Desarrollo Urbano

Livability is an economic imperative for cities

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Robert Solow once said: “Livability is not a middle-class luxury, it is an economic imperative.” But how related are livability and economic development?  Furthermore, how can we define and measure livability?Recently as part of the South Asia Urbanization Flagship Report, Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability, our team compared a sample of South Asian cities with peers from around the world. The report’s framework considered livability (along with prosperity) as being a key outcome of urbanization.We wanted to highlight that while urbanization has undoubtedly contributed to economic growth in South Asia, its impact on livability is more complex. As they have grown, South Asian cities have faced challenges arising from the pressure of their populations on basic services, infrastructure, land, housing, and the environment.  This has helped to give rise to what the report terms “messy” urbanization, characterized by slums and sprawl, not to mention levels of ambient outdoor air pollution that rank amongst the highest across cities globally.The report suggests that to have a full understanding of the urbanization process in South Asia, it is necessary to discuss not only the positive productivity benefits that are associated with urban size and density, but also the negative “congestion” forces.  How successfully South Asian cities manage these forces will help to determine the quality of life not only of the region’s current half a billion urban residents, but also of the additional 250 million that will be added over the next 15 years.To explore this, we decided to look at how livability in South Asian cities compares with other cities across the developing world. We needed a way to measure and index livability to understand how the cities are performing in terms of this critical outcome.As it turns out, this was not an original idea. If you could guess, how many city indices would you say exist? (Take a guess; then look at the study by Greg Clarke and Tim Moonen). By some estimations, the answer is, about 150. Some only measure financial performance and business environment; several address cost of living through common commodity prices; some measure human capital and innovation (WSJ’s Innovative City of the Year), and so on.Going through these indices was fun, especially because one can see how creative some can get. Some are particularly interesting, like the Ipad Nano Index by UBS, which draws on the famous Big Mac index, originally developed by the Economist magazine in 1986 to examine purchase power parity.For the South Asia Urbanization Flagship, our team tried to use some of the city livability indices that are already out there, but no single index seemed adequate to paint an accurate picture of the situation. However, a glance through various indices at first revealed that major South Asian cities perform poorly on almost all. For example, based on the LSE Cities index, in health, education and wealth South Asian cities perform worse than cities in any other region, except Sub-Saharan Africa. This is especially concerning, since the South Asian cities included in the study are performing significantly better than the national average of their respective countries.On the Economic Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) livability index, the highest placed South Asian city included in the index is New Delhi, ranking 110th out of 140 cities in total, and Dhaka ranked on the bottom, surpassing only Damascus. (see image). This means that New Delhi not only ranks behind the developed country cities that inevitably dominate the rankings, but also cities such as Manila, Baku, and Tunis. Ranking of South Asian Cities in EIU Livability Index, 2015 Source: EIU 2015. Data reused by permission of The Economist Intelligence Unit. Permission required for further reuseHow we did it​Since we were not able to make optimized comparison using existing indices, we decided to create our own index. But this was not an intellectually easy task as choosing qualities to measure was a challenge of its own.  We spent numerous team meetings debating which indicators to choose. This stemmed from the fact that livability is an inherently subjective concept and different people have very different opinions on what should be included in measuring it.The other issue was scarcity of city level data on the indicators we wanted to compare. So we made a big list of cities and a lengthy list of indicators that we all agreed on. Then we tried to find dependable data for these cities across the agreed-upon indicators. This way, we were able to pick cities for which we could find data on a subset of indicators we wanted to measure.We  picked seven “matched” pairs of South Asian and non-South Asian cities. Our Livability index was based on four equally weighted sub-indices: health, environment, safety, and education. Each sub-index is an aggregate of several (equally weighted) indicators that have been normalized to produce a value between 0 and 100. For example, for the environment sub-index, we collected data on air pollution (pm 10 level, mcg/cu.m), wastewater collection (% of population served by wastewater collection), and solid waste collection (% of population with regular solid waste collection). To gather the data, we searched out the very best and most up-to-date data, and tried to estimate the numbers based on state and/or national level data when city-level data was not available.What we found outThe goal of all of this was to compare South Asian cities with their peers from elsewhere in the world. Specifically, for each of our selected South Asian cities, we wanted to find a comparable city from another region.  We matched cities as closely as possible across three dimensions: population, city area, and population density.

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