Melbourne's central business district

"Cities that score well barely qualify as cities"

Opinion: increasingly popular lists that judge cities on "liveability" and "quality of life" are dangerous for the future development of our metropoles, says Sam Jacob.

Another week, another city ranking list. This time it's the Economist Intelligence Unit's Liveability Ranking that has crowned Melbourne as the most liveable of the 140 cities on its index. Next placed are Vienna, Vancouver and Toronto. In mid-table obscurity are big metropolises such as London and New York – ranking at 55 and 56 respectively. Bringing up the rear is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus, whose origins date back to 9000 BC.

The EIU's ranking is just one of a huge proliferation of city reports. Take your pick from UBS' Prices and Earnings Survey, KPMG's Competitive Alternatives, Mercer Consulting's Cost of Living Survey or their Quality of Living Survey, IESE's Cities in Motion Index, Mastercard's Worldwide Centers of Commerce Index, PriceWaterhouseCooper's Cities of Opportunity, Brookings & LSE Cities' Global Metro Monitor, Z/Yen's Global Financial Centres Index, or 2thinknow's Innovation Cities Top 100 Index. Monocle magazine also publishes its own Quality of Life Survey (this year Copenhagen was top, Melbourne number three).

Each report quantifies cities according to specific metrics and each serves a very particular purpose. The EIU's Liveability Ranking, for example, notes that companies pay a form of compensation to its employees if they are relocated to cities where living conditions are particularly difficult. It suggests an appropriate level of compensation: a city rated 50 or less, for example – where "most aspects of living are severely restricted" – should result in a 20 per cent premium to employees. It also notes that "it is not uncommon for companies to pay higher allowances— perhaps up to double the Economist Intelligence Unit’s suggested level".

City rankings, in other words, see the city through a corporate lens. They present cities as data sets to decision makers at global corporations. They bring the world – abstracted into classifications and percentages – to their desks as they allocate capital investment and personnel across multiple territories and jurisdictions. The city is rendered in terms of its compatibility with global corporatism.

City rankings may present themselves as innocent and objective but the reality is they frame a very particular idea of the metropolis. They measure in relation to particular expectations of what "life" and "living" might be. In broad terms "good" cities – the ones that score highly – display the following types of attribute: public transport, connectivity, green space, provision for bikes, affordable housing, good education, low crime rates, low pollution levels and so on. And wouldn't we all want our cities to be like that?

But the fact is not all cities are quite so simple. That's why places like London and New York don't fare so well, cities that face real metropolitan issues, why the complexity of 11,000 years of uninterrupted urban history doesn't score so well. In fact, one might even say that the cities that score well barely qualify as cities, blessed with attributes of small scale, wealth and stable populations. This might make them pleasant places to live but, for the very same reason, they are also places that fail to generate the sparks of genius that true urbanity contains.

Let's not even begin to question the science of these rankings. What data is used? How is it processed? What assumptions are made? How, one might ask, can infrastructure be expressed as a percentage? What determines "cultural availability"? The apparent objective empiricism of the ranking format remains at odds with the sheer complexity and subjectivity of the subject.

But there is subtext too. The language used by these metrics – of liveability, sustainability and smartness – are phrased in a way that presents an idea of the city as growth catalyst, as idea incubator, as the site of private enterprise. By ranking them in terms of their performance as actors in global networks of trade, production, and consumption they present cities as competitive entities bidding for the same sources of corporate finance and investment.

The real danger though is far more than simply the language and scoring of urban metrification, it's the effect that the language and the scoring has on the place itself. Increasingly these reports and the view they represent are targeted at and adopted by policy makers. This has the effect of turning scoring mechanisms into concrete ambitions and targets for the future of cities. The map becomes the territory as the abstracted classifications and notations become embedded in the real urban landscape. Cities begin to resemble the rankings that were originally intended to measure them. And, of course, based on a common idea, cities begin to resemble each other too.

Take the case of the ISO 37120:2014 management standard. Unveiled at this year's Global Cities Summit, it's an international standard that "defines and establishes methodologies for a set of indicators to steer and measure the performance of city services and quality of life... It can be used by any city, municipality or local government wishing to measure its performance in a comparable and verifiable manner, irrespective of size and location or level of development." Clearly aimed at policy makers, the ISO aims to embed the logics of city indexing at the heart of city making. It's a means of making cities as much as it is measuring them.

Competitive metrics and the criteria they use bury an ideological idea of the city within their apparent objectivity. They render the modern city in the language of start-ups as places of "innovation", "technology" and "entrepreneurship". The city, their subtext suggests, is an agglomeration of private interests, and policy should promote these interests.

The connotation is classic free market: that under these terms the city will generate itself according to market forces and in doing so will inevitably provide necessary social balance. Yet we know that that is not how cities have come into existence, nor how they have developed. Equally we know that market forces shape cities in very particular ways for the benefit of very particular interests. City metrification presents this logic as a fait accompli, an ideology that emerges from the corporate world and passes directly into the heart of policy, bypassing any public discussion of what a city might be.

There is a strange effect of all this metrification. The data renders us both powerless and, ironically, more ignorant about the real nature of the city itself. What I mean by this is that cities are not natural phenomena, they are constructed out of political/social/economic ambition. To frame them purely by the data they generate or by percentages of abstract concepts is to avoid asking fundamental questions about the role and meaning of the contemporary city.

In fact they work against the deep professional and disciplinary understanding of the city. Their narrow scope does not allow vision or permit ways of thinking about cities outside of their own terms. There is no place for the kind of understanding of what cities are that we see in Aldo Rossi’s Architecture of the City, Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York or even in Alberti. Equally, they only allow us to imagine the future of the city within their own frame of reference. By prioritising measurement over vision, data over understanding, they disassemble planning as an imaginative and active tool of urban creation. Metrics are blunt tools that are intrinsically anti-planning and anti-academic. Anti-urban even. The consequence is that they do not let us intervene in the city, let alone imagine any kind of alternative urban future.

Cities are much more than corporate entities. They are nothing less than the summation of our collective desire made real. They are the physical environment precipitated by societies' abstract cultural and economic ideas: democracy made stony flesh. That's why we should beware the takeover of urban culture by management consultants.

The argument here is not that cities shouldn't be more liveable, greener, or smarter. Rather that the only way that we might achieve this is to articulate a clearer idea of the contemporary urban landscape. We can draw on big data, on communication technologies but we shouldn't be in thrall to it. We need to recognise the sheer difficulty of comprehending the complexity of cities and the difficulty of making them. We need a fuller understanding of the texture and depth of what life - and "liveability" - might be. We should openly acknowledge the intrinsic political dimension of the city and its fundamentally democratic nature.

Left unchecked, the cult of the indexed city will deliver us into a smart-green hegemonic impasse. A world – with all due respect to its citizens – that becomes a place of endless Melbournes. Measured to death, the indexed city is the cul-de-sac-ed conclusion to thousands of years of urban invention.

Sam Jacob is principal of Sam Jacob Studio, professor of architecture at University of Illinois at Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association, and edits Strange Harvest.