A flurry of ‘top city’ rankings have hit the media in recent days. A random sampling:
In June, Forbes Traveler magazine named Kitsilano Beach to their list of North America’s 10 Sexiest Beaches, describing it as “an intoxicating nexus of sea, forest, and mountains.” (Though in the picture they chose for the accompanying online slideshow, linked above, all you see murky grey-brown water. It’s really not our best close-up.)
Also in June, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked us number one on their liveability index, which ranks 140 cities on things like stability, health care, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. Vancouver scored a 98 out of 100.
Last week, Macleans magazine released their first-ever ranking of Canada’s “best-run” cities. Vancouver ranked fourth—notably behind our neighbours Burnaby (#1) and Surrey (#3).
And in the current issue of Monocle magazine—that highbrow compendium of business, culture, and design—Vancouver placed 14th on their annual index of the top 25 liveable cities, falling back from eighth in the 2008 ranking. They gave us points for our multicultural, multilingual character and our easy “access to nature,” but docked us for a lack of cross-border vision, calling on city leaders to “forge tighter business, cultural, and transport links with Seattle and Portland.” They also dinged us on architecture: “There are too many bad condo developments and mundane retail outlets.” (Edit note: I’d link to the piece, but it’s available only to subscribers.)
The ranking that garners the most headlines is Mercer’s global “Quality of LIving” survey, which comes out every April. This year, we ranked fourth overall (behind Vienna, Zurich, and Geneva), and placed first in the Americas for “quality of living” and “infrastructure.” That survey emphasizes the attractiveness of cities for expatriates. So, places like Vienna and Singapore score highly; Baghdad not so much.
Two observations/questions here:
One, why does Vancouver have such a presence on these lists? Because there’s a common focus on this, oftentimes, intangible notion of “liveability.” It’s not surprising Vancouver comes up in relation to it: “liveability” informed regional planning processes dating back to the 1970s—a time when other municipalities were carving up their downtowns to build freeways. (See the 2007 Douglas & McIntyre book City-Making in Paradise for a thorough discussion of liveability and regional planner Harry Lash—he of “the process is the plan” philosophy. Sounds academic perhaps, but the book lays out a model of regional planning that persists today. Metro Vancouver Urban Planning in a nutshell. Unquestionably a local achievement.
Two, what happens when the editors and analysts who prepare these rankings realize we’re still trading on our good looks and on wise decisions we made years ago? What’s actually new here?
This summer, the release of many of these rankings coincided with a rebranding effort now underway at City Hall, and nicely summarized in a story in The Tyee this week. Read it here. Maybe it’s just the mood of city councilors, maybe it’s the pressure of the upcoming Olympics—or both—but this question of how the world sees us is a persistent, very long-standing local concern. Why do we appear to crave the assurance that we’re doing okay? Why so self-conscious?
Why not create a new brand that focuses on bold, smart, forward-thinking decision-making, and leave the stale Lotusland bit behind? And why not start with a good look at housing. Enough with the years-old laneway houses debate! Lets actually create a new model of affordable market housing for families, so these international rankings focus on our progressive inclusivity rather than just our planning history and natural geography. Go!