This weekend’s FT has a fascinating feature by Tyler Brûlé on the world’s most liveable cities. Brule is possibly the world’s most high-maintenance man – he edits current affairs / style mag Monocle, set up Wallpaper* and details his globe-crossing exploits in his regular FT column.
It’s easy to mock – see this insightful piece on Kim Jong-Il’s terrible dress sense – but the amount of glossy ads in his magazines suggests he’s on to something.
So, what does Brûlé have to say about good places to live? Monocle’s Index of 25 ‘Most Liveable Cities’ is pretty distinctive. Zurich comes out top, followed by Copenhagen, Tokyo, Munich and Helsinki. Paris is eighth, Sydney 13th, Barcelona 15th. There are lots of esoteric choices – Auckland, Fukuoka, Kyoto. And surprisingly, there’s no sign of any British or US cities at all (except for Honolulu).
Brûlé doesn’t say exactly how all this was done. But he does say that his team spent as much time looking at quality of life issues – levels of tolerance and openness, local media standards and cultural vitality – as standard economic and social performance measures, like wages and quality of public services. He also points out that other liveability surveys by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Mercer give similar results (although EIU and Mercer‘s cost of living surveys also rank these cities as very expensive).
City leaders tend to worry about these kind of rankings. Should they? I think there are a few points worth making here.
First, let’s remember what we’re trying to do. 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.
That means we need to be pretty careful about a simple ‘league table’ approach. Indexes are usually commercial products aimed at specific users. In Monocle’s case it’s globe-trotting cosmocrats [pdf] with Japanese friends; for Cushman Wakefield’s Cities Monitor [pdf] 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!