Canada's Condominium Magazine

Not the safest, not the healthiest, but the best place to live is Toronto

For anyone with an interest in how cities work, reports like the one just out from The Economist (Intelligence Unit), the one that names Toronto as the world’s best city to live in, are fun to explore. The report’s focus is security—it’s called the Safe Cities Index. It is not about which city has the nicest climate or best shopping, but about which cities provide the best health care, infrastructure, personal safety and digital security.

One point the report makes is that cities are organic, in a state of ebb and flow, rise and fall. Conditions change, fortunes wane. Take crime, for instance. New York City had a shockingly high crime rate in 1990, with six murders every day. The total for the year was 2,245. Today, with a population that has grown by over 1 million people, New York has a murder rate about one-seventh of that 1990 number: 335 murders in 2013. What happened? Did a lot of bad people suddenly become good? Did the city hire thousands of police officers? Did the economy have something to do with it? The Economist report doesn’t explain, but there are explanations.

The police force in New York City did in fact grow by 35 per cent in the 1990s, and arrest rates for felonies rose 50–70 per cent. During that time, the homicide rate dropped 73 per cent, burglary 66 per cent, robbery 57 per cent and vehicle thefts 73 per cent (statistics from the National Bureau of Economic Research).

Toronto, which ranked eighth for personal safety in The Economist’s index, is currently debating why we have so many police officers when violent crime rates are falling. Some have been suggesting reducing the number of officers. Not to be simplistic about it, but based on the New York City experience it would seem that taking cops off the streets because the streets are considered safe would be like removing traffic lights from an intersection because there hasn’t been an accident there in a while.

Living in a safe and healthy urban environment can make a real and measurable difference to city inhabitants. The average life expectancy of citizens living in the top 25 cities in the Index is 81 years, compared with 75 years for those living cities in the bottom half of the table. The biggest gap is between Melbourne, Australia and Johannesburg, South Africa (86 years vs 60 years).

The Economist Safe Cities Index

Four categories, a couple of surprises 

The Safe Cities Index ranks cities on four main categories: digital security, health security, infrastructure safety, and personal safety. Our placing in these four categories may surprise Torontonians.

Digital Security: We are not in the top ten for digital security. This measures the level of resources dedicated to keeping the Internet and “other digital technologies” secure. Are there dedicated cyber security teams, for example? How often does identity theft occur? How much money is lost each year to cyber crime? Cities, The Economist says, need to be “particularly vigilant” against this type of crime when they host large events, such as international sporting events. Such as the Pan American Games, they might have noted. Considering that Toronto was ranked the world’s smartest (technologically speaking) community just over a year ago, this poor showing in digital security is a surprise.

Health Security: We are not in the top ten for health security. This category looks at factors such as the ratio of hospital beds to population and life expectancy of citizens. It also includes environmental policies, the number of doctors per 1,000 population, access to healthy food and the quality of the health services provided. Toronto’s ranking on this measure is a pretty dismal 21 out of 50.

Infrastructure Safety: We are in the top ten for infrastructure safety. In conversation and in the media these days, infrastructure in Toronto more or less equates to “transit” and everybody thinks it’s dreadful. The Economist takes a broader view, of course, looking at the enforcement of transport safety, the quality of the roads and the electric grid, the pedestrian-friendliness of the streets, and the frequency of vehicular accidents. It also considers the number of people living in slums and the number of deaths from natural disasters. Toronto placed eighth in this category.

Personal Safety: We are in the top ten for personal safety. Politicians and the police frequently tell us that we live in a safe city, and it seems they are right. Measured by the levels of crime and illegal activity and the level of police engagement, Toronto scored its highest rating here, placing seventh of fifty. “High levels of police engagement and patrolling are instrumental to security,” the report declares, but technology also has power to prevent crime.

Technology does not mean simply more and more video surveillance, though that plays a big role. Technology means, for example, data analytics, the use of algorithms to predict who is likely to commit a crime, or become a victim. It also includes using smart, responsive street lighting that dims when no one is near, and lights up again when people are detected. It can also respond to noise, and even notify police if “unusual” activity is detected.

How can Toronto still be considered the best place in the world to live, when our health and digital security are relatively poor? Because The Economist uses a different, more expanded set of indices to arrive at this, including liveability rankings, cost of living, business environment, democracy, and food security. Toronto does not score at the top of any of these, but it is a “consistent performer” across all measures.

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