Are Quality of Life Rankings Bad for Public Policy?

A new study suggests they are. Here's why we disagree.

By Matt Carmichael on June 24, 2015 at 8:58 am CDT
collage of city rankings

As a publisher of Best Places to Live rankings, it’s not surprising we would take notice of a media advisory titled, Livability Rankings - Subjective and Misleading Measurement Tools for Forging Urban Policy.

The news release claims the report, produced by Brian W. Conger at the University of Calgary’s School of Public policy, “exposes livability rankings for what they are – a subjective hierarchy based on variables that should never be used to influence urban policy and can actually be detrimental to some cities.”

The actual report isn’t quite as over-the-top as the media release would indicate and, in fact, presents a rather thoughtful critique of to use his term, “Quality of Life Indices” or QLIs for short. Conger lays out a reader’s guide to critical media consumption in the space. He poses a series of questions that should be asked when looking at these rankings: What is the organization behind the ranking and what is their motive? What is the target audience? Are the rankings qualitative or quantitative? What data is included and excluded? How is the data weighted? And what cities are included and excluded?

These are all great questions, and they speak to the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various QLIs. Most of the QLI authors mentioned in the report, including Livability, have spent years researching these issues, and those authors would likely agree that these are indeed questions that should be asked of our own studies and others. These organizations are likely also prepared to stand behind their respective answers to these questions.

There is variation in these lists, the organizations that create them and their methodologies. That doesn’t mean that the conclusion the author leaps to, that QLIs are an “inappropriate tool for meaningful policy formation,” is valid. Quite the contrary.

Sure, these lists have their strengths and weakness, but they also have several things in common. First, they present a framework for critical-thinking and evidence-based discussion of one of the most important public policy issues: Quality of life. Second, they present a series of metrics by which cities can actually measure their progress. Third, they are great conversation starters in both the public and political realms about the issues our cities face day-in and day-out. Issues like health care, affordable housing, crime, and how cities will deal with an aging and increasingly diverse population in the years to come.

One might argue with the metrics chosen. But metrics are needed in these debates and discussions about livability. Most mayors and policy makers we have spoken to have a competitive set of cities they consider similar for benchmarking purposes. Having data to use for those comparisons is important.

Regardless of this report, we will continue to produce these rankings and continue to find the best indicators possible of livability. If the worst thing that happens is a mayor tries harder to get on one ranking or another, and in the process, makes his or her city a better place to live ... well, we can live with that.

Reader Comments Use a Facebook account to comment. Subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment.