Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why the 'Livable Cities' rankings are wrong

Joel Kotkin has a great piece over at New Geography (originally at Forbes) describing what's wrong with all the 'livable' and 'best' city rankings from places like The Economist, Mercer, and others. Highlights:
For the most part, the top ranks are dominated by well-manicured older European cities such as Zurich, Geneva, Vienna, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Munich, as well as New World metropolises like Vancouver and Toronto; Auckland, New Zealand; and Perth and Melbourne in Australia. (American cities mostly snubbed)

...To understand these rather head-scratching results, one must look at the criteria these surveys used. Cultural institutions, public safety, mass transit, "green" policies and other measures of what is called "livability" were weighted heavily, so results skewed heavily toward compact cities in fairly prosperous regions. Most of these regions suffer only a limited underclass and support a relatively small population of children... With their often lovely facades, ample parks and good infrastructure, they constitute, for the most part, a list of what Wharton's Joe Gyourko calls "productive resorts," a sort of business-oriented version of an Aspen or Vail in Colorado or Palm Beach, Fla. ...

Yet are those the best standards for judging a city? It seems to me what makes for great cities in history are not measurements of safety, sanitation or homogeneity but economic growth, cultural diversity and social dynamism. A great city, as Rene Descartes wrote of 17th century Amsterdam, should be "an inventory of the possible," a place of imagination that attracts ambitious migrants, families and entrepreneurs.

Such places are aspirational – they draw people not for a restful visit or elegant repast but to achieve some sort of upward mobility. By nature these places are chaotic and often difficult to navigate. Ambitious people tend to be pushy and competitive. Just think about the great cities of history – ancient Rome, Islamic Baghdad, 19th century London, 20th century New York – or contemporary Los Angeles, Houston, Shanghai and Mumbai.

These represent a far different urbanism than what one finds in well-organized and groomed Zurich, Vienna and Copenhagen. You would not call these cities and their ilk with metropolitan populations generally less than 2 million, "bustling." Perhaps a more fitting words would be "staid" and "controlled."

Peace and quiet is very nice, but it doesn't really encourage global culture or commerce. Growth and change come about when newcomers jostle with locals not just as tourists, or orbiting executives, but as migrants. Great cities in their peaks are all about this kind of yeasty confrontation.

...

Yet the future of urbanism, here and abroad, will not be Pittsburgh. Based on current preferences, something like 20 million – or more – people will have moved to U.S. cities by 2050. Most will likely settle in more dynamic places like New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, Chicago and Miami. These cities have become magnets for restless populations, both domestic and foreign-born. They also contain all the clutter, constant change, discomfort and even grime that characterize great cities through history.

But it's economics that drives migrants to these dirtier, busier metropolitan centers. Many of the cities at the top of the livability lists, by contrast, are also among the world's most expensive. They generally also have high taxes and relatively stagnant job markets.

Many U.S. cities, however, offer far more materially to their average residents than their elite European counterparts do. American cities, when assessed by purchasing-power parity, notes demographer Wendell Cox, do very well indeed. Viewed this way, the U.S. boasts eight of the top 10 – and 37 of the top 50 – metropolitan regions in terms of per capita income.

The top city on Cox's list, San Jose, Calif., epitomizes both the strengths and weaknesses of the American city. The heartland of Silicon Valley, the San Jose region has generated one of the world's most innovative – and well-paid – economies. On the other hand, its mass transit usage is minuscule, its cultural attributes measly and its downtown hardly a tourist destination. (sound familiar?)

... For the average person seeking to make money and improve his or her economic status, it usually pays not to settle in one of the world's "most livable" cities.

...

Ultimately great cities remain, almost by necessity, raw (and at times unpleasant) places. They are filled with the sights and smells of diverse cultures, elbowing streetwise entrepreneurs and the inevitable mafiosi. They all suffer the social tensions that come with rapid change and massive migration. New York, Los Angeles, London, Shanghai, Mumbai or Dubai may not shoot to the top of more elite, refined rankings, but they contain the most likely blueprint of our urban future.

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12 Comments:

At 5:55 PM, August 18, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

First, Wendell Cox is not a demographer, but a highway industry lobbyist.

Second, ranked lists of the world's richest cities relative to the cost of living, tend to agree with the livability rankings.

 
At 6:00 PM, August 18, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

On another note: Kotkin's inclusion of Munich and Toronto in the same category as Zurich and Copenhagen is weird. Even without adjusting for living costs, Munich is one of the richest cities in Europe - the region it's in, Upper Bavaria, is the seventh richest in the EU (link). It's also fast-growing by German standards. And Toronto is as large as Houston and almost as fast-growing; in fact, within Canada, the only areas with Sunbelt growth rates are the oil-powered cities of Alberta, and the Toronto suburbs.

 
At 9:42 AM, August 19, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Alon,

I think the point Tory is trying to make is that all the cities listed in the rankings aren't really places where individuals have opportunity for upward mobility like in Houston and many Sunbelt cities.

I agree with Tory that I think Houston is much more livable than the cities in these rankings. These cities are great for visiting for vacation, but don't offer the opportunity to work and live there comfortably. Many of the lower middle class must commute to live in the livability ranked cities because they can't afford to live there. If they did live in the city, they would be in a cramped apartment just making ends meet (especially if you have a family).

If we're going to throw accusations at Wendell cox, then we have to equally throw accusations to the groups that do these rankings. These groups are supporters of socialist policies that restrict freedom and are completely anti-growth and pro-government control. They push the green movement which stands behinds science that has been routinely discredited.

 
At 6:47 PM, August 19, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>These groups are supporters of socialist policies that restrict freedom and are completely anti-growth and pro-government control.

The Economist is pro-socialist, pro-government, and anti-freedom? Learn something new every day.

>>New York, Los Angeles, London, Shanghai, Mumbai or Dubai may not shoot to the top of more elite, refined rankings, but they contain the most likely blueprint of our urban future

I've seen a lot of statements written on this blog about how New York, China, LA etc are *not* the model of the future. At least Kotkin does not have such a warped view and recognizes that LA / Shanghai / New York are as important if not more important than Houston as blueprints for urban growth.

Another item in the article by Kotkin that Tory conveniently left out:
>>Better-maintained subways and commuter trains in New York would be welcome by millions as they would in Greater London.

As they would be welcomed in Houston! Bring on more rail - it's about time!

 
At 7:27 PM, August 19, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

As *much* older cities originally built around walking and then rail/transit, that probably does make sense for London and NYC. Not so much for Houston, almost totally built in the car age. Extensive rail transit here makes about as much sense as mega-freeways in Manhattan or central London.

 
At 8:08 PM, August 19, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>Extensive rail transit here makes about as much sense as mega-freeways in Manhattan or central London.

But basic rail transit (far more extensive than what we have now) makes about as much sense as having roads and sidewalks in a city of 10 million people (which Houston is soon to become).

 
At 9:04 AM, August 20, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

Sidewalk? what's a sidewalk?

 
At 12:54 PM, August 20, 2009, Blogger greyhound said...

So you'd subjectively prefer to live in Houston rather than Boulder or Portland or Colorado Springs? Even when an information age entrepreneur can make money from the dark side of the moon as long as there's internet access?

You're nuts.

 
At 2:08 PM, August 20, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>So you'd subjectively prefer to live in Houston rather than Boulder or Portland or Colorado Springs? Even when an information age entrepreneur can make money from the dark side of the moon as long as there's internet access?

>>You're nuts.

Would you say the same thing about "information age entrepreneurs" who live in NYC, DC, LA, Boston, Philly, San Fran, Dallas, or Chicago?

Didn't think so.

And if you would, well.... you're nuts. To each his own.

 
At 1:58 AM, August 21, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Tory, you shouldn't knock Sunbelt rail too much. Calgary only built its light rail system in 1981, emphasizing low cost and simple functionality, and now has the busiest light rail system in North America. Relative to population, its rail ridership is higher than this of Chicago and the Washington DC area. This has happened despite the fact that the city is as new as Houston and has a lower population density.

KJB434, the US has low income mobility, lower than almost any other developed country. The correlation in the US between fathers' incomes and their sons' incomes is .47, compared with .41 in France, .32 in Germany, .26 in Singapore, .19 in Canada, and .14 in Denmark. So a study looking at the presence of a opportunity should discount cities in the US and France, as well in other low-mobility countries such as the UK, Italy, and Spain, and instead give high ratings to cities in Canada and Scandinavia.

Greyhound, did you just mention Boulder and Colorado Springs in the same sentence?

 
At 7:31 PM, July 02, 2011, Anonymous ObiP said...

a systematic tool was used for the rankings. key point is sustainbility of the growth push now and the next 20yrs. livability must transend mega cities to compact towns to make livable earth by 2060.

 
At 12:34 PM, August 22, 2011, Blogger Gary Davis said...

American views of livability are pretty much laughable. What US city is "livable"? Crime, crap food, strip malls, billboards, strip clubs and American TV. Wake up people: other people live a LOT better.

 

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