What does a livable city look like?

Once again, Vancouver has been ranked as one of the world's most livable cities. Why it's worth digging a little deeper behind that headline

February 24, 2016

By Max Fawcett

Good news: According to Mercer’s most recent quality of living survey, Vancouver is the fifth best place in the world in which to live. It’s surrounded on that list by a host of European destinations, from Vienna and Zurich in the first and second positions to Munich, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Copenhagen, and Geneva. Auckland squeezed into third place, while Vancouver was the only North American city to make the top ten. This is hardly a new phenomenon for Vancouver, of course, and it was placed in the top three last August by The Economist in its own ranking of the world’s most livable cities.

For the local tourism board, this is surely good news. And we should all take a moment—particularly on a day like today—to appreciate just how lucky we are to live somewhere like this, and not, say, Baghdad, which finished at the very bottom of Mercer’s rankings. But here’s the rub: Mercer’s rankings don’t take account of the fact that in order to live in a city you also have to pay for a home in it, either as a renter or an owner. The Economist’s rankings also overlook the fact that people have to actually pay for the roof over their head. Instead, they both focus on things like political stability, physical safety, recreational infrastructure, and the social safety net. And make no mistake: Vancouver deserves to score highly in every one of those areas. But ranking cities on their livability without factoring in the single biggest cost of, you know, living, is a bit like ranking hockey teams without considering the players they put on the ice.

These sorts of rankings also raise an important question that we’ve yet to seriously address in Vancouver. Do we want to build and shape this city so that it can accommodate the aspirations and ambitions of the people who live and work here? Or do we want it to be a place that acts as a good host to global capital flows and the people who ride them? As Bing Thom told New Yorker writer Jiayang Fan, “This city has become a hotel.” That’s due in part to the fact, he said, that Canada—like other countries around the world—is effectively exchanging citizenship for capital flows. “I think any country should be against that, because you’re not buying the best people,” Thom told Fan. “They don’t invest in their country. There’s no belonging. But it’s a worldwide trend. It’s happening in England. It’s happening in France. It’s happening in Australia. Everywhere.”

Whether or not we want it to happen here is a fundamental question—maybe even an existential one—that we, as Vancouverites, need to ask both ourselves and our elected officials. That isn’t to suggest that there’s an obvious or easy answer to that question. But it’s better to ask it and know where we stand—and where we want to go—than arrive one day at a destination that it turns out nobody really wanted to visit.

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