Greenest city, fairest city, ‘complete’ city? Urban rankings are many, and complex


Philip Langdon

New Urban Network

As planning director of Vancouver, British Columbia, for a little less than five years, Brent Toderian is reluctant to claim much of the credit for his city’s latest distinction: capturing the top spot in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual global Livable Cities rankings.

Still, this is the fifth consecutive year that Vancouver (city population, 643,000; metropolitan population, 2.3 million) has been awarded that ranking by the business side of The Economist magazine. So some reflection is in order, and Toderian provides a generous helping of it in a commentary posted on Planetizen.

A degree of credit probably has to be accorded to something in the Canadian character or the Canadian approach to governance. Surely it cannot be coincidence that three of Canada’s largest cities made it into the world’s top five. Toronto took fourth place. Calgary, where Toderian was a planner before moving to Vancouver, ranked fifth.  Australia also did very well, with four of its cities, led by Melbourne, in the top 10.

Canadian self-praise, however, is not the direction that Toderian chooses to follow in his commentary.

He does cite the infuence of “the many generations of progressive urban thinking and leadership” in Vancouver, including “a deliberate livability emphasis in all of Vancouver’s visioning and follow-through, in local city-building since the late 1960’s in particular.”

And he says the emphasis on livability — which is observable in the downtown “Living First” Strategy, the larger-scale Livable Region Strategy, and the livability and neighborliness elements embedded in design and architectural review — “shows that consistent vision, when implemented over years even in the face of many pressures, can actually achieve precisely what you set out to achieve.” But in Toderian’s view, plenty of cities can aspire to livability. “Other cities may not be able to replicate our setting,” he says, “but they can surely replicate that vision.”

Among the questions raised by Toderian are these:

Do such rankings have merit? Are the right criteria used? How can they leave out housing affordability? Do they have a bias against larger, denser cities like New York? What is livability anyway, and is it the same as “quality of life”? Does it reflect livability for everyone, or just the well-off? Is it too personal and subjective to be quantifiable or definitive? Should the most livable cities also be considered the “best cities” (some media reports seem to use these two terms interchangeably)?

If you look up Vancouver on Wikipedia, one of the things you’ll learn is that Vancouver is the fourth most densely populated incorporated city with a population above 500,000 in North America, after New York City, San Francisco, and Mexico City. Clearly, a degree of density — aided by a good transit system and an absence of freeways within the city limits — can provide a foundation for livability (though density can also produce bad results when it’s poorly handled).

Rather than tout Vancouver’s accomplishments, Toderian encourages readers to think about the many standards by which people across the globe can evaluate cities. How “green” is your city? How affordable is it? How “complete”? How fair?

A book cited by Toderian, The World’s Fairest City, argues that “there isn’t such a thing as the ideal and most livable city! Far from it, every one has their very personal ideas and expectations about the ingredients that make for living quality in cities.”

Toderian touches incisively on fundamental issues. A key passage is this one:

Even if we assume that the livability rankings are defendable, the question remains, is livability the only (or best) measure of success? Put another way, if Pittsburgh really is more livable than New York, would that mean Pittsburgh is a better city than New York? No disrespect intended to the Steel City, but since New York is one of my favourite cities in the world, there may be a lot more to a great city than livability. Or maybe this just illustrates how subjective and personal the concept of “best” is, for cities, or for anything.