Life in the Big City : 'Survey of Survivability' Ranks Best, Worst of World's Urban Areas


Move over, New York and Los Angeles. Make way, Paris and London.

These great cities may still be among the most fashionable and sophisticated, but they are not among the most livable--at least according to one of the first comprehensive surveys of the world's major metropolitan areas.

The rankings, released last week by the Population Crisis Committee, a Washington-based think tank, were based not on opinion polls and desirability standards, but on statistical comparisons of urban life indicators, including infant mortality, air quality and public safety.

Hence, the top-rated cities make up what may seem a curious list, beginning with Melbourne, Montreal and Seattle--all tied for first place--followed by Atlanta, then Essen-Dortmund-Duisburg--a cluster of German cities nearly leveled by bombs during World War II, and Detroit.


Yes, Detroit, Mich. The city that "Prime Time Live" recently called the hellhole of the United States is among the 21 cities that received the survey's highest rating of "very good." San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, all grouped as one metropolitan area, also received the top ranking. But Los Angeles and San Diego-Tijuana were among the nearly two dozen areas, including New York, Paris and London, that received the second-level ranking of "good."

Orange County's population was not big enough to qualify for the survey, which focused on the world's 100 largest metro areas.

Everyone may think "Detroit is a horrendous place to live," said Sharon L. Camp, vice president of the private, nonprofit organization. But while Detroit may have a high crime rate, it also boasts clean air and low housing costs. The city also was helped by being considered with its affluent suburbs and neighboring Windsor, Canada, because of the way the survey defines metropolitan areas.

"This is not so much a quality-of-life survey . . . as it is a survey of survivability," said Sally Ethelson, director of media relations for the Population Crisis Committee.

"Can you move around? Can you breathe the air? Can you talk to someone in a downtown street? Will your children live to the age of 1? If they do, will there be enough schools for them? Can you make a phone call? Can you walk down the street without being killed?"

According to the survey, the bottom-ranked cities are ones with unusually high birth rates. The lowest-rated city is Lagos, Nigeria, which is also the world's fastest growing. Others at the bottom of the "poor" category are Kinshasa, Zaire; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Recife (formerly Pernambuco), Brazil; Lima, Peru; Lahore, Pakistan, and four cities in India, including Calcutta and Bombay.

The two-year study, "Cities: Life in the World's 100 Largest Metropolitan Areas," was conducted by the Population Crisis Committee, which receives funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and other private donors.

The survey is essentially a "statistical snapshot" of life in the world's major metropolitan areas: How safe they are, how noisy, how crowded, how clean the air is and how much education and housing are available.

"The study tells us something about what the rest of the world is like . . . how big the gaps really are," Camp said.

Over the years, there have been dozens of surveys of American cities: The best places to live, the best places to retire, the best places to find a job, the places to find a woman, the best places to be a woman.

But the message of this survey is more serious, Camp said: The cities of the world growing the fastest are also the cities least able to accommodate growth.

All 28 of the cities with the lowest ranking of "poor" are in the Third World. Of 26 cities ranked "fair," only 10 are in the Western hemisphere and none in the United States.

The survey may open a window on a world changing so fast that Americans no longer may know the names of many of the world's largest cities.

Everyone may be familiar with Tokyo, Mexico City and New York, the three largest cities in the world.

But how many Americans know Surabaya, the world's third fastest-growing city? Or Hyderabad, Shenyang, Guangzhou, Harbin or Porto Alegre?

These lesser-known cities are all among the 50 worst places in the world to live, according to the survey. Their low rankings are not based on exorbitant housing prices, mediocre restaurants or other cultural amenities that might make Americans turn up their noses. They were based on the difficulty people have in surviving daily life.

The study, which cost an estimated $500,000, began two years ago when urban planners and population researchers from the United Nations and the World Bank met in Washington to try to measure living standards in the world's largest metropolitan areas.

In early 1989, the Population Crisis Committee sent a 13-page questionnaire to public policy researchers and university scholars in 45 countries. From those questions, the organization devised a scoring system based on 10 categories: murder rates, food costs, living space, access to utilities, communications, education, infant mortality, air quality, noise pollution and traffic congestion.

The survey did not consider certain urban life factors, such as climate, either because they seemed too frivolous or because comparable worldwide data was unavailable, Camp said.

The survey also did not try to measure the number of museums or cultural activities that cities had to offer. What might be called "the factors of gracious living" were not included, Camp explained, because every proposed measure was met with resistence from Third World experts who thought they were "culturally biased."

Other objections may come from some quarters, especially in the United States, because of the way the study defines "cities." The definition, drawn up by a Rand McNally & Co. expert, encompasses not only a central city but also its suburbs and any communities that have development or economic ties.

Detroit, for instance, got its sixth-place ranking partly because of its neighbors.

The city, however, probably won't quibble with the way things turned out. Bob Berg, press secretary to Mayor Coleman A. Young, said he was delighted, although he was clearly taken aback, by the findings--by " anything ," he said, "that puts us sixth in the world"--even if all it says is how bad the rest of the world may be.

The 10 Best . . .







Dallas-Fort Worth




. . . and the 10 Worst

Lahore, Pakistan

Pune, India

Kanpur, India

Lima, Peru

Recife, Brazil

Dhaka, Bangladesh

Kinshasa, Zaire

Lagos, Nigeria

Bucharest, Romania

Yangon, Myanmar

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