By Paul James, RMIT University
For the third year in a row, Melbourne has been named as the world’s most liveable city by the The Economist Intelligence Unit Survey. From the Lord Mayor to Molly Meldrum, it seems that almost everybody south of the Murray should be counting their blessings, right? Not quite.
I love Melbourne. I work 500 metres from where I was born. I have lived in the same house and the same wonderful urban republic for the last 20 years. But the “most liveable city” accolade should be viewed with scepticism.
Apart from the top ten cities on the index, very few planners across the world will be analysing the data and trying work out how they can scramble up the liveability rankings. There will be no red carpets to walk down to collect the prize.
In fact, those with the greatest global interest in the index will be from the large corporations.
What does the survey measure?
The Economist index, like its compatriot the Mercer liveability index, is in large part directed towards companies that have to consider the hardship ratios of different cities in working out how much salary loading they deserve. The Economist gives a suggested allowance that relates to its rating.
As the Mercer people put it:
Our reports are based on annual responses to a questionnaire developed by international Mercer professionals working closely with major multinational companies and other experts in the field.
Their factors for judging liveability are those considered “most relevant to international executives”. The Economist index is perhaps more objective, but both need to be understood for what they are and what they are not.
Melbourne is not the world’s most liveable city. It simply means that on a series of indicators that measure lifestyle, Melbourne is pretty good. It has a wonderful mediocrity across the broad range of indicators have been chosen by the good people at the Economist, and it is marginally ahead of the other top 100 cities.
As the Economist’s own analysis points out:
Although 16.8 percentage points separate Melbourne in first place and Santiago in 64th place, both cities can lay claim to being on an equal footing in terms of presenting few, if any, challenges to residents’ lifestyles.
One blatant issue that might cause suspicion for those who delve beneath the mainstream media hype is the fact that of the world top ten cities on this index for 2013, half of them are in Australia and New Zealand, and three are in Canada.
The index is based on five categories: stability, health care, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. Politically stable cities with minimal crime, a basic publicly funded health system and good quality private education will always do the best on this scale.
Let us go into a little more detail. The “culture and environment” category, for example, has nine aggregate indicators, weighted at 25% of the total. The first of these indicators is a humidity and temperature rating based on average weather conditions.
The second indicator is “discomfort of climate for travellers”. This means that an issue the people of Melbourne cannot take much credit for is an important consideration in measuring liveability.
Here the word “travellers” means people from Europe and North America. It does not mean my friends from Port Moresby and New Delhi who, when in Melbourne, complain about the temperate dry conditions.
Increasing Melbourne’s true liveability
As climate change engulfs the city of Melbourne, apart from the increased fire, flood and hailstorm disasters, our weather as measured by the Economist index will probably improve for our visitors from the global north and we will retain our standing as a liveable city.
The world is in environmental crisis and the supreme irony is that there is a direct relationship between a high standing on liveability indices, the United Nations’ Human Development Index and the size of a city’s ecological footprint.
Melbourne by any measure is a bloated, sprawling, congested and completely unsustainable city. On sustainability measures such as urban footprint we rank as badly as London and worse than New York. For every person in the city, we own almost one petrol-consuming vehicle, and that figure includes all the babies who do not yet have a licence and all the elderly who have stopped driving.
If everybody in the world lived as we do in the top-ten cities of the index from to Melbourne to Vancouver, we would require three planets to sustain us.
This means that instead of celebrating Melbourne’s standing on the liveability index we should be using the occasion to reflect on what we should be doing as global citizens of a planet with problems. I love Melbourne, but we have a massive responsibility to live otherwise.
Paul James received funding from the Australian Research Council for a collaborative project called ‘Accounting for Sustainability’, the basis of the current assessment. He is Director of the United Nations Global Compact Cities Programme and affiliated with Metropolis, both of which use a method called ‘Circles of Sustainability’, the framework for the current assessment.