Saturday, 7 January 2012

2012 and the best city in the world

It is raining, windy and 2 °C. Fast cars and puddles are a reliable combination to get you wet, when you wait at the traffic lights that never get green. The sun rises officially 9.21 and disappears a little half past 3 in the after noon, but in fact it's just gray and dim all day long. When I leave the shop, the person in walking front of me slaps the door on my nose. When I'm in the bus, I can be sure to catch a cold from one of the sneezing and sniffing creatures around me. It seems there are a thousand places better to be than here in Helsinki.

But Monocle selected Helsinki as the most liveable city of 2011! How is that possible? According to Mercer Vienna has the highest quality of living in November 2011. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) says in July 2011 Melbourne is the most liveable city. Should I be rather in Vienna or Melbourne?

Both, EIU and Mercer offer their ranking for the calculation of hardship allowances. This means that internationally acting companies use the ranking to calculate, how much more they offer their employees, when they work abroad. Working in Vienna or Melbourne might have a high quality of living, but the hardship allowance is probably rather small. Quite the opposite applies to Harare (Zimbabwe) or Baghdad (Iraq) at the bottom of EIU's and Mercer's rankings. For this purpose the rankings should be based on facts and objective criteria. They can not take into account, whether I like my neighbor or dislike Austrian food. Indeed, Mercer claims that its “criteria for Quality of Living are objective, neutral and unbiased”.

Well, Monocle's index is based on the editors' opinion (amongst other factors). So it is a rather subjective rating. Also my opinion about living in Helsinki is sometimes more positive than at this specific moment.

But how come, that the supposedly objective rankings don't match? In the EIU ranking Vienna holds the second place, but Melbourne is only 18th in Mercer's ranking. Despite the objectivity of many indicators, a ranking has to include necessarily a number of normative and subjective factors. Mercer rates 221 cities with 39 factors in 10 categories, EIU has 140 cities with 31 factors and 5 categories. Do I consider private and public healthcare as two separate factors or is it sufficient to consider hospital services in general? How does the number of natural disasters affect the hardship of a place? Do I consider culture and environment more important than healthcare?

An observation camera can make me feel secure in one city, while I feel restricted in my freedom in another city. One and the same objective fact can lead to a very different judgment. So should I leave all objectivity for a very personal and subjective view? And I wouldn't rely on the judgments of Monocle's editors either. Some time ago I stumbled upon the web page of the “fairest city in the world*. The evaluation system for the fairest city gives me the chance to find my own perception of cities, facts and their importance (in 50 categories). It helps to strip down the view on a city into observations, what these mean for the city and how they affect me personally.

Contrary to my first thoughts, it is not an easy task. It challenges your prejudices and sheds light on aspects of your city that you never thought of before. After one city and 50 categories I felt certainly exhausted, but I gained also new understanding, why subjectivity is inevitable.

* I recommend using the German version offairest city in the world, if possible. The English translations seem to me sometimes so crude that I hardly got an idea what it should mean.

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