Auckland Named World's Most Livable City—But Is It Really?

COVID-19 turned the annual survey of cities upside down.

Auckland, New Zealand
Auckland, New Zealand.

Scott Barbour/ Getty Images

Every year, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) produces The Global Liveability Index, and after a few years where Vienna was chosen as the world's most liveable city, this year Auckland, New Zealand tops the list. In fact, the top 10 list is dominated this year by antipodean cities: eight of the top 10 are in Australia, New Zealand, or Japan.

Top Ten Most Liveable Cities

Economist Intelligence Unit

European cities that used to rate very high fall right off the top 10—Vienna is down to 12th and Hamburg fell 34 places. In 2018, there were three Canadian cities, now there are none.

This is all mostly a COVID-19 effect; the criteria are tilted to health care (20%) stability (25%) and their definition of culture and environment (25%). The EIU writes:

"The new leader is Auckland. Owing to border closures and a consequently low Covid-19 case count, New Zealand has been able to keep its theatres, restaurants and other cultural attractions open. Students have been able to continue going to school, giving Auckland a 100% score for education. This has allowed the city to move up from sixth place in our autumn 2020 survey to first position in our March 2021 rankings. The New Zealand capital, Wellington, has also gained from this relative freedom, moving from 15th to joint fourth place in our current rankings."

In many ways, this makes little sense. The Economist notes: "The looser a city’s lockdown rules, the better it scores in the categories related to openness. However, if such laissez-faire policies allow covid-19 to run rampant, the worse such a city will do in the 'stress on health-care resources' measure. The best performers thus combine generous freedoms with few severe cases of covid-19."

That is a hard circle to square if you are on a crowded continent in a country with borders instead of water around it.

We should also note these ratings should be taken with a grain of artisanal sel de mer. The EIU liveability index was "originally designed as a tool to help companies assign hardship allowances as part of expatriate relocation packages." I wrote earlier that "when you get into the detail, the weights and foci are very different than the Treehugger view of cities."

So it is good on determining whether or not you will get kidnapped, but not so good about whether there are parks and bike lanes. Culture and Environment include "Sporting availability" and "Food and Drink," but doesn't mention air quality. And because the company is paying the bill, the Infrastructure section measures the availability of good-quality housing, but not the cost.

When asked about The EIU rating of Auckland, Elrond Burrell, an architect living in New Zealand, tells Treehugger:

"Ha! I saw those circulating and did my best to ignore them. House prices in Auckland are ridiculous and it is still very much a car-dependent city. So you can live somewhere awful and expensive in the city or somewhere marginally more affordable further out with better amenities (eg your own garden or more parks nearby) and enjoy commuter hell."

Burrell forwarded this tweet and notes: "There’s a lot of good things happening in Auckland, more pedestrianisation of inner city, better public transport and cycle routes, light rail etc. So maybe in a few years it will be far more liveable.... A friend of mine basically turned down a university lecture job in Auckland because she couldn’t see how she could afford to live in the city and put up with the awful situation she’d have to accept for housing and transport and access to green space etc. Stayed in Scandinavia."

What Would a Treehugger List Look Like?

Osaka, Japan came second
Osaka, Japan came second.

Jiale Tan

So if EIU's Global Liveability Index is biased toward rich businessmen, what would more Treehugger-appropriate standards look like? A few years ago, I suggested that we learn from Jeff Speck's Ten Steps to Walkable Cities (listed here by Kaid Benfield) and chose cities that put cars in their place, mix the uses, protect the pedestrian, and plant trees. I might add completeness and safety of bike network, how many minutes until your bike gets stolen, and is it a 15, 30, or 60-minute city.

Resonance, a consultancy, produced a list of the world's greenest cities, and used criteria that any Treehugger could love, including:

  • Percentage of public green spaces 
  • Percentage of total energy needs from renewable energy
  • Percentage of population who use public transportation to go to work 
  • Level of air pollution
  • Per capita water consumption
  • Walkability
  • Availability of city-wide recycling
  • Availability of city-wide composting
  • Number of farmer’s markets

They came up with Vienna in the first place, followed by Munich and Berlin: "With an abundance of open, public spaces and city parks, Berlin is made for walking. Berliners are also incredibly mindful of their impact on the planet, using among the least water per capita in Europe and opting for public transit use whenever it’s too unpleasant to walk the historic streets."

Tripsavvy Has Better Criteria Than The Economist

Copenhagen Pastry Shop
Copenhagen may be off the list, but it has the best pastry shops.

Lloyd Alter

However, now that the business person can work from anywhere that there is a good Internet connection, perhaps it is time to dump the EIU's criteria and develop one based on personal interests and proclivities. Our sister site TripSavvy produced an interesting pre-pandemic list last year that included cities that were Best for Beach Bums (Montenegro), Best for Street Food (Seoul), Best for Romance (Rome), Best for Sweet Tooth (Copenhagen), Best for Shopping (Buenos Aires), Best for Brunch (Victoria BC), and best for Booze (Richmond, Virginia).

Those certainly sound more fun than measuring the quality of the road network or availability of private education. We have our priorities!