Why city rankings always get it wrong

Happiest cities, most livable cities, loneliest cities -- the Web's filled with lists. Almost all of them are bogus

Topics: Dream City,

Hey, Memphis: Are you happy? Are you sure? Because Men’s Health magazine isn’t so certain.

Last week, in a list of the “saddest U.S. cities,” Men’s Health ranked Memphis, with its subtropical climate and legendary music scene, as the third-saddest city in the country. Clearly the place has taken a dive since February, when Forbes reported that Memphis is the sixth-happiest city to work in. Memphis is apparently a little slice of heaven — as long as you’re sitting at the office.

City rankings have become foolproof click-bait for blogs and websites. No category seems too niche: Best cities for Christmas. Best cities for vegans. Best cities for Nascar fans. Loneliest cities. Funniest cities. Manliest cities. Apparently there is no urban trait that can’t be crystalized with three or four statistics compiled by a whip-sharp editorial intern.

But for some some reason, these lists never seem to quite mesh with reality. Financial Times writer Edwin Heathcote pointed out recently that many of the places that top the “most livable cities” lists are places no one really wants to live — it’s always (no offense, guys) Provo, Utah, and Ann Arbor, Mich., and Manchester, N.H. “What, you might ask, no New York? No London? No L.A. or H.K.?” asked Heathcote. To reduce a city to metrics “is to strip out all the complexity, all the friction and buzz that make big cities what they are.”



For instance, Men’s Health’s “saddest city” rankings looked at rates of suicide, unemployment, antidepressant use and “the number of people who report feeling the blues.” But Joe Peach, editor of the online magazine This Big City, says that while rankings might have merit for measuring something like health, “You simply can’t quantify happiness. You could easily create a list of cities which have the most Starbucks, but you couldn’t create a list of cities for ‘the best coffee’ — we’re all different, and we like different things.”

The essence of a city, says Peach, is something more than the sum of its parts. If it wasn’t, New York and Los Angeles, with their epic congestion and high rents, would quickly depopulate. Instead, these are the places that the best and brightest dream of moving to. And cities don’t lend themselves to rankings that pick winners and losers either, says public policy consultant Otis White. “Cities aren’t engaged in a zero-sum game. This isn’t football. Boston can do well and New York can do well.” Both can be great places for different people.

“What is vibrant and interesting to one person is loud and overwhelming to another,” says Peach. In the end, it all comes down to how you, as an individual, interact with that particular city. “Where is the category in these lists for ‘That awesome time I cycled with my boyfriend on the back of my Boris bike to our favorite Communist-themed cocktail bar’?” Peach asks.

Cities are experiences as much as they are physical locations. They’re not just places with a certain number of coffee shops or Apple stores or antidepressant users. Those data points may gesture in the general direction of a city’s temperament, but what matters most to urban dwellers are the things that are much harder to nail down. A 2008 study that surveyed 43,000 people over a course of three years found that what attached them to their communities the most weren’t the things that are easy to measure, like job availability or quality of schools. They were more ephemeral aspects, like openness, social offerings and aesthetics — “Very much the same qualities that make a good place and can only be measured qualitatively,” says Ethan Kent, vice president of the Project for Public Spaces.

Add to this the problem that many of these lists have an ulterior motive. “I think the objective of these lists is to get headlines in newspapers,” says White. “Sometimes they’re connected to a company — the best cities for dating will be compiled by a body-spray company.” And just because they’re citing stats doesn’t mean their conclusions are bulletproof — the book “How to Lie With Statistics” has been a go-to reference since 1954 for this kind of stuff.

In the end, the most value these lists probably have is that they can get people talking about issues. “In some respects it’s helpful for the media to come up with new measures that may not be academically rigorous, but provoke a conversation,” says Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “The more people don’t take them at face value, but say, ‘That’s an interesting question,’ the more valuable they may be.”

Will Doig

Will Doig writes the Dream City column for Salon

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>