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Why Hong Kong struggles in liveability rankings

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In the recent Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index, Hong Kong ranked 35th in the world, a 10-place rise from the 2017 Index. While overtaking Singapore, Hong Kong still fell below the likes of Osaka (3rd), Calgary (4th) and Vienna (1st). The EIU ranks each city across five broad categories – stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. On the surface, the index looks comprehensive. Yet critics argue that the qualitative and quantitative factors within these five categories contain significant biases, which ultimately undermine the ranking’s credibility and leave certain cities, such as Hong Kong, undervalued.

HK Liveability

Skewed stability

The “stability” category, that considers petty and violent crime, the threat of terrorism, and civil unrest is a prime example of why Hong Kong falls short in the EIU’s Index. In the EIU’s notes, it’s stated that global financial centers such as New York, London and Paris have “higher levels of crime, congestion and public transport problems”. It’s of no surprise then to see that five of the top 10 liveable cities have populations below 2 million. Only Tokyo, with a population of 8.3 million, clearly defies this trend.

theDesk - HK Liveability
At the end of 2012, Hong Kong’s population figure stood at 7,173,900. Today it is estimated to be 7.44 million, which makes it one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Yet Hong Kong, which ranks 4th for population density (67,000 people per square mile) in the world (UN 2015), has the world’s third lowest murder rate per 100,000 population (UN report on homicides in 2015). The city also boasts one of the world’s most efficient public transport systems that makes owning a car close to non-sensical and the keeps the majority of daily commutes under 45 minutes. These facts are clearly at odds with the EIU’s assertion that densely populated cities are a hotbed for crime and suffer public transport problems. With such misconceptions, Hong Kong is obviously being undermined.  

Moreover, economic stability is completely ignored as a facet of “stability”. The threat of inflation or deflation, the risk of fluctuating exchange rates and the overall volatility of the market – all of which affect the real wages and purchasing power of Hong Kong citizens – are not mentioned. Even one of the main criteria for stability, “civil unrest”, appears skewed in its evaluation. Cases such as the “Umbrella Movement” – which have already occurred – understandably damage a city’s rankings. However, incidents that are still germinating such as the rise of the extreme right political parties in Austria – home to the index’s top-ranked city, Vienna – are ignored.

Environmental issues

While the evaluation of “stability” falls short in certain aspects, other categories such as “culture and environment” appear completely unbalanced. For example, heat and humidity are negatively weighted whereas cold weather and harsh winters are ignored. Therefore, Canadian cities such as Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver often prosper at the top of the list while Hong Kong is unfairly disadvantaged, due to its higher average temperature and humidity, and ranks poorly in this category.

However, one area that Hong Kong does rightly suffer from is air quality. According to the Hedley Environmental Index, only 150 days in 2017 were considered to be free from pollution. In short, Hong Kong citizens were breathing in polluted air, containing toxins such as nitrogen oxides and suspended particulates, for over half the year. Last month, Hong Kong’s pollution index hit its highest level, 10+, at nine of the region’s monitoring stations. In the long run, exposure to polluted air leads to respiratory diseases and requires more government funding (in terms of environmental efforts) to combat it. Ultimately, this equates to a tremendous expenditure in public health and leaves Hong Kong struggling to compete with greener cities in the culture and environment sector.

Photo by Paco Wong on Unsplash

Personal preference

While the index takes into consideration a variety of statistics and metrics, ultimately it fails to take note of the most important reason someone may live in a city – personal preference. One’s emotional attachment to a city – the ways in which it feels like home – is intangible but likely the defining factor in someone’s ideal city to live in. When Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, many people immigrated to such “liveable” cities. However, in recent years, individuals have been returning to Hong Kong in substantial numbers. If one were to simply follow the EIU’s Index, their decisions wouldn’t make rational sense as they’d appear to be moving back to a “worse” place. Yet clearly, just because a city places near the top of a ranking system that doesn’t always equate to liveability – it simply may not feel like home. In short, rankings provide a broad picture, but they should be analyzed with a pinch of salt and most certainly shouldn’t be considered the final word when deciding on the liveability of a city.

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Even though rankings such as EIU’s Global Liveability Index can be misleading, it’s still valid to say that Hong Kong must overcome quite a few obstacles before claiming the throne of ‘the world’s most liveable city’. Yet, with all the advantages Hong Kong possesses, climbing to the top of liveability rankings can become a reality someday.

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