Auckland’s most liveable city status must be seen through prism of pandemic

Even in ordinary times, “liveability” is an almost ludicrous measure by which to assess a city.

Not only does it imply that there is a uniform experience to be had there, separate to socioeconomic status or disadvantage – the qualities or properties that may make somewhere a desirable place to live differ between individuals, and within lifetimes.

But whatever your definition of “liveability” may be, it seems fair to say – from the numbers of people radically upending their lives in the past 18 months – that it may have changed since the pandemic.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has had to grapple with this change and uncertainty in reaching its Global Liveability Index for 2021, published on Monday for the first time since Covid-19 changed our lives, and our cities.

And in this new world, for the first time, Auckland has come out on top. Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, is at joint fourth, up from 15th.

Aotearoa’s over-representation in the 2021 rankings is a significant shake-up. The EIU’s survey was postponed last year, for obvious reasons; but no New Zealand cities featured in the top 10 in 2019 or 2018. Auckland’s last appearance was in 2017, at No 8.

For the past decade, the top spot has been held by Melbourne and (since 2018) Vienna; prior to 2011, Vancouver was at No 1.

The 2021 result will be celebrated by NewZealanders who are rightly proud of their country, and those whose job it is to promote it; but as is often the case with these sorts of analyses, the result tells us more about those doing the ranking.

As the EIU notes, Covid-19 has caused “huge volatility” in its assessment of 140 cities, based on their record in five areas: stability; healthcare; education; culture and environment; and infrastructure. All must now be viewed through the prism of a pandemic response – and New Zealand’s has been ranked among the best in the world.

As a result of prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s swift decision to close borders and impose a more stringent lockdown than has been seen in the UK, New Zealand saw just 26 deaths from Covid-19 last year, and seems to have avoided the worst of the economic impact.

Infrequent outbreaks of coronavirus in Auckland, as the largest city and primary transit hub, have so far been successfully stamped out by short, localised lockdowns. Melbourne, which held the EIU’s top spot for most of the last 10 years, is struggling to do the same.

In the past Australian cities have outranked those in New Zealand by measures of “liveability” for their higher wages and greater opportunity; but in a pandemic, global connectivity is a liability. (Indeed, many New Zealanders based overseas prematurely ended long-anticipated “overseas experiences” early last year.) It speaks to how what we look for in a place to live, what we value, has been upended, in just 18 months.

In New Zealand, as I saw for myself this year, it is possible to live life like there is no pandemic, so long as one is content to pay the price of closed borders (and the majority are). It is this that the EIU is recognising in Auckland and Wellington’s abrupt entry into its ranking: a liveable city is one without Covid. Those living in Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, London or any of the worst-hit cities would not disagree.

But recognising Auckland and Wellington on the basis of their Covid success is not on their own merits. The EIU gave Auckland a perfect score for education simply for the fact that students have been able to continue going to school. Its top spot is chiefly, then, a reflection of global forces in much the same way that Manchester’s EIU “liveability” ranking fell after the terrorist attack in 2017 (when it could be argued that the civic response to that terror attack was in fact a credit to the city).

There are many reasons, particular to Auckland and Wellington, that make them wonderful places to live. You are only ever a short drive away from stunning scenery, and a probably deserted beach. The weather (in Auckland, if not Wellington) is warm and temperate. Employers tend to respect work-life balance. And the team spirit that was central to the country’s pandemic response is wonderful to be able to share in.

But the fact is, in many ways more concrete to the day-to-day question of “liveability”, New Zealand is failing. Most notable is the housing crisis. Property in Auckland has been increasingly out of reach for the past decade, while, since Covid, the bubble has extended to Wellington and the rest of the country, compounded by the shortage of housing supply.

New Zealand now ranks as one of the most expensive housing markets relative to income in the OECD. Some analyses have put Auckland as one of the least affordable cities in the world, with repercussions for the poverty rate, healthcare outcomes and social mobility. Māori and Pasifika communities are disproportionately harmed, raising the unspoken question raised by the EIU analysis: “liveable” for whom?

Both Auckland and Wellington are struggling to adjust to the problems posed by population growth, not just in the shortage of housing (central though it is to the issue of liveability) but in city planning, transport and infrastructure. Plans for light rail and an airport train in Auckland have been stop-start for years. Wellington’s ageing water network has been resulting in “very, very public problems” with sewerage; “nimbyism” is stimying progress towards high-density housing ; while the city council is in disarray and its long-term plan in tatters.

These do not undermine the fact that Auckland and Wellington are wonderful places to live – and no doubt the practical applications of the EIU rankings are limited. (Not least because New Zealand is mostly off-limits to non-citizens, anyway.)

But to say that they are the best places to live in the world says less about them in particular than it does about how other cities have fared through the pandemic, and the new desire, felt by many, for a slower pace of life, a greater sense of community and more space. Meanwhile, the EIU’s ranking could also support a strand of thinking within New Zealand that its pandemic success was a moral victory, and encourage complacency on the issues preventing those cities from realising their full potential.

Elle Hunt is a New Zealander based in London and former commissioning editor of Guardian Cities

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