The Economist produces a research report on the top 10 most livable cities in the world. How many have you been to? How do your favorites fare?
What Are The World’s Most Livable Cities?
This year’s top 10 most livable cities are ranked as:
- Zurich + Calgary
- Osaka and Melbourne
Can this list make any sense at all?
Many of these cities are awesome, I'm sure, but these lists tend to be biased towards cities that are cold, expensive, or boring, which suggests that the listmakers have a shitty definition of "livability".
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) July 25, 2022
Vienna is incredible, but I wouldn’t want to live there though I’ve been attached to it since Richard Linklater’s 1995 classic Before Sunrise where young American Ethan Hawke is traveling Europe and meets Frenchwoman Julie Delpy on a train. They disembark together in Vienna and spend the night talking, walking the city, and falling in love.
At the end of the film they don’t exchange numbers. Instead they plan to meet up again in Europe in six months, and the film ends leaving viewers wondering whether they actually do (a question that’s answered 9 years later in the outstanding Before Sunset).
But Zurich is the third most-livable city in the world? Maybe if you’re a commodities trader. It’s among the most expensive, to be sure.
I’ll suggest that Toronto is one of the most underrated cities in the world even though it is cold and that Vancouver is excellent as well. I’d prefer both over Calgary.
Amsterdam is way too crowded in the summer to make this list, and they can’t even staff their airport.
I wouldn’t myself choose any German city for world’s top 10, but if forced to do so can’t imagine picking Frankfurt. Surely it’s among the less-interesting German cities.
Melbourne belongs here. Tokyo and Sydney seem missing. (Melbourne is a great food city, but if you care about food how can you not include Tokyo?). I understand the role of the pandemic, and pandemic response, but the list is certainly underweight Asia Pacific generally.
What Does It Mean To Be A Livable City?
There is no U.S. city on the Economist list and that doesn’t make sense to me. It leads me to work through ‘what exactly is it to be livable’ and I went through the exercise myself after I considered where to move after 18 years in the D.C. area. I thought about South Florida (I don’t love the food). I considered Nevada (but didn’t want to live in Las Vegas, and the idea of Nevada not Las Vegas…). I settled on Austin, Texas.
People complain about (3) things in Austin.
- High real estate prices because it’s expensive for Texas. Zoning and cumbersome processes within the city limits make it expensive to build, and people want to live there. But it’s not expensive compared to the Northeast or to Northern and Southern California.
- Traffic There are certainly streets that are busy at peak times, but nothing again compared to the Northeast. I moved here and thought the traffic was downright civilized compared to the 495 Beltway at the 270 Spur around 5 p.m. on a Thursday.
- Heat in the summer but we don’t have super cold winters, and Austin is in Central Texas. It’s not humid compared to Houston or for that matter D.C. which is built on a swamp. I’ll take 100 in Austin over 90 in D.C. any day.
No place is perfect, but I chose to move to Austin because I found it the most livable. There are more days of sunshine and plenty of parks and outdoor activities. When I first moved here there weren’t a lot of ‘great’ restaurants outside of barbecue but everything was above average. And there was culture, too, in the form of music (for which it’s known) and experimental theater. I viewed it as being like San Francisco dropped in the middle of Texas with a compact downtime and all of the administrative benefits of not being in California.
When I moved here it seemed like ‘everyone was moving to Austin’ and Jon Stewart did his show from here for a week. He covered ‘the immigration problem’ and sent a reporter to the Austin border. One ‘man on the street interview’ subject remarked that Austin was nothing like it was when they moved here six days ago.
And yet it was still underrated. Now it is probably fairly rated, although problems are starting to show. High housing prices reveal political limits to housing construction that drive up costs, a City Council that meddles in the airport and slows development, and rhetoric that is anti-police yet offers some of the most egregious contracts to police in the nation (yet delivers poorly on service).
So what does it mean to be a livable city, really? Contra any group of experts I’d suggest that it varies by the individual and what they are looking for.
- Food matters to many, but what kind of food matters will differ. Austin is a burgeoning food city but we’re poor in Southeast Asian cuisine.
- Weather matters, but are you looking to avoid too cold (like me) or too hot?
- Taxes matter if you have money, regulation matters if you’re in business or looking for a job. Texas is one of the more heavily-regulated states for occupational licensing.
Ironically for an energy-producing state, one of the top issues here is the electricity grid – which comes down to an increasing demand for energy that isn’t met by sufficient growth in supply (mostly a function of federal rules).
Perhaps It’s Better To Think In Terms Of Underrated And Overrated
For a long time New York and San Francisco were highly rated. Many people lived there, or wanted to. The benefit of being in close proximity to others for job, cultural, and dating opportunities mattered. And that was reflected in housing costs.
It’s probably the case that physical proximity matters less in tech than it used to, though I’d still rather be in Silicon Valley than most other places if trying to make a name for myself. And still better to be in the New York area for banking and finance.
New York City
Both are important places to consider when you’re young (just like you’d move to D.C. for policy) but not necessarily to raise a family. There’s no place other than New York that I’d want to be if I had $50 million or $100 million dollars! But for quality of life outside of your 20’s I regard it as overrated, and I certainly don’t want the winters.
Austin used to be underrated but enough people have discovered it and bid up prices. Boise is probably no longer underrated. Nashville might still be somewhat underrated.
There’s a natural tendency for a place to lose its character as it becomes well known for its character. Portland and Austin both proclaimed themselves as keeping their cities weird. Yet as people not steeped into the culture move in, and bid up housing prices, artists and creatives get bid out of downtowns and a place will almost inevitably become more homogenized. It’s worth getting in early to really experience a place, rather than having one’s experience with CBGB’s be as an OTG restaurant at Newark airport.
What’s the most livable city in the U.S.? It’s certainly not Boston or Chicago. Weather is great in Southern California but – having gone to school there – I’m not sure what else I’d grant it. Florida is one half of the Germany or Florida game.
I suspect that an exodus of some wealth and a reduction in office use will wind up making the city of New York more dysfunctional (city services and administration) but more interesting if office could get turned into housing, increasing supply and driving down rents. Imagine if it could become Berlin of 15 years ago. But for now it’s hard to imagine better U.S. cities than Austin, Boise and Nashville – unless your career requires proximity.