Vienna: the world’s most liveable city?

For the third year in a row, Vienna has topped the list of the ‘world’s best city to live in’, or at least that’s what the headlines proclaim.

I’ve always found these rankings slightly puzzling. OK, so Baghdad is at the bottom of the table; that’s understandable. However, some of the other placings always seem off.

Barcelona at 40? London at 38? Come on!

So, let’s investigate this city-livability malarkey and see what’s really going on here…

IMG_2397The annual ranking is drawn up by Mercer, a private consultancy firm. According to their website, “Mercer conducts the survey to help governments and multi-national companies compensate employees fairly when placing them on international assignments. Mercer’s Quality of Living reports provide valuable information and hardship premium recommendations for major cities throughout the world.”

So, first off, the purpose of the list is to tell companies how much to pay their employees. It isn’t intended as a guide of where in the world you’ll be happiest.

In fact, calling the list a ‘survey’ is misleading. That makes it sound like they’ve actually bothered to ask city residents how they rate their quality of life. What really happens is that Mercer draws up the list by analysing living conditions according to 39 factors, grouped into 10 categories:

1. Political and social environment (political stability, crime, law enforcement, etc)

2. Economic environment (currency exchange regulations, banking services, etc)

3. Socio-cultural environment (censorship, limitations on personal freedom, etc)

4. Health and sanitation (medical supplies and services, infectious diseases, sewage, waste disposal, air pollution, etc)

5. Schools and education (standard and availability of international schools, etc)

6. Public services and transportation (electricity, water, public transport, traffic congestion, etc)

7. Recreation (restaurants, theatres, cinemas, sports and leisure, etc)

8. Consumer goods (availability of food/daily consumption items, cars, etc)

9. Housing (housing, household appliances, furniture, maintenance services, etc)

10. Natural environment (climate, record of natural disasters)

So, Vienna has high-quality international schools and banking services that are attractive to internationally mobile business executives. Fine, but that has nothing to do with the quality of life of your average Vienna resident, who may well envy the Catalans sipping beer on the terraces of Barcelona in November, or the Londoners enjoying world-class curries in the East-end.

‘Vienna is the best place to live in the world’, actually means ‘Vienna is the most cost-effective place to send your employees’!

I’ll give the final word to Mercer themselves. How confident are they in their city ranking report? “In no event will Mercer be liable for any decision made or action taken in reliance of the results obtained through the use of, or the information and/or data contained in or provided by, the Reports.”

Yup.

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5 thoughts on “Vienna: the world’s most liveable city?

  1. Sorry to say, but your conclusion just doesn’t fit to the paragraph before it. Because Mercer actually considers hard facts that have implications on the life of -everybody- in the city. They consider the natural environment, the public transport (that’s even more important for the “average Viennese” than the wealthy expat that might have more money and use his car), health and sanitation services, schools, cheap housing etc – and in your conclusion you just talk about “top international schools” and “banking”. You see what I mean?

    The study doesn’t consider the great Curries in the East End or the fine weather in Barcelona because that’s highly subjective. Maybe the guys in Barcelona miss the fine Viennese pastries or the lush forests.

    The study does it’s best to quantify a cities quality. Of course, Vienna won’t be your choice if you -need- a sunny beach. Or if you need everybody to smile at you all the time. Or if you want to choose from ten thousand clubs every night. But if you want a city where life’s good, where it’s clean, you have great public transport, low criminality, efficient public services, great drinking water from the tap, nightlife, sumptuous cultural events, social security, lovely parks, lush forests – come to Vienna.

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  2. Hey, thanks for your comment!

    My complaint isn’t with Vienna, which is certainly a great place to live, or even with Mercer, who are simply providing information for international companies and governments. It is with the press who report these rankings as if they were a reflection of quality of life, which they are not.

    Firstly, that’s not the purpose of the list, secondly, while transport, health care and education may be important for everyone, the differences between these factors in cities in developed countries is relatively marginal, but is reflected in disproportionately large differences in their rankings. If the infrastructure, education and health care are of a more-or-less equivalent standard in Dublin, Perth and Vancouver, then subjective factors become crucial in determining in which of the cities any given individual will have a better quality of life. I agree these factors can’t be measured. Thats part of my point about the ridiculousness of reporting these rankings as if they were a guide of where to live! That’s something completely personal, of course 🙂

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  3. Of course, I see what you mean. These media reactions were to be expected, that’s what mainstream media do all around the world. You can’t measure an individuals quality of life somewhere, that’s clear. The best example is the Viennese peoples’ “sudern”. That’s one of the most charming mannerisms of the people here, you’ll get to know this: Viennese have the spectacular ability to find something to rant about even if everything’s perfect. We’re getting a spectacular new Central Station? Oooh, the subway is soooo far away from it. We’re getting a new pedestrian area on Mariahilfer Straße? Ooooh, nobody will go there anymore! The sun is shining? Oooh, it’s much too hot for that time of the year! The boy who just helped Granny to carry her bags? Nice, but oooh, look at his pants, if I were his parent … Reading the Vienneses’ comments about the “most livable”-award you get the impression, Vienna must be somewhere between Kabul and Baghdad. 😉

    I think there’s reason to be proud about that ranking – we can’t influence the weather or the land around us and only to a very limited extent our character: but a ranking like this might be a help to further improve the rest, to compare it, ask questions: What can we do better, what has worked fine, why?

    btw: I hope, my English isn’t too bad – but I’m trying to get better. 😉

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  4. Vienna is the greatest city I’ve ever been to and I’ve lived in London, Paris, and New York. You are showing your unfamiliarity with Vienna. Of course you can eat curries in Vienna as well. Maybe Londoners would miss sipping some awesome Austrian wine while enjoying a Croatian fish dinner. Every major city has food highlights. And though Barcelona has great outdoor eating and drinking places, Vienna has over 5000 outdoor cafes and gardens. They don’t have to travel a thousand miles to another city to enjoy these pleasures. Vienna is also one of he world’s greatest cultural cities, possessor of an amazing public transit sysytem. over 50% of the city is green, and it does this despite dealing with the challenges of integrating one of Europe’s largest immigrant populations. Oh and it’s pretty darn safe too!

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  5. Thanks for your comment! My point wasn’t so much that Vienna isn’t a great city, rather that the factors used in the rating system are designed for companies relocating their employees and consequently take into account things that are irrelevant to most people. The newspapers then compound the problem by reporting the rankings as if they should be taken as an objective measure of ‘liveability’, as if such a measurement even could be made!

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