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May 8, 2023

Opinion: London tops Europe’s “best cities” ranking – why you shouldn’t be bothered

What can ranking cities by more abstract concepts actually tell us when the data is at best second-hand and at worst subjective?

By Johannes Novy

It’s official: despite Brexit issues and the cost of living crisis, not to mention the by-now-commonplace strikes that regularly bring the city to a standstill, London has ranked first as the “best city” in Europe. 

That is at least what the recently published ‘Top 100 European cities to live, work and invest‘ ranking claims, in which the British capital came first, ahead of Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona

city rankings
Judging the ‘best’ anything can be subjective, especially when it comes to cities. (Photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

In today’s world where everything and everyone is increasingly ranked and rated – from hotels and restaurants to universities – it’s no surprise that city rankings have become increasingly common. Hundreds of them exist, rating cities’ less tangible metrics such as overall “attractiveness” or such things as their prosperity, creativity, coolness, resilience, quality of life or appeal as tourist destinations, as opposed to solid data such as population, GDP or green credentials.

Yet while their exact focus and areas of concern may vary, they all have one thing in common – they must always be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Problems with ‘best cities’

The problems with city rankings are manifold. Cities for one are complex systems that cannot be reduced to a simple set of criteria or indicators. Rankings suggest that there is an objective truth that can be determined through empirical observation and measurement, but the reality is that many, if not most, of the factors – social, economic, cultural – that make a city ‘attractive’ or whatever are not easily quantifiable and extremely difficult to capture with any one set of metrics, no matter how good these might be. 

Added to this is the fact that the criteria and indicators used are often arbitrary and narrow and that the varying perceptions, perspectives and experiences of city dwellers are typically given only partial consideration. What makes a city liveable or great for one person is, needless to say, not necessarily the same for another, and if one looks at the way many city rankings are produced, it is obvious that many of them have an elitist bias toward them, as they tend to focus on criteria that appeal primarily to those with significant financial means

Considering the number of high-end retailers or Michelin-starred restaurants to gauge a city’s attractiveness, for example, overlooks the vast majority of residents who cannot afford to shop or dine in such establishments, and use property prices as a measure of a city’s desirability, as is often done, seems somewhat cynical, given the hardship this places on people with low incomes. 

The methodological ranking pitfalls 

A further issue with city rankings is their over-reliance on second-hand data, which can be manipulated by governments and organisations seeking to boost their image or simply be incomplete, inaccurate or out of date. 

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Related to this, the comparability of data – or lack thereof – is another major problem, as the data for each city under scrutiny typically vary in terms of its quality, scope and methodology, making it difficult to draw accurate and meaningful comparisons between them. 

And, of course, they are a plethora of other issues that come with comparing – and ranking – cities that are fundamentally different in size, culture, geography and history. 

In their quest to quantify the unquantifiable, measure the immeasurable and compare the incomparable, rankings tend to work with reductionist and rigid benchmarks and metrics that are unable to capture the unique qualities – as well as strengths and weaknesses – of different urban ecosystems and ultimately paint a distorted and incomplete picture that neither does justice to the internal diversity and complexity of individual cities nor provides a sufficiently nuanced representation of how different cities compare with each other.

There is no doubt that many of the organisations and companies behind the endless barrage of city-ranking publications we have seen in recent years are aware of this, and it must, to be fair, be said that rankings vary greatly with regard to the effort and care that goes into them. 

What are the real criteria for a ‘best city’ rankings?

The now-published ‘Europe’s Best Cities 2023’ ranking, produced by the Canadian consultancy firm Resonance, which also runs an annual global ‘Top 100 Cities’ and a ‘Top American Cities’ survey, ranks in this context surely among the particularly dubious ranking exercises. 

Dubious both because of what the ranking includes and what it omits. Among the ranking’s 24 criteria, which are divided into six core categories – place, people, programme, product, prosperity and promotion – are oddities like the “size of the largest convention centre”, the “number of direct destinations served by the city’s airports” or the number of Facebook check-ins and Instagram hashtags, while countless other – perhaps more relevant – factors are either not at all or only peripherally taken into account. 

Factors such as the availability, affordability and quality of housing, healthcare and education, for example, or equity and inclusion, that is, metrics such as income inequality, racial and gender diversity and social mobility, not to mention environmental concerns such as air and water quality, biodiversity and disaster preparedness.

Resonance, by its own account a “leading global advisor on placemaking, branding and marketing for the world’s best cities” may claim to build “the most comprehensive global and regional city rankings on the planet”. However, the impression that emerges from studying its rankings is rather that it is particularly illustrative examples of how rankings are often created less out of a genuine interest in advancing knowledge and understanding, than for the purpose of generating attention for the consultancies that create them, using them as clickbait to attract clients and establish themselves as experts in urban planning and development. 

All this might elicit a loud “so what?” if it were not for the real danger of politicians and other stakeholders looking to rankings for guidance, leading to misguided policies and missed opportunities. This being the case, ignoring dubious city rankings does not cut it, they need to be actively rebuffed for what they, more often than not, are: reductionist and ultimately counterproductive to understanding – and advancing – the complex and multifaceted nature of urban environments, as well as the diverse needs and aspirations of the people who inhabit them.

[Read more: There is not a single London postcode where the average spare room rent is below £700 a month]

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