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2014 City Happiness Survey

Prosperity Not Translating into Happiness


Prosperity Not Translating into Happiness


The cities of Taipei and Hsinchu are the most competitive in Taiwan but that competitiveness did not translate into a sense of well-being, according to CommonWealth Magazine's 2014 City Happiness Survey.



Prosperity Not Translating into Happiness

By Kuangyin Liu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 555 )

There were few surprises at the very top of CommonWealth Magazine's 2014 City Happiness Survey.

Taipei again led the grouping of Taiwan's six big "special municipalities," consisting of Taipei, New Taipei, Taoyuan (to become one of the six at the end of this year), Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung, while Hsinchu City reclaimed its crown last held in 2012 atop the grouping of 16 "non-special-municipality" cities and counties. (See Table)

Of the five main categories used to evaluate local administrations, Taipei led the big metropolitan areas in three of them: economic vitality, culture and education and environmental protection. (The other categories are governance and social welfare.) Such dominance reflected the city's position as the nation's capital and its deep economic resources.

In one of the key indicators of economic vitality – total business revenues – Taipei posted higher sales than New Taipei, Taichung and Taoyuan combined, signaling its economic might.

Economic power stands out as an important indicator of a city's competitiveness and directly influences the resources available for environmental protection, education and social welfare. Hsinchu City's economic position is equally enviable, with median household disposable income close to NT$1.1 million, surpassing that of Taipei for the first time.

Yet for all of this prosperity, a sense of happiness and satisfaction with the administration of their city is more elusive for Taipei residents than for many other Taiwanese. Among inhabitants of the six major metropolitan areas, Taipei residents posted the lowest scores in the survey on their level of satisfaction with the city government's efforts to maintain economic prosperity and with the mayor's performance in generating job opportunities. The city also finished at the bottom on the question of whether the mayor cared or not about the education of the next generation.

Taipei, Hsinchu: Not Feeling It

Taipei and Hsinchu City are very much alike in that they scored the highest in the survey's five major objective categories of competitiveness but fared relatively poorly in more subjective categories, with Hsinchu City 11th among 16 smaller cities and counties and Taipei fifth among the six metropolitan areas, ahead of only Taichung.

It may seem counter-intuitive that such supposedly model cities are facing such stiff challenges in winning the approval of their constituencies, but Tsai Hsiu-chuan, a political science professor at Soochow University, says it makes perfect sense. 

"Because Taipei and Hsinchu have deep resources to draw upon, people have very high expectations for their leaders," Tsai says, stressing in particular the need for leaders to market their achievements. Regardless of how well a local government is performing, if it does not understand how to market its policies and communicate with constituents, it will have a hard time winning their hearts and minds, she says.

"For the past five years, Hsinchu City residents have felt that their mayor hasn't done anything," observes Jay N. Shih, former head of the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission and now a professor of public administration at National Chengchi University.

Shih attributes the indifferent response to local government efforts to the high education levels of residents of both top-ranked cities. Fifty-six percent and 76 percent of the employed populations of Hsinchu and Taipei, respectively, have higher education degrees, creating extremely high expectations. In this environment, city leaders can only gain the favor of their constituents with performances that truly stand out.

Hsinchu City has tried to make a splash to earn the plaudits of local residents, including by winning the rights to host Taiwan's sky lantern-shaped pavilion from the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. 

The city invested NT$1.4 billion in the project and spent two years preparing the site for the landmark, and when it officially opened in February 2013, Hsinchu Mayor Hsu Ming-tsai declared: "I hope to bring the axis of development in the Hsinchu area back to Hsinchu City."

Unfortunately, the new landmark has not left a deep impression with city dwellers. A shopping area attached to the pavilion has failed to draw big crowds of visitors in the more than a year since it has been open, attracting only the occasional family for a meal. Many residents and city councilors have even criticized the project as a "white elephant" and a "waste of money."

Mayor Hsu admits that it will take time for the project's impact to be felt, a sentiment shared by his deputy.

"Land prices in the area (of the World Expo Taiwan pavilion) have already gone up. As the economic scale gradually picks up, the people may be better able to feel its effects," stresses Deputy Hsinchu Mayor Yu Chien-hua.

As much as the city government wants to see the pavilion's shopping operations succeed, it is even more focused on the project's overall benefits, Yu points out, including its ability to drive interest in peripheral land originally zoned for industrial use and help create a new hub for the city's future development.

Initiating policies and projects that resonate with constituents, in fact, represents the key to cities and counties truly deserving of the "happy city" title. Yilan County is a case in point. Though it fared relatively poorly in the survey's objective indicators that depend on economic resources and finished last in "library books per capita" and "per capita social expenditure," the county still makes effective use of the limited resources it has. As a result, it scored well in subjective indicators, and led Taiwan's 16 smaller cities and counties in "satisfaction with the city or county's cultural and educational environment."

In an interview with Common Wealth Magazine, Yilan County magistrate Lin Tsung-hsien stressed the county's efforts in caring for the disadvantaged.

"We know that our resources are limited, so we have concentrated our efforts on policies that help employ people with disabilities and pull the disadvantaged out of poverty, because they are the people that are in the greatest need of the government's help," Lin says.

Scholars share Lin's view. Soochow University's Tsai noted that the counties of Yilan, Hualien, Taitung, Pingtung and Chiayi – all with relatively limited resources and economic vitality rankings in the bottom half of the survey – ranked in the top half of their grouping in subjective indicators.

"That's because local networks are very strong. If city and county leaders listen and respond to people's needs, it's probably easier for them to win people's hearts than more prosperous cities and counties," she says.

Another important subjective indicator measuring an area's popularity is how people "vote with their feet." Tsai observes that places local residents say they most want to live outside of their own home areas give local governments a clear picture of their main competition. Residents of Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung cities and Hsinchu and Miaoli counties, for example, all picked Hualien County as the place where they most want to move to after they retire.

"That reveals the innermost yearning of people who live in commercial and industrial areas. They want to get as far away as possible from hustle and bustle," Tsai says.

Though Taichung ranked as the least happy city among the six major metropolitan areas, it was identified by the most residents of smaller cities and counties as the place they most wanted to retire in because of its status as the focal point of development in central Taiwan and its abundant cultural and medical resources.

This year's survey also demonstrated how much being upgraded into a "special municipality" – and the greater autonomy and resources such status confers – enhances a city's competitiveness.

Taoyuan: Making Its Presence Felt

Taoyuan County, which will become a special municipality at the end of this year, was grouped with Taiwan's five other major metropolitan areas for the first time in this year's survey, and it finished fifth, ahead of Taichung. It ranked the highest in the "governance" category, leaving Taipei and New Taipei to the north lagging far behind.

"In the future, Taoyuan will overtake many cities," National Chengchi University's Shih predicts confidently. He not only cites the high concentration of Taoyuan's population living in urban areas to back his optimism, but also its many industrial parks, strong economic base, wealth of universities and cultural and educational dynamism. 

Though Kaohsiung ranked as the second happiest major metropolitan area in the CommonWealth Survey, "it will likely soon be overtaken by New Taipei," Shih says.

For many years, the actual city of Kaohsiung was, like Taipei, a special municipality in its own right. But when it merged with Kaohsiung County in 2010 to form a bigger Kaohsiung special municipality, it took on much heavier financial responsibilities. It will also need time to recover from deadly underground gas explosions that left 31 people dead and caused severe damage to many of its roadways.

Like Kaohsiung, Tainan and Taichung are at a similar disadvantage. In both cases, the merger of a city and county in late 2010 left the newly formed special municipalities short on resources.

By comparison, New Taipei (formerly Taipei County), which also became a special municipality in 2010, has a built-in advantage because its boundary remained the same despite its upgrade in status while its budget nearly doubled, as will also be the case with Taoyuan at the end of the year.

New Taipei ranked second this year in the economic vitality, environmental protection and governance categories to finish close behind Kaohsiung in the overall rankings. It ranked ahead of Taipei and second only to Taichung in the "patents per 10,000 people" indicator and finished first among the six special municipalities in "annual increase in local tax revenues" at 12.5 percent. These all suggest that New Taipei's economic might and ability to innovate cannot be overlooked.

Yet while purse strings are important, Kaohsiung and Tainan have shown there is more to governance than economic resources. The two southern municipalities were lodged at the bottom of the economic vitality category, but made up for that shortcoming with strong showings in culture and education and social welfare.

Kaohsiung ranked No. 1 in the social welfare category, not only being rated the highest in such objective indicators as "number of social welfare workers per 10,000 people" and "child/youth welfare service centers per population served" but also getting the highest score on the question, "do you feel your mayor cares about assisting the disadvantaged?"

Tainan and Kaohsiung also posted scores for "annual growth rate in per capita revenues from cultural and creative industries" that were three times as high as those for Taoyuan, which finished third in the indicator, signaling the two municipalities' strong potential in the cultural and creative sectors.

The upgrading of Taoyuan's status also had an impact on the grouping of Taiwan's 16 smaller cities and counties.

Changhua County, which vaulted from 10th last year to seventh this year in the overall rankings, became the most populous member of the group with Taoyuan's departure, giving it a major advantage in the allocation of fiscal resources. The county has industrial parks, a vibrant textile industry, and a competitive agricultural sector, "leaving it with plenty of potential for the future," Shih says.

Yet solely relying on economic might is not enough for any local government. Taichung's prime industrial corridor borders Changhua and has a strong magnetic pull on Changhua businesses, forcing the county to develop its own distinctive traits and sectors to maintain its competitive edge.

Hsinchu City, which ranked as the happiest city in the CommonWealth survey, faces a similar challenge. "If somebody asks me what is special about Hsinchu or what are some fun places to visit, I never have an answer," says Hsinchu native Ms. Lee, shrugging her shoulders.

Judging whether or not city residents have a sense of well-being cannot be boiled down simply to cold statistics. But when there is a yawning gap between in-depth surveys and objective indicators, it may suggest a new direction for local leaders eager to promote policies that resonate with their constituents.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

About the 2014 City Happiness Survey

To gauge the competitiveness and general level of well-being in Taiwan's 22 localities, the 2014 CommonWealth Magazine City Happiness Survey ranked Taiwan's cities and counties based on 71 objective and subjective indicators in five general categories: economic vitality, environmental protection, governance, culture and education, and social welfare.

To account for differences in development, the survey was divided into two groups, one for Taiwan's five existing "special municipalities" plus one future "special municipality" (Taoyuan), and one for Taiwan's 16 other cities and counties.

In the special municipality division, scores for every indicator were based on a 1-5 scoring system, with the best performer receiving a five, the next best getting a four and the poorest performer receiving a one. A similar formula was used in the non-special municipality division.

The data for the objective indicators come from government surveys and statistics in 2013, while the subjective indicators reflected opinion polls conducted by CommonWealth Magazine. The statistical indicators accounted for 80 percent of the total score and the opinion polls for 20 percent. The average scores of all of the indicators in each of the five major categories were then added up and divided by five, and then multiplied by 200 to obtain the final score.