What Makes a City Livable?

City livability scores show residents' priorities for their standard of living. These scores can also serve as proxies for public health.

a map of the united states

Read Time: 2 minutes


When you consider moving to a new city, what makes or breaks your decision?

When I left Boston for Chicago in 2018, I cared about the reliability of public transportation, living near friends, and opportunities for novel experiences. These kinds of priorities are reflected in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) “livability” rankings for cities around the world, which considers average scores across five categories: stability, health care, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure.

I returned to Boston in 2021 to live near my family and go back to school. I wasn’t deterred when the Orange Line caught fire. I had already switched out my MBTA pass for a bike.

As COVID-19 transformed cities’ social landscapes, priorities shifted. U.S. cities experienced an exodus of their residents from the congestion and high cost of living. After all, why pay to endure the rats and trash in New York City if you can’t sit in its cafes, see live performances, or wander through museums?

The EIU livability rankings reflected these changes, lowering scores for culture, education and health care in cities worldwide due to COVID-19. And as safety measures lift, priorities shift again. In 2023, a city dweller might track mask mandates and variant outbreaks before moving. Those working from home might prioritize having space for a home office over accessible public transportation.

From a public health lens, high scores in any “livability” category are triumphs. Behind the scenes are environmental protection agency laws, city planning ordinances, mayoral initiatives, and state budgets that facilitate a high standard of living. If we consider livability scores as proxies for public health scores, maps like this one can be helpful for comparing the U.S. to its neighbors. This map shows Canadian cities outranking U.S. cities, largely because Canada’s public system facilitates access to health care.

Most Americans can’t (or won’t) pick up and move to Canada. But as we consider how the pandemic has shifted our priorities, we can look to improve the systems that boost livability in the cities we call home.

Databyte via Economy Intelligence Unit. The Global Livability Index 2022