Over the past week, my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, has been abuzz about the Quality of Life rankings released by Numbeo, which put Edmonton 3rd in the world, and provincial counterpart Calgary 5th. In a city where civic boosterism runs high, and a share of civic leadership (if not the general population) craves external recognition and ‘world-class’ status, this is like crack. There are level-headed exceptions, but if you’re plugged into the local social media scene, it’s been inescapable, despite the fact that nobody in Edmonton had probably heard of Numbeo two weeks ago (the Huffington Post story had been liked over 8,000 times as of posting this).
The problem with this, of course, is that these quality of life rankings are in a sense meaningless. Sharon Lerner wrote a good piece on this for Good last year, titled Why “Best Place to Live” Lists are Kind of the Worst. Key passage:
But the problem, or one of them, is that taste varies wildly. Another is that, because they attempt to incorporate an entire nation’s desires, these one-size-fits-all features tend to showcase a version of life as we’d like it to be, a version that glosses over the things that truly make a difference to most people: community, services, and policies that ease their daily life. Idealizing places means being ignorant of their inevitable flaws. Graduation rates and crime stats, on which many of these lists are based, are important to consider. But allowing them to define a place is like falling in love with someone’s online profile.
Now, before I’m accused of being critical of my hometown, I should note that I do believe Edmonton, in general, offers a high quality of life. So, however, does nearly every Canadian city. Yet, that doesn’t mean you can generalize and compare cities as apples to apples. To Lerner’s points, I’d add a few general problems:
Quality of Life Indicators Can Vary Throughout a City
Indicators such as pollution and crime often come up on lists (as they do on Numbeo’s). They are also, however, rarely uniform. Pollution may be a bigger problem closer to any industry or major traffic points. On crime, any city has both problem and safe areas.
Traffic Times Are Deceiving
Really, so is every metric that takes an average. Traffic is a relative non-factor if you work at home, or if you have the means and ability to live within walking distance of work and major amenities. Further, different modes mean a longer commute isn’t the worst thing. Access to effective public transit can also make longer commute times more attractive than spending a few less minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
People Have Different Interests and Circumstances
Many of the measurable aspects don’t apply equally to everyone. If you don’t have kids, you’re probably less concerned about the quality of schools. If you don’t run/bike/walk, access to trails probably isn’t a consideration. Depending on hobbies, you may either love or hate a long winter, such as that in Edmonton, where snow can cover the ground for 5-6 months. If you like sailing, a landlocked city is not for you.
Someone’s experience of a place will depend on availability of jobs in their field, relevant volunteer/recreational activities, and proximity of family and friends. A University of Alberta grad who is an avid skier and has family roots in Alberta might feel right at home in Edmonton. A person born and raised in the Lower Mainland who enjoys watersports and mild weather might not so much.
On What Makes a City “Best”
Lists can be useful for measuring many things about cities, but quality of life varies too much from individual to individual to sum up as a generalization. Cities are good and bad for different people. A person would be best served to find a good fit, and work on making it better, no matter what any list says.