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April 03, 2007

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Mercer Consulting has just released its 2007 rankings of quality of life in global cities.  Swiss cities - Zürich and Geneva - took the top two spots.  German and Scandinavian cities did well with Düsseldorf, Frankfurt,Munich, Stockholm and Copenhagen  ranking highly. Canadian cities were up there with Vancouver and Toronto leading the way for North American cities. Cities in Australia and New Zealand did very well with Auckland, Wellington, Sydney and Melbourne all ranking highly. US cities were far down the list with Honolulu 27th, San Francisco 29th, Washington DC 44th, and New York City 48th. Foreign Policy's blog makes the point that: "All of the top ten most expensive cities in the world, except Reykjavik, make the top fifty. So even if money doesn't buy you happiness, at least it gets you quality of life."

Click here for the story, or here to go directly to the city rankings (pointer from Globalburgh).

If quality of life matters in the location decisions of top talent, what does this say about the future of US locations?


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John Whiteside

These city rankings are so suspect, though; what makes for a high quality of life for different individuals varies so greatly.

I always get a chuckle out of them because my city (Houston) never ranks high, but I moved here - after living in Washington, DC and Boston - because the quality of life is so astonishly higher (for me). Specifically: I can live in a comfortable space in a central city neighborhood, minutes from everywhere I want to be, at a price that doesn't crush me. (Which meant I was able to start a business, something that would have been much harder in DC or Boston.) The city has a thriving business community. The tolerance factor is very high - as a gay man I'm extremely comfortable here. The local arts scene is not Manhattan's, but it's good; I have easy access to the rest of North America; the open space makes it easy to have dogs and cats, very important to me; the restaurants are numerous and excellent; and the general sense of life here is open, friendly, and plesasant.

There are tons of housing options, from big suburban houses to downtown lofts. You can move through these options as life changes without moving far. The traffic is rumored to be awful, but it's nothing like DC (NoVA particularly) or NY.

Now, if you hate hot weather, or you need pretty scenery, or you've just got to have a thoroughly walkable neighborhood (instead of a couple of things you can get to on foot or bike), this would be an awful place to live. If, on the other hand, sultry evenings and tropical vegetation in your backyard just make you happy for no particular reason (like me), it's great.

What's also interesting is that there are tons for former northeasterners who found the same things. And I know a couple of Parisians who are extremely happy to be in Houston (and a Londoner too!).

So what do these lists really mean? I think they tend to combine so many factors that they lose meaning; those top cities offer something great for everybody, but perhaps the negatives are similarly diluted.

So any idea that uses one of these lists as its basis is, in my idea, highly suspect.


John- Agreed. It is very hard to measure quality of life because it varies so much from person to person. I also like Houston a great deal too. I was not at all surprised when it made the top 10 in my original creativity index rankings. But even if we take these rankings with a huge grain of salt and consider them as an ordinal scale, the low ranks accorded to US cities make me sit up and think. If highly skilled people are mobile, if large numbers of them are non-American, if they can choose where they want to live, and if quality of life is a factor, this seems to bode not-so-very-well for US cities in the medium run.

Charlie D.

One big difference between US cities and others on the list is the effect the personal automobile has had on them. Only now are we trying to undo a lot of the congestion that has been caused in US cities through the building of urban highways and neglect in developing public transit. The US cities that do rank well on the list are more pedestrian-friendly, bicycle-friendly, and have good public transit. In general, it seems like Canada and Europe managed to prevent huge road building projects and sprawl-type car-dependent development from having as big of an impact on their cities.


I think US cities rightly come up short in quality of life rankings because of high crime -- specifically murder -- rates. There's been much wailing and gnashing of teeth lately in Britain, for instance, about the crime surge supposedly afflicting the capital. Well, last time I checked, London's murder rate was about one fifteenth that of America's capital. Crime statistics are notoriously unreliable as they're subject to local differences in reporting and defining techniques, but you can't, as the old saw goes, "fake a body." America is simply a lot more dangerous than most of the rest of the rich world.

That said, I do wonder if perhaps this survey has underplayed cost of living differences. Doing so, would, of course, tend to hurt most American cities. If you're a CEO or top level executive, being transfered to an extremely expensive city is no big thing. My guess is the survey probably underweighted cost of living differences in comparison to how I would do it.

John Whiteside

One thing that I thought was really interesting about Houston in the stats in "The Rise of the Creative Class" was this: it was, if I recall correctly, the only city that had a lot of creative workers AND a lot of blue collar workers. Other cities seemed to be falling clearly into the "hot new creative economy" or "old economy" categories and Houston just doesn't. (Which is why even in our trendy neighborhoods, you tend to find artists and web designers living next door to plumbers and contractors.) I think it's a big element in the personality of the city.

Another thing that isn't widely recognized if you don't live here: because of the oil industry, we have a huge number of well traveled professionals; my partner works in that industry, and it's amazing how he and his peers all have passports stuffed with stamps from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Even when I lived in DC I don't think I so regularly heard things like "Well, when I was in Lagos..." or "when I go to Kuala Lumpur next month" or informed comparisons of the pros and cons of changing planes in various European airports. (I've never seen an industry put its people on airplanes with the frequency of the energy industry.)

One way that I think oil is emblematic of Houston: it's an industry that's very "old" in that it's all about getting dirty stuff out of the ground... but it's laden with technological innovation and tied to geopolitics. Old and new in one package. Roughnecks and software developers.

It's very much a city of contradictions, but not bad ones. Another: miles and miles of freeways, and the most successful light rail start in years (in terms of passenger boardings) with more to come.

It makes it a very interesting place to live.

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