Do city rankings really matter?

Medellin, Columbia: a city with a brand problem. Image: Getty.

Cities are engaged in a global popularity contest with a lot at stake. Each competes to be judged the happiest, the healthiest, the most liveable, or the least violent, to name but a few. Perhaps they also aim to win the title of “most reputable”.

The winners (and the losers) become the subject of media reports that unpack both their assets and their failings. And these results tend to stick. While the title of “Most Liveable City” may help attract the next wave of expats or foreign students, winning “Most Violent City” risks scaring tourists away altogether. In today’s uncertain times, a label like this is enough to make people turn their backs on a city without a second thought.

“It’s possible that people could change their opinion [of a city] based on these results,” says Fernando Prado, the managing partner at Reputation Institute, a global reputation management firm responsible for the annual Reputable Cities Index, which Sydney won this year. “I don’t know if it’s a strong effect, but there’s certainly an effect present.”

Most city rankings are the product of research conducted by international consultancies, agencies and think tanks. Their methodology tends to rely either on traditional market-research opinion polls, which Reputation Institute uses, or on collecting and analysing a variety of city-related data.

Whether either of these are the most effective tools for the job is the subject of some debate. “City brand rankings work more as a ‘shouting platform’ for the city’s image,” says Eduardo Oliveira, a PhD candidate in strategic spatial planning at the University of Groningen. “Yes, rankings can influence people’s perceptions of a city. But it’s important to stay critical about the position of a city in any ranking.”

Prado uses Colombia as an example, in particular the city of Medellin, which has improved significantly over the last decade. “It used to be unsafe, so the stereotypes among G8 people are still not good – drug dealers, kidnapping, and so on. But perceptions and reality are two different things.”

In other words, potential tourists from the US and Europe tend to focus on overall perceptions of Colombia, rather than the reality of life in its cities. This will make them less likely to visit, despite significant improvements on the ground.   

In rankings based on opinion polls, the type of people surveyed also tends to influence the end result. For example, the Reputable Cities Index surveys 19,000 respondents from across the G8 countries (France, Germany, Italy, UK, US, Canada, Japan and Russia).

Surveying G8 respondents makes sense, Prado says, because most of the world’s tourism and foreign investment potential comes from these locations. But this approach doesn’t necessarily represent a global viewpoint. Instead it produces a ranking with a heavily “Eurocentric” perspective, failing to consider the opinions of large (and economically significant) portions of the world, such as China or India.

José Torres, CEO of Madrid-based place branding agency Bloom Consulting, offers a different perspective on existing place rankings. His team’s newest project, the Digital Country Index, was created using big data: over half a billion online search terms. It ranks 180 countries according to their performance in the five categories judged most important to a strong brand: tourism, investment, exports, talent, and national prominence.

“It’s a new angle, a measure of people’s proactive interest that focuses on the digital world,” Torres said. “The act of searching for a specific country or city is a clear indicator of how interesting that place is.”

Data used in the Digital Country Index comes from global online searches, as performed in nine languages. By using a scope as broad as this, the results might help to provide a balanced picture of the world’s interest in different places.

As the name suggests, the initial Digital Country Index focuses on countries. But Bloom is already using this methodology to advise a range of city governments. The agency has collected trillions of search keywords for cities, so it’s only a matter of time before a “Digital Cities Index” emerges.

It’s easy to get carried away with city rankings. But perhaps the most important consideration should be how a city’s position in a ranking affects the quality of life of its residents. Oliveira cautions that cities need to make wise use of these rankings, if they're to be for the benefit of their residents.

“What would make residents happy is affordable housing, safe and useful public spaces, more job opportunities, fair and open access to health and education, along with public services that serve the community’s needs,” he says. “City rankings would be far more valuable if politicians used them as a tool to actually improve cities, rather than just communicating their top position to the world.”

The intangible nature of many rankings means that cities may struggle to interpret the results and turn them into practical action. This can be problematic, because a city brand needs concrete plans and strategies in order to improve.

City rankings can offer a useful way to compare and contrast city performance. But to ensure cities benefit, their governments should only use the results to enhance their existing city development strategies. A ranking that publicly singles out a city’s poor performance, for example,e may encourage increased efforts by public authorities improve social and economic conditions.

Or to put it another way: for the best chance of success, cities’ responses to the rankings should be rooted in practical action that keeps the needs of residents firmly at the forefront.

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Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.

…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.