Top-ranking cities have little relevance to emerging world cities.
Melbourne, Vienna, and Vancouver are awfully nice cities. With stable economies and political systems, high education levels and efficient infrastructure, it's no surprise they've taken the top three slots in the latest iteration of the Economist Intelligence Unit's Livability Ranking and Overview. By the simplified standards of rankings like these, we're to understand that the cities at the bottom of the list – Dhaka, Bangladesh, Lagos, Nigeria, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and Harare, Zimbabwe – are much less nice.
And yet, thanks to their booming populations and densities, it's these bottom-ranking cities that more heavily represent the future of our global cities. Do Melbourne, Vienna, and Vancouver really have anything in common with Bangladesh?
The World Bank estimates that roughly 90 percent of the urbanization underway globally is taking place in developing cities like Dhaka and Lagos and in developing countries like Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea. And between 2009 and 2050, the number of urban dwellers in these developing countries is expected to more than double, to 5.2 billion, according to the World Health Organization. That puts nearly 75 percent of the world's expected 7 billion urbanites in cities in the developing world.
While Melbourne and Vienna and Vancouver will most certainly continue to grow and evolve, they won't be undergoing the same speed and intensity of urbanization as cities in the developing world. And as these dramatically changing cities deal with these urban shifts in a very short time span, it is with an equally swift pace that they'll be rewriting what it means to be a city in the world. The urbanity of London, gradually spreading over centuries, is being overshadowed by the instant skyscraper forests of burgeoning megacities in China and the massively dense urban cores of Dhaka and Lagos. The London model isn't going anywhere, but the majority of the next major cities will develop more like Shenzhen or Kabul.
So while holding cities up to arguably fine standards set by such cities as Melbourne or Vancouver is a good idea in theory, the lessons they have to teach have perhaps limited relevance. Can the housing policies of 600,000-population Vancouver translate to the 11.2 million-population of Lagos? Or could Vienna's U-Bahn transit network, serving 1.3 million riders a day, be adapted to the densely packed 15 million residents of metro Dhaka?
Of course, plug-and-play solutions rarely work from city to city, but the point here is that the cities now ranking at the top of these lists for livability are vastly different from the cities at the bottom – and formed at vastly different points in history – for there to be any more than the most basic compatibilities between themselves and the emerging cities of the developed world. Lagos and Dhaka would undoubtedly be nicer places to live if they had the levels of infrastructure and political stability that Vienna or Melbourne have. But the significant differences between the cities at the top of this list and the emerging cities at the bottom means that comparing them to each other is practically irrelevant.
Top image: Crowded boats float down the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: Andrew Biraj / Reuters