Are you a peacock or an ostrich? The thorny world of community rankings

For those of you that may have missed it the annual ranking of best places to live in Canada came out recently.   This type of ranking is-  to say the least – controversial but is it relevant?

It seems to me these kinds of ‘best’ rankings have been proliferating in recent years.  In a world with a glut of media – it is hard to write stories that stand out – and rankings are an ideal way to get eyeballs – as long as the analysis has at least a veneer of depth to it.  There are best places to live, best places to retire, best places to raise a family, best places to start a business, best places for Millennials, best places  for immigrants – and that only scratches the surface.

In the new MacLean’s analysis the highest ranking NB municipality – out of more than 400 – ranks only 105.    Because the analysis is biased towards fast growth, high incomes and low unemployment rates – a place like NB is disadvantaged out of the gate.  In addition, because they split out every small municipality – the regional effects are ignored.  For example, a small community with a high income, low unemployment and fast population growth will score high but all of those effects may be driven by the large urban community next door – the latter having higher unemployment, lower average incomes and slower population growth.  Obviously the small community is benefiting by being in the orbit of the larger but there is no mention of this fact and no benefit to the larger urban centre for pumping up the rankings of its smaller neighbours.

What should a community do?  I caution communities not to fully ignore these kinds of rankings.  A few years ago an NB Cabinet minister was asked a question by a journalist and her answer was “we don’t like to compare ourselves to other jurisdictions”.   I don’t even remember the issue at play but I remember her response seemed a little bizarre.  If you don’t compare how do you know how well you are doing?  It’s hard to see anyone or any organization striving to get better at anything if they don’t know where they stand.

My recommendation is for communities to look at rankings like this and all the different attributes that drive the rankings and see if there are ways to improve.  There may be things that are out of their control and quite unfair (like the high ranking small community that is scoring high mainly because it is benefiting from the lower ranking larger urban centre next door) but there may be things that are in their control and addressable – walkability, bikeability, green spaces, affordable housing, etc.  And for the bigger issues like population growth, income levels, unemployment, access to health care, etc.  A fairly robust comparison to other cities/towns – should not be dismissed out of hand.

I’m not sure how widely these kinds of surveys/rankings are used in decisions of where to live, start a business, etc. but it can’t hurt given how widely these things are touted.  Just about every community I have worked with will have their laundry list of “best of”.  In fact, when she first moved here my wife used to joke about New Brunswick’s inferiority complex – we have the highest tides, longest covered bridge, largest axe, largest lobster, etc. – she never had visited a place that tried so hard to have some kind of trivial world beater in every community.  Anything to even slightly capture the imagination of people.

I have said many times that the world is getting more competitive by the day.  The competition for investment, talent and ideas has never been more pronounced.  New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada need to take this seriously.  We need to find our niche (s) in the world and pursue them relentlessly – or we will get swept out with the world’s highest tides – largest axe in one hand and largest lobster in the other.