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Why city rankings always get it wrong

December 13, 2011

Happiest cities, most livable cities, loneliest cities — the Web’s filled with lists. Almost all of them are bogus.

So says Salon:

The essence of a city, says Joe Peach, editor of the online magazine This Big City, is something more than the sum of its parts. If it wasn’t, New York and Los Angeles, with their epic congestion and high rents, would quickly depopulate. Instead, these are the places that the best and brightest dream of moving to.

And cities don’t lend themselves to rankings that pick winners and losers either, says public policy consultant Otis White. “Cities aren’t engaged in a zero-sum game. This isn’t football. Boston can do well and New York can do well.” Both can be great places for different people.

“What is vibrant and interesting to one person is loud and overwhelming to another,” says Peach. In the end, it all comes down to how you, as an individual, interact with that particular city.”

And here’s a local example of just that: Vancouver: I love you, but I’m leaving.   Or this, from Paul Hillsdon:  The future lives in Calgary, not Vancouver.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack Hope permalink
    December 13, 2011 2:05 pm

    The two blog posts you’ve cited here really resonated with me. I could have written them about my home town Calgary when I decided to move to Vancouver three years ago. Three years after that decision, despite sharing some gripes about this city, I’m generally happy with my decision and also a lot less anti-Calgary then when I left.

    I think its interesting though, that both of them spend a great deal of time complaining about Yaletown. Yaletown, depending on where you sit, is symbolic of either everything that’s terrific about Vancouver or everything that’s gone horribly wrong. For me, Yaletown is a non-entity though. I’ve lived downtown for two years and all Yaletown is for me is the place I pass through to get to the Canada Line.

    In my own case, I know that prior to my move I was projecting a lot of my own frustrations onto the place that I lived. That doesn’t mean they don’t have legitimate complaints (I share several of them) but I think the need to change cities is more driven by internal needs.

    In Mr. Hillsdon’s case while he may be enraptured by Naheed Nenshi and the growing urbanism in Calgary, I suspect he may experience a major let down. Despite the election of Allison Redford as Premeir, the provincial scene remains ossified with many of the worst traits of any petrostate. Calgary’s urban centre and neighbourhoods are a very small component of the city, outside of downtown the city remains effectively a giant office park surrounded by a suburb.

    Exciting things are happening in Calgary. Great challenges face Metro Vancouver. Depending on who you are and where you sit, ultimately determines how you will feel about living here, there or anywhere.

    • Bob permalink
      December 14, 2011 4:53 pm

      I agree with Jack, especially his Yaletown comments. I lived in the West End for a decade and basically never went to Yaletown except to visit one friend who lived on the ‘edge’ of it. Who cares about Yaletown… small geographically and not representative of the city as a whole, in any way.

      I’m convinced some people just like to bitch. This city is expensive, sure, but that’s for a reason – people want to live here. If you can’t figure out what separates it from other cities in Canada (or the world for that matter) maybe it IS better to go somewhere else. There are some things you can get here that you literally can’t get elsewhere. And with a population that is mainly made up of transplants from other parts of Canada or the world, it’s impossible to generalize about Vancouverites without making statements on humanity almost as a whole.

  2. December 13, 2011 2:31 pm

    Agreed with commenters here and on the blog posts: those two Vancouver posts very eloquently express feelings I, and apparently others, share. And the focus on yaletown/city-of-glass-and-snobs is very telling.

    To paraphrase Orwell, if there is hope perhaps it lies in Mount Pleasant (or further East)? Start-up vibrancy (“cowboy hard work, camaraderie and entrepreneurship”) needs cheap (almost there in rents) density (coming). And probably cheaper beer (sleeves average $5 south of Broadway, IME).

  3. December 13, 2011 11:11 pm

    It’s not a zero-sum game, but I hope that the lists encourage competition among cities, e.g., to see who can be most bike-friendly!

  4. Jack Hope permalink
    December 15, 2011 1:37 pm

    One other thought that occurs to me having read your reply: the complaints about the “transience” of the population in Vancouver. Populations are transient everywhere, that’s part of the nature of our modern urban experience, but I suspect its a particularly a common occurrence in Canada then in other countries.

    Geographically this country is big, with only a few scattered urban outposts. We have a pretty high level of worker mobility. We’re currently undergoing a fairly substantial internal migration, from East to West. We have a constant stream of newcomers from all corners of the planet.

    Transience is a defining feature of the modern Canadian City.

  5. Jack Hope permalink
    December 15, 2011 1:37 pm

    Sorry, last comment was in response to Bob.

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