Liveability-Indexes: What if we scrape the façade?

By Emmanuel Robert
Master Candidate in International Relations/Political Science
The Graduate Institute

Synopsis: In spite of their catchy names and enthralling rankings, what do liveability indexes really tell us about cities?

Keywords: cosmopolitanism, global economy, city indicators

Due to the fast-paced urban transition that has taken place across the second half of the 20th century, world metropolises and regional cities have asserted themselves as fundamental engines of the globalised economy. Testifying to the growing importance of urban centres as sites of economic and cultural activity, a host of international city-indicators have sprouted after the turn of the millennium, gauging everything from the “global power” to the “sustainability” of cities. Against this large gamut of city-indicators, two ranking-enterprises in particular have attained iconic status as yardsticks of city evaluation: the Global Liveability Ranking and the Quality of Living Survey. Exceeding their original mandates as benchmarking instruments destined for the corporate (i.e. expatriate) community, both indexes have become artefacts of popular culture, through the enthusiastic relay of its city-rankings by news outlets and social media feeds. Thanks to this widespread circulation, cities such as Melbourne, Vancouver or Vienna, which have topped both rankings alternately for several years, have come to be acclaimed as the most liveable cities around the planet. Abetted by the mystical power of quantification, this international media litany has, however, helped obscure the deeply rooted (i) materialistic and (ii) cosmopolitan assumptions which underlay the construction of each liveability-ranking.

Produced by two pundits of the global economy, the British advisory firm The Economist Intelligence Unit and the American financial consulting firm Mercer, respectively the Global Liveability Ranking and the Quality of Living Survey act as expert-goods sold to multi-national companies to inform their overseas strategies (e.g. relocation operations). They are specifically used to advise companies in their calculation of salary compensation schemes for employees sent abroad to what are perceived to be less hospitable places – also known in the business jargon as a “hardship allowance”. By virtue of this corporate-imbrication, both ranking services have thus problematised the concept of city-liveability in light of specific “knowledge-constitutive interests”, to borrow from German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Against the “patina of objectivity” that emotionless quantitative data purport to showcase and that both indicator-enterprises confidently claim – i.e. Mercer expressing confidence that its ranking “embodies objective aspects of daily living that most people agree on as being important for having good living standards – both ranking systems are, in reality, founded on presuppositions that are not disinterested, nor universally accepted. In fact, despite the portmanteau notion of liveability – the term itself can supply a host of numerous and different definitions – both ranking-evaluations have concentrated almost exclusively on (i) the material and built environment of a given city, doing so from the (ii) vantage point of cosmopolitan and well-to-do residents.

“… our two liveability-indexes endorse a splintering vision of urbanity…”

As regards the first assumption, the items included in both liveability-indicators bear eloquent testimony to the emphasis placed on the material make-up of cities, such as infrastructure and facilities. Categories such as infrastructure, healthcare, culture and environment, public services and transport, recreation and housing and schools do not only account for a large chunk of the factors included but are also weighted relatively more heavily in the final computation of the ranking-scores. More importantly, however, both ranking systems do not account for “post-materialist” values, omitting to include in their assessments (i) metrics on urban “conviviality” or measures accounting for the amount of “social capital” that is cultivated within urban communities – in the Putnamian sense of interpersonal trust and sociability – nor (ii) metrics on the sustainability and environmental friendliness of cities. In sum, both indexes fall prey to a form of material-hedonism, in which urban liveability is evaluated foremost in terms of its stock of intrinsic goods, neglecting both the importance of the social and the environmental in the pursuit of urban happiness.

With respect to the second assumption, both liveability indexes display a clear cosmopolitan bias, by which they both place the “well-to-do expatriate” as the ideal-typical urban resident, onto which the quality of urban infrastructures and services is measured. Because both indexes disregard the perspective of the average person, problems of overall access and affordability to public goods are downplayed in favour of the availability and quality of club goods. This is manifested when considering the factors compiled in the Global Liveability Ranking, with labels running from availability/quality of private healthcare, discomfort of climate to travellers, availability/quality of private education, to availability of good quality housing. This cosmopolitan affinity is also found in the Quality of Living Survey, albeit to a lesser extent, with criteria ranging from standard and availability of international schools, ease of entry and exit, availability and quality of airport, to currency exchange. By encapsulating a host of factors related to premium services and infrastructure, both indicators evaluate aspects of urban life that are exclusive to an upper-segment of society and thus exclude the median-income resident, producing a cosmopolitan liveability-score grounded in segregated networked spaces. A far cry from the Foucauldian ideal of “hétérotopies”, which pleads for an inclusive “right to the city” for all, our two liveability-indexes endorse a splintering vision of urbanity in which club goods, whose enjoyment are unequally accessible to ordinary residents, are pinpointed as key to pleasant living.

By focusing on the intrinsic politics that are engrained in selecting indicators and aggregating rankings, we can thus rub away the patina of objectivity under which both liveability-rankings have comfortably been hiding. Conceived as technologies of corporate governance, both indicator-enterprises have imported into their city-evaluations assumptions – namely a penchant for materialism and an affinity for cosmopolitanism – that directly derive from the (neo-) liberal values and norms to which the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Mercer group precisely owe their raison d’être. By excavating the materialistic and cosmopolitan assumptions buttressing both city-liveability indexes we can begin to demystify the all too revered concept of liveability. Indeed, if one thing is to be learned from our glimpse into the Global Liveability Ranking and the Quality of Living Survey is that evaluation hinges on values (and vice-versa), thus the imperative of examining the evaluative and normative dimensions of indicators in close symbiosis. That is, in their uniduality as obverse faces of the same coin.

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