Indices and Rankings in Urban Development

Weekly reflections as I study urban policy in Asia

Based on the reading(s):

International Making Cities Livable LLC, n.d. The Value of Rankings and the Meaning of Livability. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livablecities.org/blog/value-rankings-and-meaning-livability

Harvey, D., 2008. The right to the city. The City Reader, 6, pp.23-40.


Thus far, we’ve been exposed to concepts of poverty, oppression, capabilities, community participation, eco-urbanism, conviviality, systemic precarity, and we’ve also discussed the idea and life of the city. In this week’s readings on the different types of cities – be they realised or idealised – I’m particularly interested in the criteria we set for ourselves when evaluating and envisioning cities.

Given the concepts and case studies we’ve covered, I naturally thought of those as criteria or characteristics one should examine. However, as the article published by International Making Cities Livable LLC (IMCL) revealed, every city wants to market itself as attractive destinations. Major cities and influential (polling or surveying) organisations have even sought to define what a city should be good at. As identified by IMCL, there seems to be a tendency for organisations and cities to report “standard of living” statistics instead of “quality of life” measures.

Out of the rankings mentioned by IMCL, I’m currently most impressed by the Philips Livable Cities Award. While it’s still focused on “standard of living” by rewarding “best ideas for improving sustainability and standard of living in urbanized, and economically challenged locations around the world”, I thought its emphasis on the “becoming” or the process of innovating for a better future resonates with David Harvey’s concept of the “right to the city”. I quote, “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.” In this regard, I see potential in the Philips Livable Cities Award. That said, the right to the city, in Harvey’s conception, is “a common rather than an individual right” since the process of changing the city or influencing urban planning necessarily entails collective action and political discourse. It remains to be seen if the Philips Livable Cities Award might reward or incentivise such collective action.

Should I be tasked to come up with a ranking system for cities, I certainly would not leave out economic performance and standard of living measures because they do matter. At the same time, I think more thinking can be put into our demands of the city, instead of accepting the obvious economic and material artefacts in what we understand as city living. The right to the city could be a useful opening concept, for “rights” carry the connotation of a normative ideal that cannot be bargained away. By setting up such a normative frame, we might perhaps force ourselves to seriously negotiate what we aspire towards and how we ought to measure our progress as city dwellers and urban planners.

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