Published on Sustainable Cities

A city by any other ranking

This page in:

ImageIn September, U.S. News and World Report released its annual college ranking (Princeton and Harvard share the number 1 spot) just as millions of high schools students begin the college application process. Indeed, the U.S. News rankings have become a major source for how prospective applicants and their families view colleges. In response, colleges set their policies to cater to U.S. News’ methodology. Similarly, cities, voluntarily or not, have recently gone through a slew of rankings and indices to showcase the ‘best’.

The Economist Intelligence Unit tracks 140 global cities across 30 indicators in five categories of stability; healthcare; culture and environment; education; and infrastructure1. Mercer’s Quality of Life index tracks 221 global cities, using New York City as the base city2. This is not to be confused with Moncle’s Quality of Life survey, which ranks the top 25 global cities3.

Organizer Global City Ranking Top City Year
Economist Intelligent Unit Livability Ranking Melbourne, Australia 2012
Mercer Quality of Life Vienna, Austria 2011
Monocle Quality of Life Zurich, Switzerland 2012
  US City Ranking    
US Conference of Mayors City Livability Louisville, Kentucky 2012
Bloomburg/Business Week Most Livable San Francisco, California 2012


There are also countless similar smaller rankings, still trying to convey the ‘best’ or ‘top’, such as: coolest city (Houston)4, best cities for every age5, or even best city for hipsters (Seattle)6. On the flip side, there are also worst city rankings, such as most stressful city (Tampa)7 or most hated city (Tijuana)8.

What are city officials to make of all these rankings, many of which require their input through questionnaires and surveys? With budget cuts and competing priorities, providing information for yet another city ranking might not be high on city officials’ lists of things to do. Should cities care about rankings?

People are naturally interested in how their city is compared, especially to a rival city, or a learning about a better place to live (if they had a choice). But that is similar to a high school student asking, which college they should attend. The answer is often subjective, based on a mixture of personal and professional factors. If we adhered to the rankings, we should all be living in Melbourne, Vienna, or Zurich, and attending Harvard or Princeton for college.

So what exactly are rankings trying to do or promote? Advocates claim rankings are used to motivate cities to improve. Cities are ultimately competitive against each other. When London sees itself behind New York, it starts to question, even panic a bit. Many second and third tier Chinese cities based their 5 Year Plans on becoming the next Shanghai or Shenzhen. But if you are comparing cities against each other, can you really tell if a city itself is improving or if its gain is at the expense of another city’s misfortune?

The amount of time needed to make the necessary, long-term social and hard infrastructure improvements in a city are not short. How much improvement can one expect given the frequency of ranking and their updates- often at an annual basis? By the time the rankings are announced, the research team has often started compiling or updating data and information for next year’s list. Are we to be surprised when the Economist Intelligence Unit says, “The score and ranking of the top 65 cities remain identical to six months ago.”9 How much change can a city undertake in six months? Major infrastructure, urban masterplans, social policies often involve countless stakeholder discussions, numerous revisions, political and financial changes to first agree on the plan, more time to implement, and then more time to see the effects. One only has to look back to the U.S. News college rankings to see how little rankings actually change. My alma mater has stayed more or less constant since I first started looking at it in high school. If we can only expect to see limited movement in the rankings, how much does this really motivate cities?

This is not to say we should ban or completely ignore city rankings or indices. I, for one, welcome news and attention given to cities, and see them as the real leaders of change. And in a world of information saturation, it is easy to understand and capture attention with lists and rankings. As with all rankings, however, one should look at city rankings with a discerning eye, as one of many indicators to learn about the city or help shape its priorities. On the other side, city ranking researchers might benefit from not publishing the rankings at such high frequencies and to utilize indicators that capture the longer term infrastructure changes and plans. Like college students, residents should expect a high quality of life from all its cities, and not just from the best ones. 



Image courtesy of



Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000