Here’s why you should ignore liveable cities rankings

Oh look, a city. Image: Getty.

At last count, there were over 500 rankings that pit cities around the world against each other: from the most intricately measured quality of life indices, to infographics of how often postal workers get attacked by dogs.

As cities look to compete globally, the business of ranking cities has grown. In much the same way that sports clubs will pay eye-watering sums for star players to win the top prize, urban managers will buy in “starchitects”, global consultancy firms and PR companies, to help them climb these city league tables.

Yet the only prize for reaching the top appears to be rocketing prices for housing, services, transport and food. Indeed, many cities at the top of the tables experience pronounced inequality. Frankfurt, for example, is ranked seventh in the Mercer Quality of Life rankings, while also scoring high for inequality.

Though some efforts are being made to address the flaws in city rankings, they continue to be touted as a viable means of urban analysis. But as someone who scrutinises cities closely and researches the people who live in them, I think it’s time to ignore city rankings because they do more harm than good.

For one thing, only 1 per cent of these rankings are conducted by city governments – the rest are run by private companies. As such, there’s a risk that focus and funding can be diverted from the issues that matter to citizens, as city authorities aim to appease the rankings criteria and promote themselves on the global stage.

For example, while austerity continues to bite in the UK, the Greater London Authority’s communications budget has doubled since 2009. All the while, rankings only ever identify a potential problem, never offer ways to address it, placing the burden on public institutions.

Data domination

The growing use of data-gathering technology in cities is giving authorities unprecedented amounts of information on citizens, housing, health care, transport systems, the built environment and more. As well as driving the global rise of smart cities – in all their different shapes and forms – these technologies are integral to city rankings.

But as with any use of big data and AI, there’s a significant risk that the biases of those who operate them are transposed into the results – as with technologies used by police and the criminal justice system, which were critiqued for reinforcing prejudice against minorities.

Data can be prejudiced, too. Image: ssoosay/Flickr/creative commons.

City rankings reinforce a fixation with data. But if authorities focus on bumping certain metrics up or down to climb these league tables, at best, they risk overlooking the complex nature of many urban issues, such as homelessness. At worst, they could entrench discrimination against their own citizens. Clearly, ethical checks need to be placed at the core of data-gathering developments in cities.


Missing the point

On a more fundamental level, ranking different cities against each other according to specific criteria destroys the essence of that city as a whole. A city is far more than a collection of how many museums it has, or how efficient its transportation system is, or how clean its water is, or how many people die in bike accidents at rush hour – or whatever other metric is used.

Shanghai is a world away from Sheffield, yet rankings seek to compare them using specific minute criteria with no consideration of their social, political, economic, ecological and historical context.

Ever since Walter Benjamin walked the streets of Paris, trying to analyse the social complexity of the contemporary metropolis, urban scholars have been at pains to articulate the inarticulable: what makes a city the intense, immersive and deeply emotional experience it is.

Cities can’t be ranked by homeliness or by the thrill we experience when viewing the sparkling nightscape from a rooftop. No measure of the rate of knife crime can help to address the deep political, cultural and domestic life histories of those who perpetrate it. These experiences are deeply contextual, tacit and subjective, but it doesn’t make them any less important.

City rankings seek to carve the urban environment up into pockets of data, to be captured, analysed and ordered. In doing so, they’re actually doing damage to the fabric of urban life that holds the city together. It’s time to experience and manage the lived reality of cities, not the ranking of them.

Oli Mould, Lecturer in Human Geography, Royal Holloway.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.