What Are the World's Most Livable Cities? Depends How You Measure It.

CC BY 2.0. Traffic light in Vienna, a livable and lovable city/ Lloyd Alter

The Economist puts Melbourne in number 1 spot, Vancouver in 3. They're not.

Every year the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) releases its Global Liveability Report that lists the world’s most liveable cities, and again, as in the last seven years, Melbourne, Australia, is on top. There are three Canadian cities in positions 3, 4 and 5. I live in Toronto, and seriously, they consider it the world’s 4th most livable city. It’s not, and I am not alone in thinking this.

Urban planning consultant Brent Toderian lives in Vancouver (#3) and just visited Melbourne and doesn’t think either of them are among the most liveable cities.

He is interviewed on Melbourne radio, and in fact tells them bluntly that “you never were.” He says that these rankings are very subjective, that they should be taken with a grain of salt, and that we should remember what they were for: not about locals but its all about determining “hardship pay” for expats. As the EIU notes, “Companies pay a premium (usually a percentage of a salary) to employees who move to cities where living conditions are particularly difficult and there is excessive physical hardship or a notably unhealthy environment.”

It’s not about those things that really make cities wonderful.

10 most liveable cities

© Economist Intelligence Unit

Toderian points out that these rankings are about the absence of things like crime, rather than the presence of things that make a city liveable and loveable. "It gets into the conversation about how you build a complete city. You have to ask, is it enough? There are lots of things that you can’t count, subjective issues; it’s hard to measure lovability."


© Economist Intelligence Unit

For instance, Category 1, Stability, counts for 25 percent of the total, and measures petty crime, violent crime and threat of terror. Mancusians (people in Manchester) are furious that one terrorist attack ruined their ranking.


© Economist Intelligence Unit

Healthcare is a full 20 percent, and nine of the top 10 cities got 100 or ideal ratings. Now Canadian healthcare is pretty wonderful but I do not think anyone would call it ideal, or as the EIU defines it, "there are few, if any, challenges to living standards." And there are all kinds of recent studies that show that the key to health and longevity is walking and cycling; surely those should be factored into the healthcare measurement.


© Economist Intelligence Unit

Education is 10 Percent, and Infrastructure is 20 percent, measuring quality of roads, public transport, housing and quality of telecommunications, but no mention of bike or pedestrian infrastructure. As Brent notes about Melbourne:

For example, Melbourne is not the most liveable city in the world because outside of the downtown it has below average suburbs that are totally car dependent. They have the largest tram network in the world but they don’t have the land use and density around the trams. Australian cities treat density like a dirty word....How do you take the success of the inner city and take it to the suburbs? More walkable, less car-dependent, more bikeable suburbs, more transit friendly suburbs. And that’s not about forcing people out of their cars, it's about giving them options so that they are not trapped in their cars. It’s really hard to have a discussion about liveability if you haven’t dealt with this.

The best graffiti in Vienna

The best graffiti in Vienna/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Toderian goes on to talk about what is clearly the the most liveable city I have ever been in -- Vienna.

Can you be the most liveable city in the world without being the most walkable city in the world? The city that we forget is Vienna, which has a stronger case for being the most liveable city in the world... it’s walkable and multimodal everywhere.

Brent notes that it’s hard to measure lovability, but it can be done. Steve Mouzon has his theory of Walk Appeal; Jeff Speck, in his book Walkable Cities, lists steps making walkable cities that can probably be measured. These are important criteria in defining a truly liveable city, discussed by Kaid Benfield here for greater detail.

  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?")

If these criteria had any weight, Toronto is nowhere near the top. Vienna would probably be first, Copenhagen would be way up there, Berlin would be on the list and Montreal would probably replace both Toronto and Calgary.

The EIU measures important things, but its criteria define cities that are comfortable and safe, that are liveable, but are not necessarily lovable. It’s not enough.