Posted in Urban Issues

Quality of Life in Cities

When the urban population of the planet crossed 50% in 2007, our world was forever changed. Those who believed in cities as the hallmark of human civilization let off a silent cheer. Others were filled with fear, as they contemplated yet more crowding of already crowded cities; a greater concentration of the world’s poor in these cities; deteriorating urban infrastructure; and a growing threat to the global environment.

Two sets of figures clearly encapsulate this dichotomy.

Top 10 Megacities (Population > 10 million) in 2014: Tokyo, Delhi, Seoul, Shanghai, Mumbai, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Beijing, Lagos, Osaka

Top 10 on Mercer Quality of Life (QOL) Index 2014: Vienna, Zurich, Auckland, Munich, Vancouver, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Geneva, Copenhagen, Sydney

Comparing the two lists we find that:

  • Not ONE city in the first list is represented in the second.
  • EVERY city in the Mercer list is in the ‘developed’ world and are beneficiaries of the colonial era – either through trade (North and Western Europe); or as settlers where the native population was too weak to defend their land and resources (Canada and Australasia). Furthermore, the developed countries are free from population pressure on their facilities and infrastructure, because fertility rates have been steadily declining, and immigration is strictly regulated.
  • NEARLY 70% of megacities are in the so-called ‘developing world’, with a history of being the victims of colonial rule. Moreover the countries with the most megacities are also the most populous in the world, putting tremendous pressure on services and infrastructure.

Therefore one may safely conclude that as a city or town grows in size the first casualty is always the Quality of Life enjoyed by its citizens.

The map of population density brings this point vividly to life:


The second largest land mass, Canada, has a total population of 35 million, less than the total population of just one urban agglomeration – Tokyo-Yokohama. Similarly, the population of Australia (which has a much bigger area than India) is almost exactly equal to just one Indian city- the National Capital Region Delhi.

So with such immense resources at the disposal of such few, is it any wonder that Canadian and Australian cities figure so high in any QOL Index?!

The inexorable growth of megacities is often due to the migration of the rural poor to towns and cities, leading to the urbanisation of poverty. The increasing heterogeneity of urban populations, brings its own pressures in terms of ethnic and class schisms and has a negative effect on the quality of life and makes the city difficult to govern.

By inference from the indicators of quality of life, one may go a step further to conclude that as a city grows beyond its natural carrying capacity, it suffers from deteriorating infrastructure and services, leading to disease and deprivation.

The urbanisation of poverty and the informalisation of the local economy often lead to a spurt in encroachments; slums; and squatter settlements. The political aftermath of this informalisation is a subsidy culture, impractically low user charges, and further impoverishment of local governments.

… and so are the best planned cities, unplanned.

As things now stand, it is highly unlikely that any of the 10-million plus population cities will see things improve. The drought-risk map below, issued by the World Resources Institute is a further reminder of the tough times ahead:

drought-risk World Resources Inst

What quality of life can we offer to the unborn millions of these parched cities?

Quality of Life is essentially a subjective measure about how cost effective, convenient, healthy, satisfying and secure life can be in a city. Several organisations publish such lists as a guide for foreign investors and expatriate workers, and the Mercer Index is one of the best known scales in this business. The Mercer study is based on detailed assessments and evaluations of 39 key ‘quality of life’ determinants which include everything from political stability, banking services, law and order; to the availability of health, education, transport and cultural activities.

We have already seen that cities offering the best quality of life tend to be in the developed half of the world – most usually in Europe and Australasia. So why is this so? We need to look for answers in the history of colonization, urbanisation and industrialization to understand…

The post-World War II years may have been an era of growth in North America and Western Europe; but this development came at a great cost to the rest of the world. The self-serving trade regime of the rich countries stunted the growth of the poor, and plunged them into a debt trap from which few emerged unscathed. The deterioration of the subsistence rural economies of developing countries brought a further influx of distress migrants to the cities – and so the saga continues: be it Lagos in Nigeria, Kolkata in India, or Sao Paulo in Brazil.

Meanwhile, heavy manufacturing industry continued to grow, and as the western powers moved their most labour-intensive sectors to the developing world, they created a series of highly polluted, congested and over-industrialised cities from Bangkok to Santiago. Even where MNCs were not welcome in the 60s and 70s (as in India and China), it became impossible to put the industrial genie back in the bottle, and cities like Mumbai, Shanghai, Chennai and Ahmadabad were the result.

It is no wonder then, that megacities today are witness to growing disparity among the rich and poor; increasing disempowerment of vast swathes of society; and a slow drain of their wealthiest and best educated to friendlier cities abroad.

… And the global inequity continues.

While High QOL countries are also high consumers of energy the ill effects of their large ‘Carbon Footprints’ put the entire world at risk through global warming and climate change.

Sadly, the western world has raised the energy stakes so high by centuries of reckless use that countries like China and India have to fuel their own development at great cost to their own people and the global environment. The major challenge before these two countries is how to balance industry (necessary for job creation) and cleaner environments to enhance the Quality of Life of future generations.

In its haste to atract foreign and domestic investment in industry, the present Indian Government has shown a total lack of understanding of the environmental issues, despite the havoc wrought on the environment in Gujarat.

The much touted ‘cleanliness drive’ launched across Indian cities will remain a superficial cosmetic exercise, unless a serious effort is made to balance human well-being with human greed…

In my next post, I hope to disuss the Sustainable Livelihood Framework in the context of urban poverty.


I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

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