Is Vienna Really All That Livable? Depends on Where You Look.


Last year, Vienna took first place in The Economist’s Global Liveability Index. This was familiar turf for the Austrian capital, which has been trading first and second place on the annual ranking with Melbourne, Australia, since 2015.

But according to a report from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), Vienna’s dominant position on the index may be flawed, because the metrics used by the Economist Intelligence Unit to rank urban livability fail to sufficiently account for many environmental factors. It’s not that Vienna’s conditions are poor by international standards. What the report suggests is that city rankings in general might be falling short because they take a too-narrow view of what “livability” means.

“We already knew that the index didn’t really take environmental factors into account, such as air pollution, noise levels, green spaces.” ISGlobal report co-author Sasha Khomenko told CityLab by telephone. “We wanted to do a comparison and see if there was a mismatch between livability and environmental health.”

The tendency of rankings to provide incomplete accounts of a city’s livability is a theme that CityLab has previously explored: When rankings focus closely on the needs of a rarified group as representing those of the whole, they can neglect the experience of other social segments, which might produce starkly different results. In Vienna’s case, the ISGlobal researchers found that even this famously salubrious city harbors a “mortality burden that is quite considerable when you consider that Vienna is ranked as the most livable city.”

The EIU’s rankings don’t ignore the environment entirely. The Global Livability Index does, for example, look at humidity and temperatures and how uncomfortable the climate is to travelers, along with the availability of housing, healthcare, public transit and sporting amenities. But other important factors are left out, the report points out. The index doesn’t measure the urban heat island effect, for example, which can vary dramatically within a city (and tends to disproportionately affect lower-income residents). Similarly, the ranking doesn’t measure access to green space, noise pollution, and how physically active its residents are — all of which are strongly influenced by planning decisions. Furthermore, creating a single city-wide ranking suggests there’s an overall harmony across the entire municipality, masking differences between richer and poorer areas, or the city core and its suburbs.

To rectify this, the ISGlobal report looked at the extent to which Vienna deviated from international recommendations on physical activity, pollution, noise, green space and heat. It found that failure to meet these recommendations was responsible for 8% of premature deaths in the city, shortening adult Vienna residents’ life expectancy by an average of 199 days. Meanwhile, residents of the city center lived under far more polluted conditions than most on the periphery.

By international standards, these figures are hardly disastrous: In Barcelona, for example, ISGlobal’s report notes that the same cluster of factors shortens life expectancy by an average of 300 days. (By comparison, the failure to meet WHO guidelines on air pollution alone shortens life expectancy in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh by a whopping 8.6 years.) They do nonetheless serve as a corrective to an overly rosy picture.

The impression gained from the report’s new metrics isn’t entirely negative, however. In mapping pollution across the city, researchers found that wealthier citizens tended to enjoy healthier environmental conditions overall — but this link was not automatic. As the map below details, Vienna’s greatest concentration of environmental burdens is in the city core, an area in which, in keeping with broader European urban patterns, both richer and poorer residents live close to each other under similar environmental conditions (at least outside their homes). Meanwhile, some outlying areas house residents with low socioeconomic status but have good environmental standards — suggesting that in Vienna, wealth does not automatically determine how healthy the environment you live in is.

Pollution burdens in Vienna are concentrated near the city’s center. (ISGlobal)

Including factors like access to green space and pollution might be enough to dethrone Vienna from its perch atop global rankings, since Scandinavian cities such as Oslo can boast cleaner air and more evenly distributed parks. But there’s something broader amiss than a mere blip in the league table, suggest the report’s authors.

“The main issue with the Global Livability Index is that it’s not developed for the citizens of the city,” Khomenko said. “It’s mainly built for ex-pats who are moving to cities on the index, so they can be given more wages if they go to worse places to live.”

This opinion isn’t entirely disputed by the Economist Intelligence Unit. “There is some truth in the idea that the Global Livability Index was set up mainly with the idea of companies and individuals looking to relocate in mind,” says EIU analyst Nicholas Fitzroy. “But since then, interest in it has greatly expanded, and it gets a lot of broader international attention. It’s something people genuinely care about. And I’d say that information provided for people who are relocating still has a lot of relevance for people who have been living in a city long term. There isn’t a huge difference there.” Adding more metrics for local environmental factors isn’t in the immediate future, but “it’s something we are always looking at at,” he said.

While there may be an appetite for urban rankings that are primarily tools for multinational companies or city-shopping nomads, the ISGlobal report makes a case for a more citizen-focused livability index, one that doesn’t end up masking the gulf between the conditions experienced by various classes in different parts of the same city. Following the model currently being adopted by Paris, it could also factor in proximity to amenities like schools, medical offices, and food stores. Tweaking the way livability is measured wouldn’t necessarily knock prosperous cities with good infrastructure like Vienna from the upper reaches of city rankings — but it might prove a more accurate register of what living there is really like.