Vienna Declared to Be the World's Most Livable City, But Is It Really?

The Treehugger Intelligence Unit has different criteria.

Traffic light in Vienna, a livable and lovable city
A traffic light in Vienna, a livable and lovable city in Austria.

Lloyd Alter

Every year the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) releases its Global Liveability Report and this year Vienna, Austria, is back on top, after getting knocked off last year by Auckland, New Zealand, because of the pandemic. And every year we complain about how the EIU figures this out.

Top ten cities

Economist Intelligence Unit

The big problem, and the reason we are discussing on Treehugger, is the question of what actually makes a city livable. The EIU has a specific set of interests, explaining that "companies pay a premium (usually a percentage of a salary) to employees who move to cities where living conditions are particularly difficult, such as excessive physical hardship or a notably unhealthy environment." The purpose of the index is to help companies decide how much that premium should be.

So the criteria might be very different for someone who lives in a city and someone who is reading the EIU index from afar. It is also different if you care about the environment rather than how long it takes to drive to the airport.

A Treehugger Intelligence Unit (TIU) might come up with a whole different set of criteria.


Economist Intelligence Unit

The stability criterion is a good example where Vienna might get 100 because it measures the prevalence of petty and violent crime, the threat of terror, military conflict, or civil unrest, which affects the expat business person. But if you read the news, you find that the actual governance in the country is an unstable mess, which is more likely to affect the citizen.

The pandemic has also been messing with the ratings, which is why Vienna fell off the scale last year when Auckland won, and why Auckland and other cities like Perth and Adelaide, both in Australia, and Wellington, New Zealand, fell off this year. They lost their Covid advantage over well-vaccinated European and Canadian cities, which replaced them. No American cities made the top 10 but judging by the chart in The Economist, it looks like Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Honolulu led the pack with scores over 90 out of 100.

But really, Calgary is considered the most livable city in North America? And Toronto is number 8?

Culture and environment

Economist Intelligence Unit

The EIU seems to put the weights in strange places. Culture and environment is 25% of the total, tied with stability as the biggest category, but the environment doesn't seem to have much of an impact. One would think that air quality might be as important as sporting availability, but it isn't mentioned. Temperature and discomfort are, but there is no mention of susceptibility to climate disasters such as floods, wildfire smoke, or hurricanes that are making many cities less safe.


Economist Intelligence Unit

Infrastructure is perhaps the most glaring example of how the EIU might differ from the TIU. They put their points into the road networks and international links, but there is no mention of walkability, bike lanes, parks, or—a subject du jour in many cities right now—access to public washrooms. The latter might be an interesting category all on its own, a basic infrastructure that meets a human need.

vienna public washroom
A public washroom in a park in Vienna, Austria.

Lloyd Alter

As you might expect, in Vienna the public washrooms are fabulous, high-tech self-cleaning marvels.

Toronto public washrooms
A public washroom in Toronto's Hillcrest Park.

Lloyd Alter

In the number 8 city on the list—albeit the city with the lowest infrastructure rating in the top 10—many public washrooms are not even open at the beginning of summer. The water fountains don't work, there are no lifeguards for the beaches and pools, and the bike lanes are all blocked by cars and construction. Anyone who lives here would have a hard time wondering how it got 89.3 for infrastructure or 100 for both health care and education.

wooden house aspern
Housing in Vienna.

Lloyd Alter

Vienna definitely deserves its 100 in infrastructure, with fabulous housing—Mike Eliason explains why it's so good—and great public transit.

Walking in Vienna

Lloyd Alter

But it also blows other cities away with its bike paths, parks, and walkability. That's why it seems so strange to see Calgary tied for third with Zurich and Toronto in the top 10; they feel like they are on different planets.

What Cities Win by Other Standards?

If the Treehugger Intelligence Unit was publishing a list, we would probably measure different things and come up with different answers, as others have.

bicycling in Copenhagen
Cycling in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Lloyd Alter

Open Access Government created a list of the most eco-friendly cities. While Copenhagen came in first, with Amsterdam and Vancouver also on both lists, Vienna is not even on it.

a closed street in Rekjavik
A closed street in Reykjavík, Iceland.

Lloyd Alter

I believe public washrooms should be one of the criteria. Brian Cohen of The Gate found Reykjavík had the most public toilets, at 56 per 100,000 people. In second is Wakefield in the United Kingdom, followed by Madison, Wisconsin, with 35 per 100,000.

Florence on the Ponte Vecchio
Florence, Italy on the Ponte Vecchio.

Lloyd Alter

Culture Trip calls Florence the most walkable city, but it is hard to tell what their criteria are. The TIU would probably use something like Jeff Speck's Ten Steps for Walkability as a guide, as listed by Kaid Benfield:

  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?")

Here again, Toronto would lose, if only for number 10 because it's spending a billion dollars to fix a waterfront expressway, and is constantly picking its losers, followed closely by 1 through 9.

If these other criteria had any weight, Toronto would not be in the top 10. Vienna would probably still be first, and Copenhagen would likely still be number 2. Berlin would be on the list and Montreal would probably replace both Toronto and Calgary.

The Economist Intelligence Unit measures important things, but its criteria define cities that are comfortable and safe—cities that are livable but are not necessarily lovable. It’s not enough. Perhaps next year the Treehugger Intelligence Unit will have a stab at it.

View Article Sources
  1. "The Global Liveability Index 2021: How the Covid-19 pandemic affected liveability worldwide." The Economist Intelligence Unit.