Why The 'Livable Cities' Rankings Are Wrong


Few topics stir more controversy between urbanists and civic boosters than city rankings. What truly makes a city "great," or even "livable"? The answers, and how these surveys determine them, are often subjective, narrow or even misguided. What makes a "great" city on one list can serve as a detriment on another.

Recent rankings of the "best" cities around the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Monocle magazine and the Mercer quality of life surveys settled on a remarkably similar list. For the most part, the top ranks are dominated by well-manicured older European cities such as Zurich, Geneva, Vienna, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Munich, as well as New World metropolises like Vancouver and Toronto; Auckland, New Zealand; and Perth and Melbourne in Australia.

Only Monocle put a truly cosmopolitan world city – Tokyo – near the top of its list. The Economist rankings largely snubbed American cities – only Pittsburgh made it anywhere near the top, at No. 29 out of 140. The best we can say is most American cities did better than Harare, Zimbabwe, which ran at the bottom. Honolulu got a decent No. 11 on the Monocle list and broke into the top 30 on Mercer's, as did No. 29 San Francisco. But regarding American urban boosters, that's all, folks.

To understand these rather head-scratching results, one must look at the criteria these surveys used. Cultural institutions, public safety, mass transit, "green" policies and other measures of what is called "livability" were weighted heavily, so results skewed heavily toward compact cities in fairly prosperous regions. Most of these regions suffer only a limited underclass and support a relatively small population of children. In fact, most of the cities are in countries with low birthrates – Switzerland's median fertility rate, for example, is about 1.4, one of the lowest on the planet and a full 50% below that of the U.S.

These places make ideal locales for groups like traveling corporate executives, academics and researchers targeted by such surveys. With their often lovely facades, ample parks and good infrastructure, they constitute, for the most part, a list of what Wharton's Joe Gyourko calls "productive resorts," a sort of business-oriented version of an Aspen or Vail in Colorado or Palm Beach, Fla. Honolulu is an exception, more a vacation destination than a bustling business hub.

Yet are those the best standards for judging a city? It seems to me what makes for great cities in history are not measurements of safety, sanitation or homogeneity but economic growth, cultural diversity and social dynamism. A great city, as Rene Descartes wrote of 17th century Amsterdam, should be "an inventory of the possible," a place of imagination that attracts ambitious migrants, families and entrepreneurs.

Such places are aspirational – they draw people not for a restful visit or elegant repast but to achieve some sort of upward mobility. By nature these places are chaotic and often difficult to navigate. Ambitious people tend to be pushy and competitive. Just think about the great cities of history – ancient Rome, Islamic Baghdad, 19th century London, 20th century New York – or contemporary Los Angeles, Houston, Shanghai and Mumbai.

These represent a far different urbanism than what one finds in well-organized and groomed Zurich, Vienna and Copenhagen. You would not call these cities and their ilk with metropolitan populations generally less than 2 million, "bustling." Perhaps a more fitting words would be "staid" and "controlled."

Peace and quiet is very nice, but it doesn't really encourage global culture or commerce. Growth and change come about when newcomers jostle with locals not just as tourists, or orbiting executives, but as migrants. Great cities in their peaks are all about this kind of yeasty confrontation.

Alas, comfort takes precedence over dynamism in these new cities. Take the immigration issue: Unlike Amsterdam in its heyday or London or New York today, most northern European countries have turned hostile to immigration and many have powerful nativist parties. These are directed not against elite corporate executives or academics, but newcomers from developing countries. In some cases, resentment is stoked by immigrants taking advantage of well-developed welfare systems that worked far better in a homogeneous country with shared attitudes of social rights and obligations.

Of course, these cities aren't total deadweights. After all, Switzerland has its banks, Helsinki boasts Nokia and Denmark remains a key center of advanced and green manufacturing technology. For its part, Vancouver gets Americans to shoot cheap movie and TV shows with massive tax breaks and will host the Winter Olympics. But none can be considered major shapers of the modern world economy.

The one American city favored by The Economist, Pittsburgh, represents a pale – and less attractive – version of these top-ranked European, Canadian or Australian cities. Its formerly impressive array of headquarters has shrunk to a handful. Once the capital of steel, it now pretty much depends on nonprofits, hospitals and universities.

You will be hearing a lot more about Pittsburgh – the city has a prodigious PR machine funded largely by nonprofit foundations and universities – as it gets ready to host the G-20 meeting next month. Fans claim that the former steel town has developed a stable – if hardly dynamic – economy. Its torpidity is being sold a strength; boom-resistant in the best of times, it's also proved relatively recession-proof as well.

In this sense, Pittsburgh represents the American model of the slow-growth European city. This may appeal to those doing quality-of-life rankings, but not to those who have been fleeing the Steel City for other places for generations. Immigrants are hardly coming in droves either – Pittsburgh ranks near last among major metropolitan areas in percentage of foreign-born residents. As longtime local columnist and resident Bill Steigerwald notes, since 1990 more Pittsburghers have been dying than being born. If this represents America's urban future, perhaps it's one that takes its inspiration from Alan Weisman's "A world without us."

Yet the future of urbanism, here and abroad, will not be Pittsburgh. Based on current preferences, something like 20 million – or more – people will have moved to U.S. cities by 2050. Most will likely settle in more dynamic places like New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, Chicago and Miami. These cities have become magnets for restless populations, both domestic and foreign-born. They also contain all the clutter, constant change, discomfort and even grime that characterize great cities through history.

But it's economics that drives migrants to these dirtier, busier metropolitan centers. Many of the cities at the top of the livability lists, by contrast, are also among the world's most expensive. They generally also have high taxes and relatively stagnant job markets.

Many U.S. cities, however, offer far more materially to their average residents than their elite European counterparts do. American cities, when assessed by purchasing-power parity, notes demographer Wendell Cox, do very well indeed. Viewed this way, the U.S. boasts eight of the top 10 – and 37 of the top 50 – metropolitan regions in terms of per capita income.

The top city on Cox's list, San Jose, Calif., epitomizes both the strengths and weaknesses of the American city. The heartland of Silicon Valley, the San Jose region has generated one of the world's most innovative – and well-paid – economies. On the other hand, its mass transit usage is minuscule, its cultural attributes measly and its downtown hardly a tourist destination.

Meanwhile, pricey and scenic Zurich, No. 2 on the Mercer list and No. 10 on The Economist rankings, comes in 74th when considering adjusted per capita income. Economist favorite Vancouver, one of the most expensive second-tier cities on the planet, ranks 71st. For the average person seeking to make money and improve his or her economic status, it usually pays not to settle in one of the world's "most livable" cities.

This is not to say that rambunctious urban centers like Los Angeles, New York or London couldn't learn from their more "livable" counterparts. Anyone who has braved the maddening crowds in Venice Beach, Times Square or London's Piccadily knows a city can have too much of a good thing. Los Angeles could use a more efficient bus system. Better-maintained subways and commuter trains in New York would be welcome by millions as they would in Greater London.

Ultimately great cities remain, almost by necessity, raw (and at times unpleasant) places. They are filled with the sights and smells of diverse cultures, elbowing streetwise entrepreneurs and the inevitable mafiosi. They all suffer the social tensions that come with rapid change and massive migration. New York, Los Angeles, London, Shanghai, Mumbai or Dubai may not shoot to the top of more elite, refined rankings, but they contain the most likely blueprint of our urban future.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin early next year.

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In my opinion, the great

In my opinion, the great cities differ from country to country. There are a lot of cities where massive migration has not occurred (at least not yet). Still there is a general tendency for big cities to accommodate many different cultures and thus the diversity.

I think the point Tory is

I think the point Tory is trying to make is that all the cities listed in the rankings aren't really places where individuals have opportunity for upward mobility like in Houston and many Sunbelt cities.

I agree with Tory that I think Houston is much more livable than the cities in these rankings. These cities are great for visiting for vacation, but don't offer the opportunity to work and live there comfortably. Many of the lower middle class must commute to live in the livability ranked cities because they can't afford to live there. If they did live in the city, they would be in a cramped apartment just making ends meet (especially if you have a family).

If we're going to throw accusations at Wendell cox, then we have to equally throw accusations to the groups that do these rankings. These groups are supporters of socialist policies that restrict freedom and are completely anti-growth and pro-government control. They push the green movement which stands behinds science that has been routinely discredited.

Tangential Arguements

I tend to agree rankings of this type often times miss the point or are skewed. But the arguement put forth in this article is very tangential. "Ultimately great cities remain..." was the introduction to your concluding paragraph. These studies were examining "livable cities" and not great cities. They were not rankings of greatness, social mobility, opportunities for entrepreneurship, or general hustle and bustle. Criteria such as public amenities should be at the forefront for such a list. You did point out this comes with a price - high taxes and high cost of living. Your article title was misleading and this piece is heavily flirting with being every bit as skewed as the "livability rankings."


I have just moved to Pittsburgh from Miami. Pittsburgh is indeed a great, livable city. I have read Mr. Weisman's book, and your comparison is far off (I don't see how, if a person has visited Pittsburgh, a claim like that could be made). For the past twenty or so years, a combination of historic preservation, new urbanist development on brownfield sites, and urban infill have made Pittsburgh a great urban city. Statistics do not give the full impression. Sure, the population is declining, or at least has been declining, but PGH's peak population was at a time of tenement slums, and overcrowding. The 20-30 demographic group, a group the city has been hoping to attract and keep (we have seven universities), is projected to be significantly larger in the upcoming census than in years past. The #1 ranking for PGH might be a strange subjective choice (how can you really rank such a thing as livability?) but it is definitely based on the city being a great, urban place.

glad you like it

actually i have been to pittsburgh many times. it is a success story of sorts, in that it has lost much of its working and middle classes and now is more liveable for those left behind. pittsburgh decline amazes me more for what has happened over the past two decades than during the industrial meltdown prior to 1990. even more amazing, the suburbs are losing population too.

the weisman comment was a bit tongue and cheek. of course, pittsburgh will not empty out short of a catastrophe that will empty out every other city. i have found it to be a less than exciting city except for some neighborhoods. i think it has a great deal of promise if the leadership focused more on ground-up than top down but you could say that about any city.

thanks so much for your passionate comments, and hope that your optimism is justified over time.


tongue and cheek. of course,

tongue and cheek. of course, pittsburgh will not empty out short of a catastrophe that will empty out every other city. i have found it to be a less than exciting city except for some neighborhoods. i think it has a great deal of promise if the leadership focused more on ground-up than top down but you could say that about any city.

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When "quality of life" isn't everything

I've been a long-time fan of Mr. Kotkin's pieces over the years. As an architect, his insights are a welcome respite from my profession's obsession that the solution to every problem can be solved by exclusively by good design and pretty pictures. Unlike many commentators on the city, Kotkin focuses less on urban form and more on the social and economic life that animate these forms. Writing about such matters as manufacturing, home values, school districts is fundamentally important when discussing the health of cities, even there is little to consider aesthetically for those transfixed by visions of iconic buildings, quaint storefronts and green parks.

This was brought home to me during my last trip to Germany, in particular in the state of Saxony, which formed part of the old communist German Democratic Republic. Returning to this place after 15 years led to the observation that all the billions of West German tax payer money, massive infrastructure building and gorgeously reconstructed city centers had little to no effect on the area's staggeringly high unemployment and the exodus of its young people to move to the Western states in the slightly more run-down, but far more economically dynamic Western states. Countless historic apartment buildings were painstakingly restored, but many of the comparatively cheap units within were still empty. Traffic on the brand-new Autobahn was strikingly sparse. Chemnitz looked fantastic compared to 15 years ago, but it still felt as dead as I remembered it. Dresden is beginning to look like some of those top "quality of life" cities mentioned in the article. Luxury retail was popping up, and sleek new apartments and pricey hotel chains are beginning to crowd the city center.

And yet, when it comes raising a family, shopping for whatever I need, having a nice home and working the way I want, I wouldn't trade my home city of Dallas for anything else. Compared to a city like Dresden, Dallas is probably an eyesore, but it got a few things right which most architects and planners would never think to consider. That's why 'Big D' is probably one of the most reviled cities by so-called city lovers everywhere. That's fine by me- they can always enjoy Austin 3 1/2 hours away.

thanks for your comment

this was a very well considered opinion.

the difference between appearance and form, and reality, is certainly a major issue, particularly among planners and architects. some of this is because form does not guarentee results. for example, urbanists claim density creates community but most studies show more coherence in suburbs.


Further thoughts

Thank you for the compliment.

Your comment regarding the faulty assumption that density creates community is interesting. It's true that the densest residential arrangement seems to produce a more pronounced feeling of alienation (i.e. social housing projects). The more difficult it becomes to maintain one's privacy the more we resist wanting to form a community with strangers.

I think this fallacy has something to do with architects and planners confusing their idea of community with their idea on "a sense of place". They think that if you make a space memorable to the people who occupy it, then a sense of belonging will follow which therefore engenders a sense of community. There is the belief that a community is confined within a space, and all people who partake in this space is part of the community. Naturally, this completely ignores whether anybody within that space knows each other or is even aware of who else is there.

If we are to understand that community results from individuals associating with each other, then there is little architects and planners can do since it's a bit out of their realm. Community based on association relies on human institutions like schools, churches, businesses and governments. The best us architects can do is create a functional shell for these institutions with additional touches of visual poetry so as to make it memorable. Chance encounters are more likely to happen within the context of an institution (eg. office parties, church activities, classes, lectures)than on a street corner or a park.