So it’s that time of year again: Mercer has just published the 18th iteration of its annual Quality of Living survey, ranking 230 of our planet’s major cities from first to last in terms of livability, which inevitably sparked a chain reaction of bickering and rebuttals across social media and the wider web from people who find Vienna boring.

Just like last year, the Austrian capital took top spot, while Baghdad remains moored to the bottom, a full six places below Damascus, oddly enough. The top 10, and much of the top 20, follow the same pattern, consisting of ever-present Swiss and Scandinavian cities such as Zurich and Copenhagen, German financial centres like Munich and Dusseldorf, and unassuming new world metropolises like Vancouver.

While it’s easy to get a consensus on the nether regions of the list, which are largely populated by conflict zones (Yemeni capital Sana’a being one) and poverty-stricken violent crime hotspots (like Haiti’s Port-Au-Prince), the affluent upper echelons are a source of endless debate.

What, exactly, makes a city liveable? If London (#39) and New York (#44) are so unlivable, then why do so many people actively choose to live there, and why are they arguably so much more desireable than eighth-placed Geneva? Seriously, when was the last time someone told you that they’ve always dreamt of moving to Auckland (#3)?

Even the various bodies that create these lists struggle for uniformity, with The Economist's Intelligence Unit, another major player in the field, placing Melbourne at number one last year, in contrast to Mercer’s ranking of 15th. The EIU list also adds a much greater premium to Australian and Canadian locations, sourcing seven of the top 10 from these two countries, prompting the New York Times to comment that “The Economist clearly equates livability with speaking English.”

Clearly it’s an imperfect system driven by subjective criteria, yet there’s something about seeing our home city, such a definitive and overarching feature of our lives, explicitly ranked and evaluated that touches a nerve. It feels like it says something about us, that our life experience is in some way inferior to that of other people, which reflexively stimulates a defensive rebuttal. If you look at the comments section below news pieces reporting on these lists, you’ll see that many people take them personally without really understanding the metrics that drive them.

Mercer is essentially a globalized corporate HR consultancy, specializing in things like “executive compensation” and “pension risk management,” according to its official site. The Quality of Life survey is used as a guide for multinational corporations to draw up remuneration packages when relocating their employees internationally, something highlighted in the introductory paragraph to Mercer’s survey where it writes: “safety, in particular, is a key factor for multinationals to consider when sending expatriate workers abroad … because it has a significant impact on the cost of global compensation programs.”

The rankings are determined by a pool of data that takes into account crime rates, health statistics, sanitation standards, education, expenditure on city services, and about 25 other metrics. The higher a city ranks, the less appealing of a relocation package an employee can expect to receive – which is understandable: you won’t be faced with the same headaches in Basel as you would in Kabul, and an employer doesn’t need to dangle nearly as large of a carrot to convince somebody to move there.

It's cold and calculated number crunching that doesn’t leave much room for sentiment. The aforementioned EIU, which relies on Mercer’s data, notes that “mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with relatively low population density” are the ones that score highly.

It wouldn’t be a gross generalization to say that these are cities without edge, ones more ideally suited to middle-aged white collar workers with children than most twenty-somethings, who would likely be bored into despair. It’s what life looks like when you peer at it through a corporate lens and equate liveability with functionality.

In contrast, lifestyle magazine, Monocle, publishes its own 25-city list every July and takes a starkly different approach. Explaining its reasoning, the publication’s editor-in-chief, Tyler Brûlé, states: “we’ve given extra marks to cities that limit their nannying and we’ve tried to give value to places where there’s something else we know is vital: freedom, grit, independence, a joy with life. We’re frustrated with city councils that are too quick to say no ... and capitals that seem opposed to the odd late night out.”

This description sounds more in line what most people would define as liveable, but Monocle’s list still comprises of many of the same cities that populate those aforementioned corporatized lists: Vienna is number two, German business hubs and Scandinavian urban centers still dominate and Australia’s two primary metropolises make the top 10.

The main difference between these two disparate schools of thought is that Japanese cities and noisy western European capitals like Paris, Berlin and Madrid, score significantly higher than they would with stuffy boardroom suits. They’re also the sort of place that you’d expect to have a higher Monocle readership, and arguably offer more in terms of lifestyle and the textbook definition of “fun.”

Evidently, you can’t rank something as subjective as liveability without rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. Mercer’s list is clearly an imperfect yardstick (as is Monocle’s), but it does serve a unique purpose: the skylines of global metropolises like New York, London, Paris, and the like, loom large in our collective consciousness. Through popular culture, these are cities that are often held up as measures of ‘greatness,’ reputations that its residents are often so keen to propagate. Again, greatness is subjective, but a system as unsentimental and calculated as Mercer’s makes you wonder how much of this is just pop cultural mythology.

Words by Aleks Eror for

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