Metro Manila not among the ‘10 least liveable cities in the word’—but it doesn’t mean things have improved

For the 14 million commuting residents of Metro Manila, chaos is just chaos—not the ‘charming chaos’ that foreign remote workers living in enclaves like BGC vlog about.

A few days ago, the list of the world’s most liveable cities—as well as those occupying the more dismal end of the spectrum—was released by the Economist Intelligence Unit or EIU, a sister organization to The Economist.

Vienna took the top spot once again in 2024, earning the title of the most liveable city in the world for a third consecutive year. Metro Manila, meanwhile, placed 136th among 173 cities in last year’s rankings.

Three other European cities made the top five: Copenhagen, Zurich, and Geneva. All three have a modest population size, which tends to lead to lower crime rates and less crowded roads and public transport systems.

Two Canadian cities—Calgary and Vancouver—and four in Asia-Pacific—Melbourne, Sydney, Osaka, and Auckland—complete the top ten, as per the EIU report.

Vienna is the world’s most liveable city for a third consecutive year. Photos from Unsplash
This is not a rare MRT scene in Metro Manila. Photo: Mark Balmores

How do you measure liveability?

While it’s certainly lovely knowing what the world’s most liveable cities are (I write this with a tinge of envy), as a third world citizen living in what is one of the most challenging metropolises, a more important question is: How do you measure liveability? And where does Metro Manila fit into this narrative of whether a city is liveable or not?

But first things first. The EIU’s annual survey rates 173 cities across five categories: stability, health care, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. For context, Vienna tallied perfect scores in four of the index’s five categories. It was only a lack of major sporting events that pulled down its score to a still remarkable 93.5 out of 100 in the culture and environment category.

Now let’s look at the other end of the pole, a.k.a. the 10 worst cities in which to live. When I first read the article, I did what I think most people who live in Metro Manila would do: I very quickly scanned the list, heaved a sigh of relief that Metro Manila was not there, and did a double take to make sure I wasn’t just hallucinating. A few moments later, however, I thought to myself—talaga ba? Wala talaga tayo sa 10 most unliveable cities? 

Again, for context, war-ravaged Damascus still occupies the bottom of the list. The Syrian capital has been the least liveable city in the index since 2013, and scored just 30.7 in 2024. Its stability score is tied with Karachi, Pakistan as the lowest of all the cities surveyed at only 20.

Kyiv also performs badly in the Stability category, pushing the Ukrainian capital into the bottom ten cities on the index for the second year in a row. Tel Aviv shares the same poor stability rating, and its scores on infrastructure and on culture and environment dropped by 7.2 and 6.7 points respectively amid the war in Gaza. The Israeli city plummeted 20 places down the ranking to 112th, the biggest drop in this year’s survey.

We need over a thousand hectares of park and open space for our current population,” said Paulo Alcazaren, esteemed urban planner and landscape architect. We are currently “at one square meter per person, and that’s being generous.”

The study noted that none of the bottom four cities had seen any improvement in its overall score since 2023.

“Since we conducted our survey, there have been more instances of civil unrest and demonstrations around the world, such as the campus protests across the US, suggesting continuing stress on liveability that is unlikely to ease in the near future,” said Barsali Bhattacharyya, deputy industry director at EIU, as quoted in an article on CNN

I have yet to find the complete list of rankings for this year, but last year, based on the same EIU Global Liveability Index, Metro Manila placed 136th among 173 cities, with a score of 60.9 out of 100. Still nothing to be proud of. 

Metro Manila placed 136th among 173 cities in last year’s rankings.

Of course, we’d all rather live in Metro Manila than in any of the war-ravaged, conflict-riddled, cities, but that’s setting the bar too low. Not making it to the bottom 10 is one thing—but our actual lived experiences in the National Capital Region is another. 

It cannot be denied that the metropolis we call home is also far from being an idyllic place to live in. There may be no risk of rockets flattening our homes, or terrorists kidnapping children—but every single day is also a battle—of a different sort that is. 

Metro Manila can be charming—unless you’re an actual resident

Metro Manila has its own charms—of course, it does—hey why do I see some raised eyebrows and eyes rolling!? Travel writers and bloggers talk of the wonderful chaos, delightful chaos, the chaotic charm, writes Tim Pile on the South China Morning Post. Tourists are even encouraged to embrace the beautiful chaos, he quips.

Intramuros has its timeless allure and Manila Bay’s sunset still is sensational, but how delightful you describe Metro Manila largely depends on your place in it. If you’re a tourist staying a day or two, yep, the metro can be a charmer. Stay any longer than than—or worse be an actual, living, commuting resident—the whole experience becomes unbelievably bleak and dismal and sad. Chaos is just chaos—with no beauty or charm to be found.

Rush hour is now a thing of the past, not because we have solved it, but because traffic builds up throughout the day. Every hour is rush hour on our godforsaken roads. 

Trust me, I’m one of the 14,941,953 actual, living, commuting residents of this urban sprawl that’s one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

So for someone like me, sure that chaos can be “charming” or “delightful,” it still is home after all. But its energy can be “sapping, irritating, and stressful” as Pile writes in his article. 

The Philippine capital region is the world’s worst place to drive, according to a study by Bloomberg. Photo by Agence France Presse

Metro Manila has the worst traffic in the world, according to a study by Waze. It takes five whole minutes—even longer depending on your luck or lack of it— to drive a kilometer on our roads, making the Philippine capital area the world’s worst place to drive, according to a study by Bloomberg. “Rush hour” is now a thing of the past, not because we have solved it, but because traffic builds up throughout the day. Every hour is rush hour on our godforsaken roads. 

A senior adviser at the American Chamber of Commerce claimed that if roads and other infrastructure were not upgraded immediately, Metro Manila was at risk of becoming uninhabitable within four years. The problem is that he said that in January 2016—it’s now 2024. We still inhabit these lands, but the quality of life has not improved since. 

The MRT-3 has long been notorious for its frequent breakdowns. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

How can we make Metro Manila, our home for better or worse, more liveable?

More than the abysmal transportation and commuting landscape, there’s a slew of other reasons why Metro Manila is so difficult to live in—as in many other urban areas in the country. There’s the crushing poverty that millions of our fellow Filipinos have to contend with day in and day out. Crimes, drugs, corruption, impunity. I’m sure we can name more. 

The other pressing question is: How can we make Metro Manila, our home for better or worse, more liveable?

Metro Manila is in desperate need of more open and green spaces. Photos from Unsplash

One way to drastically improve the metro’s liveability—and our mental health as well (no I’m not referring to that fake beach in Manila Bay)—is to have more green and open spaces.

However, we don’t have much of that at the moment. Among the notable ones are Rizal Park and Paco Park in Manila, Quezon City’s University of the Philippines Diliman campus greenery, the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife, the Quezon Memorial Circle, and La Mesa Ecopark, which hardly counts because that’s more a watershed than a green open space, as per an article on The Manila Standard

“We need over a thousand hectares of park and open space for our current population,” said Paulo Alcazaren, esteemed urban planner and landscape architect, in the same article. We are currently “at 1 square meter per person, and that’s being generous,” he added.

Ample green spaces can help solve a city’s air pollution problem in two ways. First, trees are natural air filters. In one year a mature tree will absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen in exchange, according to the Arbor Day Foundation.

Quezon City Memorial Circle is one of the last remaining parks in the whole of Metro Manila.

Foliage also encourages active transport, which means green spaces, in a way, could help lower carbon emissions in a city. According to Alcazaren, “wide sidewalks and streetscapes with trees are green in terms of the physical umbrella they provide, as well as in terms of encouraging biking and walking as an alternative to our problematic transport system.”

Iloilo City has got it right in this department. Its now famed protected bike lanes, interconnected networks, and the famous 9km Esplanade — incidentally designed by Alcazaren’s firm PGAA Creative Design — has helped promote a strong cycling culture among its residents. 

Aside from improving air quality, green open spaces can also help mitigate heat, especially during summer. In a documentary about Arroceros Forest Park, called “the last lung of Manila,” journalist Howie Severino demonstrated this cooling effect by placing a thermometer inside the forest park, and another outside. Inside the park, the temperature was two degrees cooler than outside.

But parks don’t just make summer heat more bearable. During the rainy season, green open spaces can also help prevent flooding, thanks to their soil that can absorb rainfall. “So long as cities have green open spaces, they can act as a sponge and absorb and delay the runoff before flushing it out,” Alcazaren says.

He also suggests pivoting “from gray infrastructure that’s all concrete to green infrastructure that embeds urban design and landscape architecture.” There are some reasons for hope, he says, as he reports a better “consciousness from developers about the importance of green spaces.”

There are other ways to help make our beloved Metro Manila more liveable for all our sakes. But those are for another day—or should I say another story.

The new lifestyle.