The Living Cities

A ranking of the world’s most liveable cities doesn’t bode well for Asia

When asked the seemingly simple question, “Where would you most like to live?” most of us choose something glamorous or sexy and completely opposite from where we actually do live. Often it’s a case of what you imagine to be ideal, and occasionally home wins out. But what if home isn’t all that great?

In January The Economist Intelligence Unit announced the findings of its global survey of the world’s most liveable cities. Perhaps not surprisingly, Australia and Canada placed 7 cities in the top 10, with Africa winning 5 places in the bottom 10. Osaka was the highest ranked Asian city (13), with Singapore, Bangkok, Shanghai and our own Hong Kong placing somewhere around the middle of the pack of 140 cities rated.

The EIU is not the United Nations, and its rankings are geared toward its specialised readership. The publisher serves companies, “establishing and managing operations across national borders,” and so its criteria may differ from a body whose job it is to make the world a better place. But the EIU’s ranking nonetheless takes into consideration political stability, crime, availability of private and public health care, cultural vibrancy, physical environment, access to private education, housing, communications and infrastructure among others. As an example: Hong Kong scores a perfect 100 for education, with the SAR’s lowest grade coming in culture and environment.

So what’s the point, though perhaps embarrassing legislators into necessary improvement would be nice? “The report was originally designed as a hardship report — which would enable firms to decide on additional remuneration for sending staff to hardship locations,” explains the EIU’s Jon Copestake, editor, cost of living, data services and chief analyst for consumer goods and retail. “However, the attention it received prompted us to expand the methodology to make it more of a broader means of benchmarking a location. The purpose being to simply assess broadly which category of liveability cities sit in at any given point in time.”

With business developments and standard, economic and political trends and government regulations a focus for the EIU, it may seem odd that business factors aren’t among the criteria. Economic freedom and a pro-business environment are what Hong Kong prides itself on and one of the most prominent ways it promotes itself to the business community around the world. “We cannot include every consideration for a location, otherwise our survey would become difficult to gain the indicators required for all 140 cities included,” Copestake remarks. Citing a desire to keep it simple and as representative as possible, he points to other surveys that do address business factors. Others look at green rankings and cost of living. “Business friendliness is more of a business than personal consideration. I’m sure it would not feature on an individual’s willingness to move, but on the consideration of a firm.”

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the old saying goes, and so logic dictates one person’s idea of a liveable city could potentially differ drastically from anyone else’s. EIU’s guiding criteria carry different weights—10 percent of the total value is given to education for example—which each of us values differently. “The weighting by category is designed to be cumulative, so that an overall score is reflective of liveability rather than individual categories,” Copestake clarifies. He describes how the research crew assigned the priorities based on widely held generalisations of what is vital to living any urban location. “It is true that education is important — but not everyone has children so for them it’s actually not relevant at all — whereas tangible issues such as culture and environment and personal safety are much more widely important considerations to a location.”Stability (which includes violent and petty crime and civil unrest) and culture and environment (encompassing climate, corruption, censorship, sportiness and so forth) are given equal value for good reason. “We score culture and environment as the joint most important category alongside stability, which represents personal safety. I’m sure that you’d agree safety is a core consideration for anyone looking to live somewhere,” says Copestake, using Johannesburg to make the case. That city does well in cultural availability but is, “let down a lot by its stability score, which seems to be a sensible assumption to make.”

The EIU’s list may be accurate. High stability and infrastructure numbers complement Hong Kong’s perfect education and low cultural totals for an overall #31 rank. We also trump Singapore in culture, business/property investment rivals Guangzhou and Shanghai across the board and rank higher than London and New York as well. The report states that Hong Kong “[performs] well, reflecting locations where economic strength, and political stability feed into strong infrastructure and broad cultural availability.”It seems we’re not so soulless after all.