The folly in ranking cities.

Image by Alex Costin | flickr.com

Image by Alex Costin | flickr.com

Rankings and lists are trendy things as websites like Buzzfeed demonstrate. Yet, the value of such rankings is often debatable. For instance, which coffee shop is the best in town or which movie was the best of 2014 are arguably subjective decisions.

For even more complex decisions such as which is the best city to live in or the safest or the greenest, these lists offer questionable value. Nonetheless, there are several groups that have delved into the ranking game as the table above illustrates. On the one hand, it is interesting to see such attention paid to the role of cities. As the ARCADIS report notes, “Today, cities dominate in population numbers (54% of the total), economic output (70-80%), energy consumption (80%), and greenhouse gas production (80%).”

International rankings of cities.

Yet, while each ranking may indeed offer some insight and serve a purpose in terms of drawing attention to the importance of cities in the world today or acting as a resource for city policy makers looking to make improvements, there remains the risk that complex data will be oversimplified and the results misunderstood.

For example, take the Economist’s Safe Cities Index. What is one to take away from Toronto ranking first? If one were to rely only on media sources such as the Globe and Mail, CBC, Toronto Star, and the National Post who ran virtually the same story, I might be feeling pretty good about seeing a number one beside Toronto’s name (Note I am a Torontonian), but not know much else. However, if I were to read the Economist report, I’d learn that the rankings are an index based on “more than 40 quantitative and qualitative indicators” that are “split across four thematic categories: digital security; health security; infrastructure safety; and personal safety.” Further reading would show that Toronto in fact ranks 8th on the Safe Cities Index, 4th on the Liveability Rankings, 70th on the Worldwide Cost of Living, 4th on the Business Environment Rankings, 8th on the Democracy Index, 8th on the Global Food Security Index, and 17th on the Average Index Rank. Collectively, these rankings earn Toronto the top prize and still I'd need to know more about what each of those categories means.

Aside from media oversimplification, there will always be inherent flaws. For instance, the method of selecting which cities are included with a bias toward larger cities in terms of population is important to keep in mind. Likewise, cities that are often considered more “important” are more likely to be included in rankings. For instance, Toronto makes an appearance in almost all the rankings in the table above, while Calgary only makes it into two. Such ill-defined criteria are even more apparent when trying to figure out which, if any, cities from the Global South are to be included.

Similarly, given the differences in record-keeping, political structures, policy-making procedures, and geography to name a few issues, can any ranking truly capture the differences of various cities that would allow for reliable international comparisons to be made? To their credit, the Siemens report acknowledges that their report must be viewed with a grain of salt. “Data collection is a challenge to some extent in all of the regions covered by the Green City Index series. Many cities diligently collect key environmental data and update it regularly and others do not. The challenge comes when comparing information across cities.”

Finally, international rankings may provide an undue sense of accomplishment that glosses over real problems within a particular city. Sherri Torjman, Vice President at the Caledon Institute of Social Policy makes this point regarding Canadian cities. “Unfortunately, international rankings often miss the mark in several important respects. No Canadian city would reach a perfect score on infrastructure, which needs serious investment not just in terms of a major infusion of capital.” She goes on to note that public transit, affordability, and accessibility are also issues that Canadian cities must address, but which are not captured in these rankings.

In the end, international city rankings can be an interesting talking point, but they are not without their faults. They remind us that cities are increasingly important to the world economy, to long-term sustainability efforts, and are home to more people than ever before. What they can't do though is explain the importance of place to the person who lives there and the attachment (or lack thereof) that each of us has to our hometown.

This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.