Zoning, big data, social spaces - how should we measure the liveability of our cities?

Georgina Lavers examines the blanket wisdom of traditional rankings for complex ecosystems

Stampede aside, Calgary is not regularly in the world news. It has a relatively small population of one million, a low crime rate and little civil unrest. So quiet, in fact, that most updates to make it across the border are surprised reports on the weather (the city has a ‘Chinook’, a hot and dry wind that blasts down from the Rockies and can raise the temperature by 30 degrees in a matter of minutes). 

It certainly doesn’t have that “big-city buzz” that the Economist Intelligence Unit deems urban centres such as Paris, New York or Tokyo to exemplify. Nevertheless, the Canadian city was ranked as the fifth most liveable city out of 140 in the unit’s 2015 Liveability Rankings, which charts the world’s “most liveable cities” each year. 

The report also saw Melbourne ranked as the most liveable city in the world, cities such as Athens  slipping down the rankings and Dubai marked out as the third most improved city over the past five years. 

There are many solid reasons for Calgary’s inclusion in the top 10. The city has considered infrastructure, a free downtown train runs on electricity generated by wind farms, heaters in car parks keep engines alive in temperatures that can drop below -15°C and a network of heated overhead pedestrian bridges do the same for their drivers. 

Canadian and Australian cities tend to do well in the EIU’s rankings, because of their propensity for mid-sized populations and high GDP. 

As the report notes: “There does appear to be a correlation between the types of cities that sit right at the top... mid-sized, in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density.” 

The value of rankings

This scenario also plays out in another index, Mercer’s 2015 Quality of Living rankings. European cities dominated the top of the rankings, along with major cities in Australia and New Zealand. Singapore, at 26, is the highest-ranking Asian city, and Dubai ranks first across the Middle East and Africa. 

As to whether these rankings should be worthy valuations of where we should be living, opinion is split. 

“Rankings are usually put together by people whose clientele and readership are making choices among, and want to hear about, big urban agglomerations,” says the economist John Helliwell, who is Co-Director of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research on social interactions, identity, and wellbeing. 

“And often their visitors are short-term assignment people and the kinds of attractions listed are those that would appeal to such people.

But it doesn’t really relate to how nice they are: there is some overlap, but primarily it doesn’t tell you what life is like for the people who live there.” 

“I think it is important to compare indices across cities; it is something that helps cities benchmark themselves and speed up innovation,” says Carlo Ratti. Ratti directs the MIT Senseable City Lab, a research group that explores how new technologies are changing the way we understand, design and ultimately live in cities. 

“However, I would take all rankings with a pinch of salt; cities are complex ecosystems, which cannot be captured through a single value.” 

Quantifying a liveable city

When measuring cities, popular rankings tend to talk around similar topics. Some may be quirkier: Monocle magazine, for example, has the price of a decent lunch (in euros) as one of its key quantifiers, but in general they agree on the elements a liveable city should possess. 

Education: a good number of public schools and libraries. Healthcare: is it free, and is there a sufficient amount of hospitals from which to access it? Culture: how many museums? Are there concert halls? 

Where they differ is how they survey these factors. For the EIU, five factors that include stability and infrastructure are rated as acceptable, tolerable, uncomfortable, undesirable or intolerable in 240 cities, based on the judgement of in-house analysts and in-city contributors. 

The Monocle ranking is led more by taste: editors handpicked a list of 100 cities they felt to be interesting places to live and from there used data- canvassing elements to assess anything from crime to availability of outdoor seating.

There is one metric, relatively new in stature, that urbanists such as John Helliwell and Charles Montgomery argue is the hidden key to measuring city liveability: happiness. 

“Thanks to big data, we can now measure and compare many metrics: precise commuting times, air quality, distribution of green spaces, etc,” says Carlo Ratti. “We can also collect a great amount of crowdsourced data, à la Tripadvisor. All of these are important, but ultimately, the key metric is related to citizens’ wellbeing.” 

Helliwell points to the US as an example of where traditional measurements are failing to satisfy this need, with life satisfaction remaining constant despite decades of rising GNP per capita. 

Happiness as a measurement first planted its seed in the public imagination in 1972 when it was declared that Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom on the Himalayas’ eastern edge with a population of just 750,000, had created a Gross National Happiness index. 

Its principles were based on equitable social development, cultural preservation, conservation of the environment and promotion of good governance – and the rest of the world was quick to sit up and take note. 

I would take all rankings with a pinch of salt – cities are complex ecosystems, which cannot be captured through
a single value 

Carlo Ratti, Director, MIT Senseable City Lab

In 2010, the Prime Minister of the UK launched the National Wellbeing Programme to “start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life”. 

This project was furthered by the Happy City Index, which rolled out a pilot project in the city of Bristol in the UK. The report focuses on how wellbeing can act as a common currency for city decision-making. 

“With ever limited resources, local policymakers need to know what factors are most important for people’s wellbeing, and why,” said the Director of the programme, Liz Zeidler. “Channelling scarce resources in promotion of these key areas can create knock-on effects that make a lasting difference to people’s lives.” 

In Dubai in 2014, a directive from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to aim to “make Dubai the happiest city on Earth” led to the creation of the Happiness Meter, a city-wide, live sentiment capture engine to measure citizens’ emotions. The city also recently appointed ministers for happiness and tolerance, and has rolled out a campaign, ‘A City for Everyone’, to challenge attitudes about people with disabilities. 

“I think from a liveability point of view, one of the major things is the tolerance factor, so it allows people to live freely and be who they want to be,” says Ahmed bin Shabib, the cofounder of Brownbook, an urban guide to the Middle East. 

Lasting life satisfaction

Her Excellency Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the aforementioned Minister for Tolerance, echoed bin Shabib’s sentiment in a recent speech. 

“Happiness and tolerance are values, not services, an integral part of all of us,” she declared at the Global Women’s Forum in Dubai. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, or where you’re from. The UAE provides a common path for everyone. It is the land of dreams and opportunities.” 

Helliwell’s research in life satisfaction, which was performed across cities in Canada, found that residents’ lives tended to be more socially connected and pleasurable in the smaller communities, where contacts tended to be easier to find and more readily made. 

The findings, he says, don’t necessarily mean that we should all be moving to less dense populations – but that the future of cities may be somewhat different to how we originally envisioned. 

“You can create the qualities of small communities in parts or all of bigger cities. 

“It just takes a little more doing because you have to work a little harder to create the warm and open social network in big cities that happens more automatically in smaller communities. 

“We know a lot about walkability, green spaces, having greenery and nature around you – those are all good things for health and happiness.”