have never heard of and I find it shockingly ridiculous and no one could or would stop you in Germany from going to toilet as often as you like.
    About all the fantastic activities that you can do in London or New York on a sunday afternoon… Maybe you can name me some that you could not to in Munich for example. Except shopping maybe, if that fills your existence.
    This idea that there is only life in New York and London and you are bored to death in any other place is very subjective. To be honest I think you can feel very bored in New York Ciry, and even more if you live in Queens or Hoboken.
    Besides this I also enjoyed living in places like Karlsruhe or Heidelberg or Münste, small places with under 300,000 people, but boring?
    Vancouver I cannot judge (I only stayed there 2 weeks), but on the other side the most boring place where I lived in my life so far was Calgary. And Calgary has several times the population of Heidelberg or Münster.

  22. Rational Plan May 17, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    I was young at the time, maybe that was just our apartment building but we weren’t supposed to after midnight. Don’t get me wrong I liked Germany, it seemed so clean and orderly to me, the roads and trams were great. In many ways it was pleasant place to live; Just not very exciting. Berlin was different it did have a buzz which I did pick up on, even though I was too young to experience at the time.
    In regards to New York and rules, I have certainly read seen in movies that america seems to have thousands of civic codes and regulations that don’t exist in the UK. It took me years to notice then figure out why people in TV seemed to drink alcohol out brown paper bags, or what jaywalking is (though I used to stick proper street crossing years after I left Germany.
    Yes what city you prefer is subjective. It depends on what career you have, what your leisure interest are and how specialised they are, how strong your existing family ties are. Then the trade off house prices against the wage you can achieve and whether you actually want all those different options. If you don’t go to the theatre, or the opera, or expensive restaurants or non mainstream nightclubs then why bother with the big city. But for those of us like to be near/in a major city then somewhere else seems limiting. As I get older the balance may change and I’ll be happy by the sea where there are no street lights and the stars blanket the sky, but at the moment I look at the local restaurants and their salads still have iceberg lettuce or shredded carrot in them! Or serve prawn cocktail, not even as an ironic joke or I struggle to spend more than hour looking round the shops in the main town and then think not just yet, I’ll put up with traffic on the M25 for a little longer.

  23. Alon Levy May 18, 2011 at 9:16 am #

    One of the strictest rule regimes in developed-world cities is in Irvine. The homeowners’ association regulates what color you’re allowed to paint your walls and your roof, what lawn signs you may display, and how short you must mow your lawn. Similar suburbs have sprung up all over the US. And far from regaling in conformity, their defenders, led by Joel Kotkin, love to attack European cities for being too sleepy and static.
    The implication is that the only acceptable region to such people is one with persistent poverty, preferably walled off in a ghetto and available to the middle class only as domestic servants. And thanks to the magic of first-past-the-post voting, the minority of Anglo-American voters who feel this way gets to dominate the government, and create and wall off even more poor people.

  24. Art Busman May 18, 2011 at 9:32 am #

    I would suggest that anyone who wants to live in a city and rate it live as the median income person in that city, and all of a sudden, a lot of the city’s amenities and luxuries would become inaccessible. The English are quite astute at condescension and reminds me of some Victorian idiot telling a friend how India is such a lovely place (apart from the native population that is largely oppressed and discriminated against) and how the Colonies of the South are so quaint (apart from the slavery for the blacks). How does Rio make that list with such atrocious social injustice? I’ve traveled the world and sure you can nestle yourself in the cocoon of luxury and ignore the flagrant poverty, oppression, and social injustice and call Cape Town a wonderful city or Cairo (pre-democracy) or whatever, but it’s ultimately odious to enjoy a place where a few miles or even blocks away a woman is selling her body to tourists to feed her kids or boy is watching his father get high off drugs.

  25. TrabsitPlannerMunich May 18, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    What rational plan say about jaywalking is a concept that I still do not fully understand. Even if you think everything is regulated in a German city, you are allowed to cross a street wherever you like. When there is a signalled pedestrian crossing you are on the save side (regarding the police) if you are 30 meters away from it in case it is red.
    And in Munich it is indeed common to walk when the light is red and no cars are close.
    Sometimes it is in a city just about meeting the right people or finding the right places. So after I finished high school and did my military time in a hospital in Bielefeld I really enjoyed it there (a certainly not very exciting city of 300,000 – but I had a lot of fun and interesting expiriences).
    Also it matters where you live. I live in a lively neigborhood in Munich with street life still late at night and some bars/pubs open until 3 or 4 on the morning.
    A friend of mine lived in a suburb and went from work directly there. When he moved to San Francisco, to a central neigborhood, he was fascinated by the life there. A life that I enjoy in Munich, but that he never discovered here.
    Still I have never heard of any toilet time regulation – it would be unlawful, could not be enforced and no German would probably take it serious or would be willing to follow that. Maybe it was a joke by the landlord?
    For my sister a city like Munich is too big. My brother lives in Berlin and loves it while I find that Berlin can really take energy while I feel in Munich like being on a constant vacation.
    So what is the best? Vanilla pudding, chocolate souffle? Mousse? Crema catalana? Creme brulee? It is hard to say.
    But I think it is easier to agree on what cities are bad to live in – when you have the choice.

  26. GD May 19, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    well, one thing that shows pretty clearly is that the image of a city often trumps the material reality. Have vast numbers of people tell you how exciting and bustling London is, and the fact that there are vast swaths that are pretty dead most of the time ceases to matter.
    Same with Munich, only there the city is much less sleepy than its image would suggest.
    The quality of life ranking provides numbers. These are problematic, we may debate what they really tell us about, but at least there are some. Claiming social mobility for some settings makes for a good narrative that just happens to satisfy certain ideological leanings. Show me how that correlates, and we can have a discussion.
    Until then, I’ll go with Alon Levy’s link, in which we can read that upwards mobility seems best in “Denmark, Norway, Finland and Canada,” none of which have a major cultural reputation for being the most exciting places on earth (we can debate Montreal, and pleas enote that I’m talking about reputation, not reality).
    which, of course, completely repudiates the exact point Heathcote seems to be making.

  27. Adam May 22, 2011 at 1:38 am #

    I’m having a real hard time getting through an article written by someone that displays little true knowledge about Vancouver. If you can’t do the simple research to find that this town was originally called Granville, I worry about what would happen in the rest of the article.
    I’ll give it a less cynical shot in the morning.

  28. Jarrett at May 22, 2011 at 1:46 am #

    Adam. Give him a break.  He's in London, and from that point of view all colonial cities are easily simplified into instructive stereotypes.  The larger point is still interesting.  Jarrett