The world’s “most livable” city might not actually be the best city to live in

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Image: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader
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For the 10th year in a row, Vienna topped Mercer’s annual Quality of Living Ranking. Mid-sized European cities generally dominate the list, with only two non-European cities—Vancouver and Auckland—earning a spot in the top 10 this year.

The annual survey, published earlier this month, ranks cities based on a number of categories, including housing, recreation, public transport, and schools and education. It is devised to highlight the relative desirability of 500 destinations where expatriate executives commonly relocate. So, if you’re a banker from London, New York, or Hong Kong, you may like the look of Vienna if your company asks to move you there. But if you work in a different field—or you’re a local in one of the cities in the rankings—the list isn’t as useful.

Mercer’s 2019 Quality of Living Ranking

Mercer is upfront about the purpose of the rankings, but many reporters miss the memo. Some fail to mention crucial caveats about the somewhat narrow purpose of the report.

The Economist Intelligence Unit also releases an annual Global Liveability Index, which in August saw Vienna take the top spot for the first time, beating out Melbourne. These rankings also look at quality of life from the perspective of business execs and, like the Mercer report, news about the rankings often fails to mention this.

The EIU results aren’t as Europe-heavy as Mercer’s: cities in Australia and Canada took six of the top 10 spots (pdf) in the latest list. But the two are broadly similar—mid-sized cities in mid-sized, rich countries tend to do the best.

In both rankings, the thing that’s perhaps trickiest to measure is culture—a large part of why people flock to certain cities, especially big ones. Mercer measures “recreation,” which includes an assessment of restaurants, theaters, cinemas, sports, and leisure services. The EIU issues scores for “culture and environment,” which also includes things like food, shopping, sports, and the like.

Remember that these reports assess cities based on their attractiveness to expats, likely considering a move on a time-limited assignment. The richness of a city’s culture is important, of course, but more transactional concerns like safety, housing, and private schools might take precedence. This is why, perhaps, London, New York, and Tokyo—which took the 41st, 44th, and 49th spots respectively in Mercer’s rankings—tend to lose out to sleepier places.