Friday, 28 May 2010

The best cities to live in?

Wednesday saw the publication of Mercer's 2010 Quality of Living survey, reported by many news sites as 'the best cities in which to live'.

The annual survey is prepared by Mercer Consulting in New York and ranks cities by a range of criteria, such as access to work, the availability of housing and services, the cost of living, the level of crime, and so on.

The results are very interesting, not to say controversial. Vienna retains the top spot from 2009 as the city with the world’s best quality of living, with Zurich and Geneva following in second and third position, while Vancouver and Auckland remain joint fourth in the rankings. Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Munich, Bern and Sydney make the up the remaining top 10.

Read the message boards across the media and there is a hot debate as to how places like Bern and Luxembourg manage to rate more highly than Barcelona or Paris, or why no city from the USA features in the top 30 and - even more controversially - only two Asian cities feature in the top 40. The preponderance of European and German-speaking cities has led to accusations of Eurocentricism, and a preference for the 'clean but dull' over the 'messy but interesting'. In the UK, London is the highest-ranking city at 39, followed by newcomer to the list Aberdeen (53), Birmingham (55), Glasgow (57) and Belfast (63), but many will be surprised at the absence of Edinburgh or Bristol.

The great difficulty of such surveys is that different people would use different criteria for what constitutes 'Quality of Life'. Although Mercer have gone to great lengths to try to be objective (and claim that it is objective), the very choice and weighting of criteria is, of itself, a very subjective business.

Perhaps the Mercer project might equally be entitled 'the best governed cities', since items like public services, crime and public transportation rank so highly. Had 'governance' been chosen in the title, I suspect many commentators would have been less worried. Issues such as the ethnic diversity of the city and the climate are critical factors for many people's quality of life (for good or bad), but the former doesn't feature at all, and the latter is but part of the 'natural environment' criterion. And if you are a soccer fan or a water-sports enthusiast, access to a UEFA league club or the coast might be completely essential.

Of course, the Index is designed to be used by global organisations and governments posting people around the world. Even so, the idea that the average person would prefer to be posted to Bern or Dusseldorf over Paris, New York, Hong Kong or London, will seem to many as a little odd.

And, alas, Brighton doesn't even get a mention...