Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
What does it really mean when certain kinds of cities keep getting ranked as the world’s “most livable”?
Pack your bags everyone: It’s time to move to Zurich. According to the 2019 Monocle Global Liveable Cities Index, published in the magazine’s July/August issue, the Swiss city is the most livable of any in the world, the 409,000-resident almost-metropolis beating off competition to rise to the top of a 25-city list. Last year, it was number four.
If you’re familiar with such rankings, the municipalities selected for this ranking will not shock you: Just under 50 percent are European cities north of the Alps. One, Vancouver, is in North America; none are in South America or Africa. All are no doubt largely prosperous, high-functioning places, but an overall feeling emerges from this cluster of familiar entries. These rankings provide less a universal assessment of livability—a word that comes with its own baggage—and more a snapshot of their compilers’ tastes and worldview.
Along with looking at crime, housing costs, and weather, Monocle has moved with the data-driven times, factoring in for the first time metrics on things like average working hours, resident age, and transit options for non-drivers. Their conclusion is moreover not far off city ranking consensus, with the consulting firm Mercer granting Zurich second place (after Vienna) in its own livability list published in March. The Economist Intelligence Unit, another well-known livability-lister, gave the Swiss city a score of 96.3 out of 100 (only good for a lowly 11th place) in their 2018 ranking, which also handed Vienna the top spot.
And yes, Zurich is certainly not a bad place. An internationally well-connected city sprawling along the banks of a beautiful sub-Alpine lake, this vast security deposit box for global capital has a reputation for being forward-looking while still retaining a core that’s a twist of ancient lanes. And while it boasts the kind of urban amenities that keep travel journalists busy (a once-industrial district now filling with the usual boutiques and cafes), Zurich is still clean enough to attract the occasional beaver.
But I’d never choose to live there, and I’d hazard a wild guess that you, whoever you are, might not either, if you got to know it. Trim, tidy, and functional, Zurich manages to be much less boring than you’d think, while still being boring, and a little stiff. It’s also the biggest city in a country that, while anything but bland, is not the smoothly functioning Swiss-watch-like machine many assume it to be.
Switzerland’s branding has never quite recovered from Orson Welles’ epic burn in The Third Man, the one where Harry Lime observes that, with 500 years of peace and democracy, all the Swiss managed to gave humanity was the cuckoo clock. That’s not really the case. Federalized, quadrilingual Switzerland has given us far more—chocolate, aluminum foil, Velcro, nostalgia, plastic wrap, Dicoflenac, and the Red Cross are all valuable Swiss inventions. And its past 500 years have been neither especially democratic or peaceful. Historically, its poverty made it a prime source for mercenaries, while Swiss territory itself has seen eight wars since 1500 (the last in 1847). As for democracy, the country’s expansion of the franchise may have started earlier than most—but its voters didn’t achieve universal suffrage both nationally and regionally until 1991.
And contemporary Switzerland can be a restricting place, though in ways that do not seem to get noticed by the livability arbiters. University education is free, but barely more than 20 percent of high schoolers make it there, based on a decision made by their teachers (partly along class and ethnic lines, it has been suggested), often when they are just 12 years old. Until 2017, even Swiss-born grandchildren of immigrants to the country had to go through a 12-year application process to become citizens. The result is a still-stratified society where high wages compensate for a degree of social stagnation, with migrants and Swiss from the wrong backgrounds enjoying good benefits and excellent tram links on the way to low-skilled jobs; meanwhile, the skills shortfalls they have not been given training to remedy are filled with workers from elsewhere, mainly other E.U. states. Zurich can certainly be defined as livable—but for whom does it genuinely offer the best conditions?
There’s also a curious anti-urban slant in these assessments of urban qualities. How can one judge a city of just 400,000 located in one of the world’s richest countries by the same metrics as places like Beijing, Bangkok, or Tokyo—a megacity of almost 10 million souls that is ranked right behind it on the Monocle list? Celebrating the enviable living conditions in Copenhagen (number four) or Helsinki (six) may offer inspiration to those trapped in less-prosperous places, but it’s hard not to wonder why these rankings tend to tap wealthy, smaller cities when larger, less wealthy ones may be making more radical, transformative improvements in life quality.
This brings us to the larger problem of city rankings in general, issues that reflects the problems of technocracy itself. By using data as a driver, such rankings present themselves as dispassionate and impartial, as if they are simply removing the lid on a machine to reveal objectively how the engine beneath is functioning. They nonetheless represent a worldview taken from a highly specific angle, one that is full of scarcely acknowledged assumptions about who the imaginary citizen they address is.
Issues such as housing affordability are taken into account, for example, but have to balance against more rarified qualities such as access to opera, high-end restaurants, and other amenities. This isn’t all bad—for those who can afford them, opera and restaurants are wonderful things. The result is still that rankings often end up assessing cities in terms of a small band of citizens for whom almost all of such metrics are relevant. They assess, broadly, how much potential a city possesses when seen from a privileged point of view: that of a straight, affluent, mobile, and probably white couple who works in something akin to upper management and has children. Remove even one of those characteristics from the equation and the results often seem way off the mark.
City rankings are thus a window onto the projected tastes of a highly specific elite—even if the cities that suit this elite would also suit other people well enough, should they manage to get there. Skills gaps have made in-migration a feature of Swiss life, but those who come find themselves in a climate increasingly hostile to migration, where right-wing populist politicians of the SVP (currently the largest party in the Canton overall, albeit not in the city) have proposed placing limits on people moving to the Canton of Zurich. Switzerland is by no means alone in Europe or the West in displaying such trends, nativism being one defining feature of this Brexit/Trump era. But it seems mistaken to present all cities as simple clusters of amenities, not when access to them is being subtly discouraged by broader social trends or actively denied to certain groups.
It might be good for Monocle’s staff to reflect on that—perhaps while sitting on a tram on the way to their recently opened continental European headquarters, in the city of Zurich.