New Zealanders now have official bragging rights over Australians.

Mercer’s 2008 Quality of living survey rates Auckland as the fifthmost desirable city in the world in which to live, and the best in the Asia-Pacific region, beating Sydney, which came in at 10. And just to rub salt into the wound, much-maligned Wellington (12th) with its windy weather outranks all other Australian cities, including Melbourne (17th), Perth (21st), Adelaide (29th) and Brisbane (34th).

Mercer’s survey is based on 39 criteria, grouped into 10 clusters, covering such aspects as politics, economics, social and cultural environment, housing, natural environment, services and transport, health, shopping, leisure, and education. It is designed to help guide businesses on their strategic investments and on creating equitable global pay policies.

However, it isn’t all bad news for Australians. Even by Mercer’s standards, Australian cities are among the most desirable living spots in the world, and other surveys are still more positive.

The Economist‘s December 2007 survey of 40 livability factors ranked Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Sydney in the global top 10, with New Zealand cities nearby but lower on the scale.

The survey results reflect the value of the great Aussie/Kiwi dream: owning a patch of “God’s own”—the national icon of a house in the suburbs, complete with the barbie, shed, a Hills hoist, and family cricket and football games in the backyard. While European cities traditionally have narrow streets and cramped apartments, we have been fortunate to create our nations in the modern era.

Our cities have grown outward rather than upward—the cramped terrace housing of inner Sydney and Melbourne are a novelty rather than the norm. The train, tram, bus and now, more than ever, the family car have taken us to well-paid jobs in the city.

With the increasing mobility of multicar families, the middle class home has fled further and further from the city, often for semi-rural lifestyle blocks, and we increasingly commute long distances to work. We can retain all the benefits of city services and salaries, while simultaneously enjoying the beauties of a more relaxed lifestyle and greater personal living space.

But all is not well in paradise.

Recently, the combined threats of unparalleled high house prices, rising interest rates and the doubling of fuel costs place the traditional dream at risk. Now, the price of a home is often beyond the means of young families, with the affordability of housing at an all-time low in many Australian and New Zealand cities. A tight rental market, also with high costs, only complicates the situation.

Meanwhile, unprecedented petrol prices are forcing people to rethink their liberal travel habits. All of a sudden, long drives to work are a serious drain on the budget but accommodation closer to work is also unaffordable.

These conditions force us to re-evaluate our lifestyles and adjust either or both of where we live and how much we travel. Certainly, transport alone threatens to do this, with petrol prices unlikely to come down by any significant margin. Such a forced change will not come easily, and there will be many costs—financial and otherwise.

Creating the new infrastructure to maintain transport while reducing the reliance on fossil fuels will not be cheap—especially in cities designed for cars and without the density of population that makes public transport viable in other developed nations. Then what of the other costs? All change take a toll on our emotional wellbeing, and these changes threaten to be huge. We need to rethink our whole lifestyle, which brings us back to the Mercer and Economist surveys of quality of living.

If you had to create a way of measuring how well someone lives, what factors would you take into account? I would definitely include virtually everything these surveys cover. There is no doubt in my mind that, given the choice, I would prefer to live in Auckland, Sydney or Melbourne over Harare, Baghdad or Brazzaville, three of the cities at the bottom of the survey lists.

I have visited places in the world where uncertainty—of liberty, food and home—was the one thing almost everyone could be certain of, and it made for an unnerving atmosphere. I would rather have security and comfort than constant fear and the risk of imminent death. But living in an oasis of comfort and convenience is not necessarily heaven. While misery may be more certain in some of the most troubled cities of the world, a mansion with a Takapuna, Turramurra or Toorak postcode isn’t a guarantee of happiness. As so many have sadly discovered, moving to a better place means nothing if the problem they are trying to escape from is actually themselves.

So another thing I would include in any attempt to define quality of life is the nature of our emotional life—especially our relationships. And the top of this list is family and, perhaps even more crucially, ourselves. Ultimately, the quality of our life depends more on whether we are at peace with ourselves, and in healthy relationships with family and friends, than on any other single factor.

Admittedly, this is difficult for a survey to measure, and irrelevant to the purposes of Mercer and Co. But it is intensely relevant to us. Happiness cannot be guaranteed by living in the right place physically. We need to be in the right place emotionally.

So, with new challenges forcing us to re-evaluate what is important to us in our way of living, we have the opportunity to take stock. How are my relationships with those I value? What can I do to make them better? Perhaps proximity to parents or children is more important than a bigger pay packet. Our highly mobile lifestyle has often isolated us from people nearby.

With the risk of less mobility, perhaps we can seek to restore the concept of the village, finding friendship and entertainment in our local community, rather than travelling long distances to entertain ourselves among strangers at major sports and entertainment complexes.

And finally, are we happy with ourselves?

What is our spiritual state? How do we relate to God? Do we need to invest in the peace of our own souls instead of a piece of prestigious real estate? Challenges face us but so do opportunities to examine our most precious relationships—with friends, family, ourselves and God.

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