It’s a typical Toronto experience. A ranking of global cities comes out and Toronto has fared well. Like clockwork, the deluge of Facebook posts begins. Everyone is so proud to live in this city and aren’t you too? Twenty-five likes. Congratulations, Toronto, on being the fifth most livable city according to Hammacher Schlemmer!

As for other, less favourable rankings, well, screw them.

City rankings can have uses beyond ginning up page views and civic pride, but that requires a serious methodology for separating usable information from jingoism. This challenge was the subject of Dr. Noah Toly’s keynote lecture at the annual University of Waterloo Planning Alumni of Toronto dinner, delivered Thursday night at the Fairmount Royal York.

“Toronto,” Toly said, “performs among the most livable and influential cities.” Its peers, as shown in various rankings, include Melbourne, Berlin, Moscow, and Shanghai.

Toronto, Urbanism, UWPAT, City rankings, Planning, PoliticsNoah Toly delivering the UWPAT keynote address, image by Craig White

These peers are not only important for a city’s self-image; they provide points of reference for judging its progress.

“Year-to-year rankings may fluctuate for reasons beyond a city’s control,” Toly said. “A city like Toronto might move in the rankings not because anything changed on the ground.”

Having other cities as benchmarks therefore allows urban planners and thinkers to separate the effects of their actions from exogenous changes, such as the inclusion of new cities in a firm’s dataset.

In the AT Kearney Global Cities Rankings, for instance, Toly noted, “in individual categories, Toronto has improved despite new entrants in the pool.”

Being able to separate the components of these rankings, most of which are assembled by consulting firms, foundations, and think tanks with their own visions of what constitutes a good city, can empower policymakers to extract value from these lists.

Toronto, Urbanism, UWPAT, City rankings, Planning, PoliticsNoah Toly delivering the UWPAT keynote address, image by Craig White

“If you want to share best practices and norms, you might want to reach out to peer cities,” Toly said. At the same time, he warned that cities should “ask whether a higher-ranking city is a thriving city.” Being at the top of a list is of little use if that ranking is not reflected in the urban reality.

To that end, Toly argued that competitive cities need to build on their strengths. To thrive, on the other hand, they must improve on their weaknesses. “To a certain extent,” he said, “We’re only as strong as our weakest links.”

Consequently, lasting cities have to build institutions. One-off events, he said, are wonderful but don’t make a long-term impact. Rather, cities that matter should address “the biggest problems.”

“We have to lead the way to a version of our global order that is not built on inequality,” Toly said. Results in such efforts may not yet dominate city rankings, but they are still the way forward.