Tyler Brûlé is in trouble again. Monocle have published their annual ‘global quality of life’ index, and as editor he has received a good deal of flak from FT readers for his latest column. Some people dislike his choices; others his methodology; others his attitude. That’s understandable: ‘For readers in Chicago, yet again your appalling homicide rate knocked you out of the running’, says Tyler at one point.
I’ve got some sympathy with attempts to rank cities against each other – after all, everyone loves a league table. But it’s very hard to do this in a way that has much general meaning – especially if, like Tyler, you’re a high-maintenance frequent flyer who rarely seems to be anywhere for more than a few days.
Here’s what I said a while back:
First, let’s remember what we’re trying to do with city rankings. All of this is – very loosely – trying to achieve what urban economists call ‘spatial equilibrium’. This is where people and firms sort themselves across space, trading off economic, social and environmental pros and cons so that everyone finds their best place to be.
… Indexes are usually commercial products aimed at specific users. In Monocle’s case it’s globe-trotting cosmocrats with Japanese friends; for Cushman Wakefield’s Cities Monitor it’s developers and property investors; for the Economist and Mercer, CEOs. So policymakers – who have to think beyond single interest groups – should approach with caution.
Second, actually measuring the ‘real cost of living’ is very hard to do. No-one has the definitive answer. I’ve been helping on a SERC project looking at these issues – the best work is from the US, where government economists have access to price data on thousands of items at very local level (like this paper by Bettina Aten). But even here, the researchers don’t go near the kind of soft measures Monocle is using.
Third, we need to remember that this is all about tradeoffs. In spatial equilibrium, actors are balancing economic, social and physical welfare. The main sources of urban growth and vitality - critical mass, big labour markets and ideas flow – tend to have a flipside, namely congestion, pollution and expense.
For that reason, the most liveable cities – where people might want to be – aren’t necessarily the ones where people need to be. This is why it feels odd that places like London, NYC, Hong Kong and Los Angeles don’t rank higher on the liveability rankings. In these global cities the pull of place is very strong. As Jared Diamond points out, in many ways cities like LA are terrible places to live, but millions of people still choose to be there.
Monocle readers may well live in one place and work in another – so this matters less to them. Tellingly, Brûlé eventually reveals that having tried Zurich for a few months, he moved back to much less ‘liveable’ London. His compromise is to be based in the UK and flit between Zurich (winter), Copenhagen (summer) and Tokyo (business trips). Nice work if you can get it!
‘Poor Tyler Brûlé, condemned to orbit the earth like some kind of 21st century Flying Dutchman‘, says one FT detractor . Ouch! I guess he can take some comfort from being the star of his own, uncannily accurate parody site. And, of course, persuading people to keep paying for his business class chat.