Livable spaces | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Livable spaces

At last, a study of the cities of the world that considers spaces. Previous studies focused on cost of living, safety, educational facilities and infrastructure, all of which are important, but here, at last, the British magazine The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has released a Spatial Adjusted Livability Index, with rankings of 70 cities, that does consider the criteria I mentioned above, plus factors such as green spaces and availability of natural and cultural assets.

I’m going to talk about the results, including Manila’s ranking, but will also discuss what this might mean for urban planning, and for our own personal choices for choosing a place to live in. Filipinos lucky enough to choose which country they want to live and work in may check this index before deciding on accepting a job offer. Our city administrators and urban planners should also look at the study, which is downloadable from The Economist website, for ideas on similar studies for the Philippines.

Before I open the envelope and announce the winners, let me tell you about the sample used. There were 70 cities chosen, the larger ones from all continents, which meant that only one city—Manila (presumably Metro Manila)—was used for the Philippines. I think that if the study were expanded to include smaller metropolitan areas, more of our cities would have made it into the study, and probably fared not too badly. Many years back, the now defunct Asiaweek magazine had surveys of Asian cities and Cebu and Davao beat Manila for quality of life.

Let’s get back to this Spatial Adjusted Livability Index. Surprising even the researchers themselves, Hong Kong came in No. 1. A few years back I would have been shocked, too, associating Hong Kong with the motto “I shop, therefore I am” and Disneyland and kitsch. But over the years I’ve discovered another side to Hong Kong, which I hope many more Filipinos, including the more than 100,000 living there, will discover for themselves.


Following Hong Kong were Amsterdam, Osaka, Paris and Sydney. The other Asian cities rankings in this index were: Tokyo (10), Seoul (20), Singapore (22), Beijing (30), Shanghai (33), Shenzhen (34), Kuala Lumpur (37), Tianjin (38), Guangzhou (39), New Delhi (46). Patience, patience, Manila’s there. Dalian’s 47th, then we’re 48th, followed by Bangkok as 49th. The remaining cities were: Mumbai (52), Jakarta (56), Hanoi (57), Ho Chi Minh (60), Phnom Penh (64), Karachi (65), Dhaka (68).

The EIU showed the rankings for this particular index and compared it with an earlier Livability Index with no space indicators. In that earlier index, Hong Kong ranked 10th, but bringing in spatial indicators catapulted it to No. 1, which shows what livable spaces can do.

Green assets

Here are the spatial indicators, and how Manila fared on a scale of 1 (best) to 5 (worst). I’ll bring in some of the other cities as well for comparison.


The first criterion was green spaces, consisting of parks, squares and gardens. Golf courses were excluded. (I am thinking of some local real estate developers who have been advertising their properties as having a good view of certain golf courses. I did look at some of these developments and must say the golf courses did look good, but only because they seem to be the last green spaces in Metro Manila, besides University of the Philippines in Diliman.) Manila scored 4.3 here, close to the bottom. Hong Kong did very well with a score of 1.2, with 90 percent of city residents living within a kilometer from a park. (See for a great guide to the city’s parks.)

This study reminds us that even with intense urbanization, it is possible to carve out green spaces.  London scored 1 here and New York 1.3, Central Park of course coming to mind. Asian cities fared poorly but New Delhi scored 1.8.


The second criterion was sprawl. If the population is spread out over too wide an area, it becomes difficult to move around, encouraging private cars and making public transport systems more expensive. We did fairly well here with a score of 2, but I suspect this was because Metro Manila is relatively small in terms of land area, which gives the impression there isn’t too much sprawl. But because living in Metro Manila has become so expensive, there are actually thousands of people who live outside of the metropolis and commute to work daily. I know someone who lives as far north as Tarlac, leaving home at the crack of dawn each day to get to Manila to work and returning at about 8 or 9 p.m. to avoid traffic.

Natural assets make up the third criterion defined as “sea, rivers, lakes and mountains over 500 meters” that are within a 100-km radius, as well as protected areas in a 75-km radius. We scored a dismal 4 here, while Hong Kong had 1.3.  We have Manila Bay, we have the Pasig River, and we have beaches in nearby Cavite, but they’re not quite natural assets. In contrast, 42 percent of Hong Kong’s land area is devoted to parks and protected natural areas, including some of the best trekking trails in the world, and this is what I hope more people will discover, and emulate for urban planning. Our other cities still have time to avoid the mistakes of Metro Manila and try to preserve the natural assets that are close by. I will say, too, that Hong Kong does have its share of problems preserving those green spaces and we can also learn from the environmental protection groups there.

Connectivity, the fourth criterion, refers to cities reachable by plane, as well as the average number of daily flights. We scored 3 here, but I wonder if this should be considered positive. The Philippines relies too much on Manila’s airports for international connections and we pay for it in terms of poor airports and pollution.

Cultural assets refer to the number of Unesco World Heritage sites within or near to a city. We scored 4, as did Hong Kong. Only Rome, Mexico City and New Delhi scored 1 here.

Isolation is an intriguing criterion, and refers to other large cities (population more than 750,000) within a 200-km radius, which would mean more alternatives in people and lifestyles. Just think of how much (or how little) of a choice we have in Metro Manila, given that even if there were other areas, they would just be clones of our worst features. We scored 3.8 here.

The final criterion was pollution, using data from the World Health Organization on particulate matter in the air. We scored 3, again like Hong Kong. Generally, Asian cities fared poorly, with Singapore having the highest score of 2.  Surprisingly, it was western cities like Sydney, Toronto, London and Miami that scored best.

It’s time we rated our own cities, and discovered how livable spaces have to be living spaces, nature preserved around, and invited into, cities.

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