Sunday, October 09, 2011

"Livable cities"

In an age of mobility, urbanites like myself are much concerned with which city offers the best situation for us. Either we conclude that we are already living in the city with the best fit (having oftentimes come from some place else), or we pick out some spot like Portland or Santa Fe to which we would like to move.

Recently this issue has become encapsulated in attempts to rank “livable cities.” Two examples of this endeavor are the Mercer Quality of Living Survey and The Economist's World's Most Livable Cities (which borrows some data from Mercer ). Some employers use livability rankings when they assign hardship allowances as part of job relocation. The Economist’s list of top ten for 2011 is as follows: Melbourne, Vienna, Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Sydney, Helsinki, Perth, Adelaide, and Auckland.

To my mind, this is a very peculiar assemblage. Apparently, preference for the English language is a major criterion of livability, since it characterizes eight of the ten. Moreover, all the livable cities are in countries with fairly small populations. Cities in larger countries, such as Germany, Japan, and Great Britain (even though the latter is English speaking) need not apply. The characteristics posited for livability include widespread availability of goods and services, low personal risk, and an effective infrastructure. Not considered significant, curiously enough, are such factors as climate and the cost of living,

In the US Honolulu comes in first--at number 26, notwithstanding the fact that newcomers have a very hard time finding affordable housing in the Hawaiian city, where the cost of living is sky high. New York stands at 56th place.

In 2010 Monocle magazine came up with a different list of top cities. In order, they are Munich, Copenhagen, Zurich, Tokyo, Helsinki, Stockholm, Paris, Vienna, Melbourne, and Madrid.

These two very different results suggest that the criteria for making up the lists are conspicuously lacking in objectivity, They seem to be swayed by considerations of political correctness, Anglocentrism, Eurocentrism, and fashionability (as defined by the chattering classes).

While several criteria are proffered for assessing livability, the makers of the list don’t seem to be willing to consider why this concept, livability, should rule. In my view, such factors as creativity, access to cultural events, diversity, and architectural beauty are more significant. These features, and others like them, are what make certain cities exciting, inducing savvy young people to want to move to them. By contrast, “livability” seems to concentrate on things that please a dull bourgeois couple with 2.1 children. Increasingly, the old, staid nuclear family is not the norm any more. Yet the livable-cities paradigm seems to assume that it is.

Another aspect is this. The studies mentioned are snapshots based on the present; they do not reflect changes over time--the diachronic aspect. The cities change. For example, the Los Angeles of my youth in the 19450s and 50s was very different from what it is now. There was virtually no smog, the freeways hadn't been built, and there was an efficient public transportation system. Yet for a young person with ambitious cultural interests, LA seemed limited and provincial in those days, so I sought more stimulating environments.

The lesson is that cities change, and we, the citizens, change too. Deciding where to live involves a certain gamble: what will this place be like in ten or twenty years time? During the 1970s there was much pessimism about the future of New York City (where I live now), especially with regard to older people's prospects. "Fun City" was turning into "Run City." Or so the cliche went.

Now I'm glad I stayed in NYC, but once upon a time the choice seemed problematic as it seemed that crime rates could only go up and up. So the diachronic aspect bears with it an uncertainty principle. As Yogi Berra (I think) sagely remarked, predictions are hazardous, especially about the future.

In short, there are many criteria for choosing a city in which to live. Some involve individual propensities and habits. For example, it is difficult to operate and maintain an automobile in Manhattan where I live. Some individuals find this restriction inconvenient. To me it is a plus, because I don't need a car and can use public transportation. It depends on who you are.

Refracted through an iridescent spectrum of subjective factors, the controlling values are complex and incommensurable. Consequently any attempt to create objective rankings--ones that everyone would agree on--is vain.

ADDENDUM. A different approach stems from the work of Richard Florida, an influential American urban theorist. Florida is best known for his concept of the creative class and its implications for urban regeneration. This idea emerges in his best-selling books The Rise of the Creative Class; Cities and the Creative Class; and The Flight of the Creative Class.

Florida's theory asserts that metropolitan regions with high concentrations of technology workers, artists, musicians, lesbians and gay men, as well as a group he terms "high bohemians," exhibit a higher level of economic development than competing regions. Together, these groups constitute Florida's "creative class." As a rule, members of this group are not in search of the tranquility that livability provides, but rather gravitate to stimulating sociocultultural settings.

Richard Florida maintains that the creative class fosters an open, dynamic, personal and professional urban environment. This environment, in turn, attracts more creative people, as well as businesses and capital. He has devised his own ranking systems that rate cities according to a "Bohemian index," a "Gay index," a "diversity index" and similar criteria.

FURTHER NOTE. Perhaps the true parent of the livable-cities approach was Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), an American writer and activist whose primary interests lay in communities, urban planning, and decay. She is best known for her influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which marks its fiftieth anniversary this year. Modeling herself on her beloved Greenwich Village, Jacobs harshly critiqued the then-regnant culture of urban renewal, which was tearing so many neighborhoods apart.

She excoriated the anomie fostered by living in high-rise buildings, including the "projects" devised to warehouse the urban poor. By contrast, she idealized the mixed use prevalent in traditional, low-rise neighborhoods. Here she she neglected the fact that these spots could be, and not infrequently were, "mean streets." As often occurs, there may be a tradeoff.



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