Annual rankings don’t always tell us what it’s really like to live in a city

Rankings often focus on economic and developmental factors that overlook sustainability. (Shutterstock)

Every year various indices are released which rank the livability, sustainability, innovation and general quality of life in cities around the world. Canada’s major cities like Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto frequently top these lists, despite being some of the most costly places to live.

Maclean’s magazine’s ranking of “Canada’s best communities” evaluated 415 communities according to various indicators, including economic prosperity, housing affordability, taxation, sustainable mobility, public safety as well as access to health services and cultural and leisure activities.

Quality of life indicators and indices can be useful for comparing cities or when deciding where to live. However, if cities base their policymaking on such metrics, it could lead to unsustainable development.

Differences between sustainability and quality of life

A recent study highlighted the commonly used environmental and socio-economic criteria, using indicators such as green spaces, recycling, the use of public transport, unemployment and crime rates.

A recent international review by the European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion evaluated cities based on criteria like employment, housing, access to health care and safety. Indicators included, among others, the cost of living, household income and the quality of public services.

Many of the indicators in these rankings are used to measure both the sustainability and the quality of life in a city. This convergence can be explained by the common basis of these two concepts: they are essentially about how a city satisfies the essential needs of its residents, such as housing, transport, health, education and leisure.

The ability to meet these needs is closely linked to economic factors, which play a key role in assessing both the sustainability and quality of life of cities. These factors include income, wealth and cost of living.

An elderly couple walking in a park with a bicycle
Development aimed at improving city life can sometimes come at the expense of sustainability. (Shutterstock)

Despite these commonalities, they also present contradictions. For example, initiatives aimed at improving city life, such as infrastructure expansion, can sometimes come at the expense of the environment, which goes against the principles of sustainable development.

Furthermore, an emphasis on sustainability does not necessarily guarantee improved living conditions. Indeed, sustainability may involve reducing the consumption of certain goods and services, reducing the size of housing to promote denser neighborhoods, or implementing taxes to reduce pollution.

These measures, although beneficial for the environment, can lower individual comfort and increase living costs, which affects the quality of life of residents.

Traits of sustainable and livable cities

We recently conducted a study aimed at answering the following question: What are the characteristics of cities that perform better in terms of quality of life and sustainability?

To answer this question, we analyzed the similarities and differences between the factors underlying sustainability and quality of life rankings for 171 Canadian cities with more than 25,000 inhabitants.

Our results reveal a positive and statistically significant correlation between urban quality of life and sustainability indicators in Canadian cities. However, our findings also highlight important contradictions regarding sustainable living in the three main dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental.

Wood Buffalo, Alta. ranked in the top 20 per cent for sustainability, mainly due to its high-income and educated population, despite its low environmental performances. However, it is in the bottom 20 per cent for quality of life due to high living costs and limited cultural amenities.

Kamloops, B.C. performed well in quality of life, thanks to affordability, strong education and health care, and cultural richness. Yet it falls in the bottom 20 per cent for sustainability because of waste, greening and energy management challenges.

Evaluations of quality of life are mainly based on economic dimensions and take into account indicators such as the unemployment rate and average income. Some indicators also concern the social dimension of sustainable development, including crime, housing affordability, health and the arts.

However, some fundamental social aspects of sustainable development, like wealth distribution and education, are not addressed directly.

The environmental dimension is also largely neglected, with the exception of sustainable mobility (for example, how many people use public transport). For instance, there were no direct measurements of greenhouse gas emissions, the quality of green spaces or the quality of a city’s water.

A busy city sidewalk
Quality of life indices can be useful for comparing cities, however, if cities base their policymaking on such metrics, it could lead to unsustainable development. (Shutterstock)

Cities should put sustainability first

These differences between quality of life and sustainable development are concerning for two main reasons. Firstly, because people might use these rankings when deciding where to live, it can make cities with high rankings but poor sustainability appear attractive.

Second, as cities generally seek to attract residents, they may be tempted to make decisions based on variables that increase their quality of life ranking to the detriment of sustainable development.

The most highly ranked cities are likely to maintain the status quo with regard to their development strategy in order to stay at the top of the list. Moreover, lower ranked cities are likely to mimic the urban conditions that characterize the most successful cities.

However, these objectives are not always compatible with urban sustainability, which takes into account broader environmental and collective concerns, such as preserving environmental quality and reducing pressure on natural resources and green spaces.

This means quality of life becomes unsustainable if it does not take into account environmental impacts such as waste management and car use. The same goes for how wealth is distributed.

Prioritizing sustainability, even if it means a lower quality of life ranking in the short term, ensures cities remain viable in the future. Integrating sustainability measures into public policies, such as improving public transportation and maintaining green spaces, is essential to meet current needs and anticipate future challenges, ensuring long-term well-being.


Georges A. Tanguay, Full Professor, School of Management, Department of Urban Studies and Tourism, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and Juste Rajaonson, Professor, School of Management, Department of Urban Studies and Tourism, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)

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

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