News

Vienna Might Not Be the Best City in the World After All

The Austrian city has been named the world's most livable, but what does that actually mean, and who is it actually for?

by Markus Lust, Photos: Stefanie Katzinger
Feb 24 2016, 12:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE Austria.

On Tuesday, human resources giant Mercer published its 18th annual Quality of Living survey, naming Vienna the most livable city in the world. As expected, this caused the Austrian media to exclaim a collective "Oh-Em-Gee," and lose any ability to think critically and rationally. Basically, since Tuesday morning, everyone in Austria has been reporting on how great we, Austrians, are.

Even though the survey isn't necessarily faulty, the victory it hands out isn't so straightforward. Sure, it's great for public morale—especially since international media seems to rejoice in portraying Austria as a nation of anti-refugee hardliners, hostage-holding families like the Fritzl's, or even Hitlers. But with the sugarcoating come the questions: Who is Mercer looking to address here? How does it define quality of life? And how does one measure happiness?

Who Does the Mercer Study Address?

First, we need to understand the premise of the Mercer survey. It's not a scientific study, and it doesn't conduct interviews with all major demographics to gain a representative picture of every city's complexion and livability. Its goal is to assist multinational companies in deciding where to send their expat workers. So according to Mercer, "safety, in particular, is a key factor" in the study's questionnaire (more on that later).

Not that Mercer doesn't have a point here. If you are a growing business looking for nice places to (re)locate or open new offices in, Vienna might be a pretty good place to bet your money on. That's because business people tend to live in the nicest neighborhoods, stay at the best hotels, and, generally, rarely move into the shadier parts of any town. If you go into sketchy parts of Vienna and quiz 500 homeless, jobless, or drug addicts, the results may vary.

The Mercer survey isn't so much telling you about the actual quality of living for average people. Rather, it's an answer to the question: In what city with a decent infrastructure and nice places to shop are business people least likely to get confronted with the ugly, distracting realities of war or violence?

Photo by Stefanie Katzinger for Vienna Is a Paradise

How Does Mercer Define Quality?

Which brings me to the definition of quality. As I said before, a key factor for Mercer is safety. So let me say this: Vienna is really safe. Walking the streets here feels like strolling through Disney World—everything's neat and tidy and kind of antique-looking. While living in Disney World may sound like heaven for some, it may not be for others. For many Viennese, Vienna is boring to the point where you feel sheltered, and every aspect of culture is five years behind the UK or the US—plus, it's full of dog poop.

At the same time, even though Vienna is really safe, it's not that safe. According to the 2015 Legatum Safety & Security Index, the safest countries in the world are China, Iceland, and Finland. Austria only ranks 16th on that list.

Moreover, it's also pretty hard to measure a city's soft skills such as how nice its people are; how easy it is to meet somebody new; how vibrant the nightlife is; where do I get groceries on a Sunday, etc. The answers are, in that order: not nice, not easy, not vibrant, and nowhere.

But hey, who cares about Sunday groceries as long as you have a thriving economy that allows you to have brunch by a picturesque shopping street, right? As the Guardian points out, Austria's figure for GDP per head is among the highest in the world, just behind the US.

Photo by Stefanie Katzinger for Vienna Is a Paradise

Which would be great if it wasn't for this little scandal concerning a bank called Hypo that left Austria crippled and earned us the moniker of Europe's "little Greece." The Hypo scandal, which was caused by speculations of Austria's southern most state's far-right Freedom Party of Carinthia, cost Austria €19 billion [$21 billion]; the same amount all refugees between 1950 and 2275 combined would cost the state.

Another financial indicator for quality of life might be how much you pay for your rent. The Guardian quotes Vienna-born Helena Hartlauer, who says she's living in a 1,080-square-foot apartment in a good neighborhood and still only pays around £625 [$81]. That's as little as £6.25 [$8.81] per square foot. Which is great, except for the fact that it's way below average. Between the ten people who make up VICE's Viennese editorial staff, the average rent for a decent place in an equally decent neighborhood is about £9 [$13] per square foot. And none of us live in the turn-of-the-century kind of flat described in Helena's account. Also, if you look at the statistics, Vienna's closer to more than £10 [$14] per square foot.

How Do You Measure Happiness?

So money might not be the thing to look at in the long run either, not that it matters. I don't mean to sound like a hippie here, but money isn't everything, right? If it's not, however, then we need something else to get hooked on. Like real happiness. So how do we measure real happiness? And how high does Vienna or Austria rank on the list? One way is to just go out and ask.

That's what the United Nations has been doing. For their World Happiness Report, they accumulated data from the Gallup World Poll in over 150 countries. The study lists Switzerland, Iceland, and Denmark as the three happiest countries on Earth. Austria doesn't even make the top 10, ranking 13th.

Another study on overall well-being, conducted by Gallup, among more than 146,000 people in 145 countries, has Panama, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico as the three countries where people are generally the most content with their lives. Here, Austria is 9th.

So what exactly is it that makes Vienna the number one city to send your employees and expats to? After all, it's fake, mediocre, and it's only fun if you aren't into being confronted with reality. Then again, these might just be the qualities international businesses are looking for.