If the Economist Intelligence Unit's latest livability survey is any guide, the most livable cities are mid-sized and not too dense. The report, written by the business analysis unit of The Economist Group, names 10 top cities that all fit into those categories: places like Melbourne (which comes first), Vancouver (3rd), and Calgary (5th).
According to the report, lower population density allows cities "to foster a range of recreational activities without leading to high crime levels or overburdened infrastructure." Most of the top cities have densities of 2.88 to 3.40 people per square kilometer, compared to the U.S. average of 32, and a global average of 45.65. Only Vienna (in 2nd place) beats the trend, with 100 people per square kilometer.
As the report notes, "prestigious hubs" like New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo have "big city buzz." But they pay for it with more crime, greater congestion and inferior public transit. "The question is how much wages, the cost of living, and personal taste for a location can offset livability factors," the E.I.U. writes.
The survey of 140 cities is based on more than 30 factors across five categories: "stability" (which includes things like crime and civil unrest), health care, culture and environment, education standards, and infrastructure. The E.I.U. uses both subjective analysis (from "in-house analysts and in-city contributors") as well as objective data.
Many of the top cities are relatively unchanged from last year, and there has been a general increase in livability in many places over the last decade. The top 64 cities all have livability scores above 80%, meaning residents encounter few "challenges to their lifestyle." The difference between Melbourne at the top and Santiago, Chile, in 64th place, is relatively marginal, despite a 16.8% gap in the ranking.
The biggest changes are in lower-ranking cities. The Arab Spring, European austerity, and Chinese "discontent" have all pushed cities lower, mainly due to civil unrest. From the report:
Labour disputes, opposition to developments and a number of other factors have spilled over into cases of disorder, affecting livability scores across the board for Chinese cities. Over the past 12 months a heightened threat of civil unrest has pushed the scores of Chinese cities down by an average of 1.6%, resulting in seven Chinese cities moving down in the ranking.
The largest declines are in the Middle East. Damascus, Syria, is now at the bottom, having seen a 20% decline in livability over the last five years. And Tripoli, Libya, is also now in the bottom 10 cities, "reflecting the fact that the rebuilding process for any location plunged into war is a long one."
It's worth noting the E.I.U. doesn't make the only livability ranking, and others are less Anglo-centric (Australian and Canadian cities make up eight of the top 10 in this one). Mercer's index has Vienna, Zurich, and Auckland at the top. Monocle magazine has Copenhagen, Melbourne, and Helsinki as its best.