Is Toronto the world’s best city? That’s what the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) calculates after assessing a number of cities around the world. Here’s the kicker pick; Montreal came in second out of a list of 25 cities including Amsterdam, Tokyo, Paris, Zurich and Taipei.
Putting Toronto on top may be a surprise given its problems with traffic congestion, public transit, affordable housing and declining infrastructure. Then again these are problems facing many prosperous cities around the world. But Montreal as number two is a complete mystery. Consider a scathing article in the National Post, which stated that “Montreal is living through a period of crumbling infrastructure, widespread corruption, failed governance, inadequate fiscal power, low private investment, an exodus of head offices and an outflow of people.” Furthermore a new study puts Montreal as the most economically segregated city in Canada.
So how are these lists put together? In the case of the EIU report, analysts compile a number of indexes based on cost of living, livability, safety, democracy, food security and business environment. Then they devise an index of indexes to find the top cities in the world. It’s an extraordinary mishmash of statistical slight of hand to come up with these lists of winners and losers.
But that’s not the only list out there. In a report called the Mercer Quality of Living Survey, 221 cities around the world are ranked, with Vienna, Zurich and Geneva listed as the top three. Vancouver comes in fourth and Ottawa came in a surprisingly high 14th spot.
Then there is the list compiled in Monocle, a pricey and trendy lifestyle magazine founded by Canadian Tyler Brule. The magazine comes up with a quality-of-life survey each year of the world’s top cities. In its 2014 listing, the overall winner was Copenhagen, followed by Tokyo, Melbourne and Stockholm. Toronto and Montreal were nowhere to be found probably because the magazine takes climate, architecture and urban design into consideration. My impression is that Tyler Brule actually visits these places and gets a sense of each city from the ground up.
Other popular indexes rank the most expensive cities to live in (New York); most creative (San Francisco); least creative (Memphis); best city to get a degree (London); best city in Canada for singles (Calgary), and the lists go on and on.
What are we to make of these lists and do they carry any real value when it comes to comparing how cities deliver services to their citizens? Perhaps if your city does well in one or another category there may be some bragging rights by mayors and city officials. Other than that, they are to be used for their entertainment value only, as there are no standards against which city metrics can be measured. The only thing we know is that cities that consistently rank high are those in wealthy countries. And these cities are pretty much interchangeable. You will never see Lagos in the top 10.
In the top performing cities, these lists are no different than Maclean’s magazine’s annual university rankings. There are so many categories that eventually all schools find themselves in the top five somewhere, making everyone happy. But when it comes to cities there are no standards to assess the quality and veracity of the data.
This isn’t about ranking cities from best to worst, but about sharing data and best practices between member cities to see how to improve municipal services.
There is hope on the horizon, however, and it is called the World Council on City Data (WCCD) based in Toronto. WCCD compiles data from cities around the world, based on standardized metrics that can be compared from one city to another. The Global Cities Institute at the University of Toronto (full disclosure: I am a senior fellow there) draws on the world’s best, standardized data submitted from 255 member cities. The advantage here is that the data is audited for consistency and comparability. In the next few years WCCD plans to add hundreds more cities.
This isn’t about ranking cities from best to worst, but about sharing data and best practices between member cities to see how to improve municipal services. In other words, now we have cities learning from each other using information offered by the cities themselves. This may not be as entertaining as ranking cities as winners and losers or as trendy and cool, but it’s a lot more helpful to the cities (and city dwellers) themselves.
*This Opinion piece appeared in the National Post on 9, March 2015