The Economist Calls Vienna the World’s Most Liveable City

Crossing light in Vienna shows two people holding hands
Traffic light in Vienna, a livable and lovable city.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

They are right about that. The rest of the list? Not so sure.

After seven years, Melbourne is no longer at the top of The Economist’s The Global Liveability Index, knocked off by Vienna, the perennial runner-up. The main reason for its climb is “improvements seen in stability and safety across most regions in the past year. Whereas in the past, cities in Europe have been affected by the spreading perceived threat of terrorism in the region, which caused heightened security measures, the past six months have seen a return to normalcy.”

The Economist's 10 Most Liveable Cities

cites ranking
The big cities do not dominate this list; New York comes in at 57 and London at 48.

© Economist Intelligence Unit

Mid-sized Cities Scored Well

Those that score best tend to be mid-sized cities in wealthier countries. Several cities in the top ten also have relatively low population density. These can foster a range of recreational activities without leading to high crime levels or overburdened infrastructure. Six of the top ten scoring cities are in Australia and Canada, which have, respectively, population densities of 3.2 and 4 people per square kilometre....Vienna’s city-proper population of 1.9m and Osaka’s population of 2.7m are relatively small compared with metropolises such as New York, London and Paris.
Social housing with green space
That doesn't look like social housing.

© Mike Eliason

This is an important finding; I have long made the case for what I call the Goldilocks Density. I have described it in the Guardian:

There is no question that high urban densities are important, but the question is how high, and in what form. There is what I have called the Goldilocks density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

The Goldilocks Density is in the middle, it’s just right.

Vienna in 1st place and Copenhagen in 9 are pure Goldilocks; they are built at a human scale, they are wonderful for walking, transit and bicycles. The Canadian cities are not too big by global standards either; Tokyo is the only monster on the list. It’s nice to see that according to The Economist, Goldilocks rules.

Karl Marx Hof building
They've been doing this a long time.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I have never been to Melbourne, but I trust Brent Toderian who doesn’t think it should ever have been Number One on the list, which does not define liveability the way he or I would. According to the EIU:

The concept of liveability is simple: it assesses which locations around the world provide the best or the worst living conditions. Assessing liveability has a broad range of uses, from benchmarking perceptions of development levels to assigning a hardship allowance as part of expatriate relocation packages....Every city is assigned a rating of relative comfort for over 30 qualitative and quantitative factors across five broad categories: stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. Each factor in a city is rated as acceptable, tolerable, uncomfortable, undesirable or intolerable.

Important Criteria Missing From Liveability Index

Chart that reads: Category 3: Culture & Environmental Weight

© Economist Intelligence Unit

But when you get into the detail, the weights and foci are very different than the TreeHugger view of cities. The index is really all about figuring out how much extra to pay to “employees who move to cities where living conditions are particularly difficult and there is excessive physical hardship or a notably unhealthy environment.” This loads the dice in favour of stability (a full 25% of total) Healthcare (20%) and Infrastructure, (20%) which includes quality of roads and airports, but doesn’t mention pedestrian or cycling. Culture and Environment (25%) lists corruption, censorship and religious restrictions along with “cultural availability” but nowhere do you see parks or amenities or theatres or social life factored in.

graffiti in Vienna with the words "Out of order"
The best graffiti in Vienna.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The Economist liveable cities list will tell you which cities have the best private schools and where you are less likely to get kidnapped, but won’t tell you where you can have fun, bike to a great park, get the best free public education, meet the most interesting people. Even Vienna, which deserves to be number one for so many reasons, is not the most exciting or vibrant city; It can be rather dull compared to Berlin or Copenhagen.

Creating Walkable Cities

wooden house aspern

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Last year I listed a different set of criteria, Jeff Speck’s from Walkable cities:

  1. Put cars in their place
  2. Mix the uses
  3. Get the parking right
  4. Let transit work
  5. Protect the pedestrian
  6. Welcome bikes
  7. Shape the spaces
  8. Plant trees
  9. Make friendly and unique building faces
  10. Pick your winners ("Where can spending the least money make the most difference?")
Walking in Vienna
Walking in Vienna.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

If these were important criteria to The Economist, Vienna would still top the list, and Copenhagen might well be in second place. And Berlin! It would be up there too. Toronto and Vancouver might be off the list for anyone not on an expat rental subsidy, and Montreal would replace them. What is liveable for The Economist Intelligence Unit is perhaps very different from what most people want, but they got it right about Number One.