Rank My City: The Singles Charts of the City-Building Business

(originally published with Rory Hyde at Huffington Post)

‘The list doesn’t destroy culture, it creates it.’ – Umberto Eco

City rankings drive urban planners, city mayors, presidents and rulers to do the things they do. Rankings are the singles charts of the city-building business, giving benchmarks for ambition. A slot on these lists can help reel in the tourist dollar or secure corporate investment. Consultants read them and sometimes even make the lists. The rankers aspire to be more than taste makers. They can formulate economic policies, foreign policies and the physical shapes of cities. (One example: Saudi Arabia’s economic policy is based on making it into the World Bank’s “Doing Business” Top 10.)

Summertime reflection has made way for a new batch of rankings announced in the past month, including Monocle’s “Quality of Life Survey,” Foreign Policy’s “Global Cities Index,” and Newsweek’s list of “Best Countries in the World.”

Of course, to be definitive or objective when discussing intangible aspects such as ‘quality of life’ is impossible. Despite that caveat, consultants put the statistics together for these magazines with a courageous badge of legitimacy. A.T. Kearney and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs rank for Foreign Policy; McKinsey & Co., McGill University, and Brookings-Tsinghua rank for Newsweek; as an exception, Monocle says it relies on its correspondents and “jetlagged” staff.

At Al Manakh we’re focusing on the urban culture of the Gulf, so we take a keen interest in how the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar or Saudi Arabia might fare in these stakes. They generally don’t at all. The charts seem to make it clear that these cities have a long way to go, with Dubai further along than the others. It came in at a respectable #27 in the Foreign Policy list, and generally rates a mention in many others. The UAE ranked #43 in Newsweek. Indeed these are young cities and they are still figuring out what local city life is all about; but doesn’t that count for something? The unpredictable factor?

Needless to say, no Gulf (or for that matter Middle Eastern) city appears in the Monocle list, which makes clear its preference for all things cozy, modern and European (#1: Munich). Monocle states it aims “to challenge the way people look at cities,” but there are no surprises in its list. And no surprises in the other two magazine’s lists. Newsweek’s country list is led by Finland, with the other Scandinavian countries helping to fill up the top 10. And Foreign Policy’s ‘global’ approach turns up the usual suspects: New York, London, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong in the top 5. [continues after the gallery]

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Collection of recent rankings.

However the Gulf may take heart in observations by Parag Khanna in his essay accompanying the Foreign Policy list. Khanna refers to the “truly new” models of the Gulf, including the ambition of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Economic City, the multiculturalism of Doha, and the role of Dubai’s free zone in a world defined by networks and trade.

While the cleaned up cities of Northern Europe, North America and Australia cities rank high, Khanna argues that the definition of a successful model is being challenged and redefined by new players. “For these emerging global hubs, modernization does not equal Westernization….” Khanna’s words are heartening at best, but vague in what this will come down to meaning for non-Western cities. There’s too much evidence that the likes of Abu Dhabi, Doha, and even Dubai are eyeing up the lists we already know about.

Indeed, it is often the cities not making the ranks that can be the most lively and exciting, even if their cafes still use white plastic chairs and the streets aren’t pedestrianized. There is a hint in the pages of Monocle that this realization is dawning on them. They find it “disappointing” that no African city made it on the list. For now at Monocle, ‘liveability’ feels like a bore unless it’s just a good night’s sleep for the jet set.

As long as consultants circle the globe selling advice on how to spruce up urban centers with café tables and bike lanes in order to rise in the rankings, cities may be going the way of the chain hotel pawned as a true gem. The only way a city could counter this would be to play its strengths, or at least its idiosyncrasies, no matter how incongruous and incompatible they may be with the Platonic ideals of Vienna or Copenhagen. To quote an unlikely source in these matters, we happen to agree in this case with Monocle’s editor Tyler Brûlé, who is prepared to look beyond the figures, to celebrate the cities “that are incredibly liveable – if you accept them on their own terms.” Maybe next year.

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