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Blog // Creativity
April 8, 2010

Urban Rankings

“…cities are always already social and ideological, immersed in narrative, constantly moving chess pieces in the game of defining and redefining utopias and dystopias. – Colin McArthur” Quality of life surveys and city rankings are something of a love/hate obsession for me. On the one hand, I’m fascinated by the whole exercise of comparing cities; […]

“…cities are always already social and ideological, immersed in narrative, constantly moving chess pieces in the game of defining and redefining utopias and dystopias. – Colin McArthur”

Quality of life surveys and city rankings are something of a love/hate obsession for me. On the one hand, I’m fascinated by the whole exercise of comparing cities; their local cultures, their approaches to planning issues and the extent to which they foster creativity and enterprise. On the other hand, any rankings are, at best exercises in over-simplification and, at worst, works of fiction that reflect the success of various city’s marketing and public relations departments.

That’s why Reinier de Graaf’s piece on rankings, in yesterday’s Financial Times, caught my eye. His point is that rankings often favour cities that are convenient and affluent, but don’t always have a distinctive local character. Behind this is a structural problem: more and more cities rely on the same pool of ideas from the private sector (developers and consultants) as a response to public planning issues.

“As a consequence, new “urban hot spots” share the same generic composition of uses everywhere – with the same type of architecture to accommodate them.”

It is always interesting to see how Hong Kong fares in these kinds of exercises. My feeling is that in some rankings the city will do better and better – not because of any real structural changes but as a consequence of an aggressive promotional campaign. The city has improved, in some ways, since I moved here in 2006. There is more live music, more support for the arts (especially in terms of changes to zoning laws and festivals), more cafes, more boutique hotels and in TST an emerging shopping precinct that rises above anything Hong Kong has seen before.

But, looking back on some comments I made in relation to the Monocle Quality of Life Index back in 2009 and 2008 I would still have reservations recommending Hong Kong as a great place to live or set up a creative shop. This is still a city where things are sold, but seldom made, where shopping malls rule, pedestrians are an after-thought and air quality continues to get worse. Moreover, the city has yet to demonstrate that it will use the three major development projects currently underway to change direction towards a more open and sustainable way of life (something I previously addressed here, here and here).

Often rankings tell us far more about those making the lists than the cities that are being ranked. Some indices, address the needs of major corporations and recruitment firms to be able to move managers and executives easily from one somewhat generic city to another. Some rankings speak more to the aspirations of writers for exoticism or something approaching a “creative lifestyle.” Some are simply reflections of current trends in consumerism or fashion.

I grew up in Sydney, which gives me reason to be sceptical about the high grade that city is often given. Sure, the harbour-front is stunning, but only a tiny minority of the population can live within sight of it. Sure there is plenty of nature and open space, but the obesity epidemic suggests fewer and fewer locals take advantage of it. Moreover, there are endemic problems with racism and violence. Finally, there is the problem of Sydney’s dramatically failing public transport and declining standards of healthcare.

Not that rankings always fail. In 2008 Monocle magazine recognised Copenhagen as the most liveable city. A few months later I was in Copenhagen, staying at the Monocle recommended Hotel Nimb. I loved my few days there are left with the feeling that the city really was a triumph of urban planning. It was walkable, friendly and unlike many major cities, inhabited by real small boutiques, workshops and design studios.

What is often missed is the relationship cities have to their past. London today is tied, not just to centuries as a seat of power and commerce, but also to post-industrial decline, World War II and post-capitalism (especially the Thatcher years). Similarly Sydney is a product of the waves of immigration that have both shaped and stressed it. And, Hong Kong is a product of both its colonial history and the relentless drive to destroy any visual clue to that heritage, replacing it with a generic retail-polis.

For all their limitations, rankings and quality of life indices allow us not just to compare cities, but to compare ideas about what cities are what they can be. Just as there is no ultimate city that can satisfy all lifestyle options and social aspirations, so there is no final idea about how urban life can be maximised. Rather, there are disparate attempts at solving the problems of mass living, from transport and health, to creativity and commerce. These problems both pre-date us and will out live us. All we can do is watch the relative success and failure of different attempts by different cities to address them.

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