Taipei’s Quest for Better Livability

Taiwan’s capital city is seeking greater international recognition as an attractive place to live and work.

Taipei often ranks high on international surveys that rate cities on the basis of their livability and quality of life. Its attractions include a rich cultural heritage coexisting seamlessly with technological innovation, picturesque mountainous backdrops, a wide variety of excellent cuisine, and a comparatively low cost of living.  

Over the past few years, however, Taipei’s ranking on some of the major international livability indexes has been slipping, prompting questions of what can be done to further improve the lives of Taipei’s residents.  

Out of 173 cities included in the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Global Liveability Ranking, for example, Taipei fell from 61st place in 2021 to 67th in 2022. The index considers such factors as social stability, cultural opportunities, and the quality of healthcare, the environment, education, and infrastructure.  

The decline in the ranking reflected the rapid progress being made by some other localities, rather than a deterioration in conditions in Taipei. But the drop comes as a reminder that staying competitive is always a challenge.  

Actually, “Taipei experienced a marginal improvement in its overall scores, driven by advancements in its culture and environment categories,” says Akshay Rathi, senior analyst at EIU. The city’s overall score increased from 85.1 to 85.8 last year. “However, the decline in ranking is due to relatively lesser gains being made by Taipei than many other cities in the past year.” 

With stability listed as a primary category for the index, increased uncertainty regarding cross-Strait relations was likely a key factor affecting Taipei’s scoring.  

Another report – the Quality of Life Survey compiled annually by UK-based lifestyle and travel magazine Monocle – lists the 20 cities that provide the highest quality of life. This index examines safety and crime, international connectivity, climate and sunshine, quality of architecture, public transport, level of tolerance, environmental issues and access to nature, urban design, business conditions, proactive policy developments, and medical care. 

Taipei was ranked tenth in Monocle’s 2022 Quality of Life Survey – down from ninth in 2021. Taipei’s trend of downward progression continued in the 2023 report released in July this year, as the city was no longer featured on the list.  

[TOPICS attempted to reach Monocle for an explanation of the steep slide but did not receive a reply. Again, a likely reason is the increased tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the international publicity it has received.]   

In 2022, Monocle cited Taipei’s relative affordability, low crime rate, and world-class healthcare as factors contributing to residents’ high quality of life. The report mentioned two areas in Taiwan in need of improvement: Taiwan’s outdated banking system and problems with road safety.  

As reported in the March issue of TOPICS, differences in naming conventions and related requirements set by banks as well as complications encountered while applying for and using certain financial products, such as credit cards, mortgages, and online services, can make banking in Taiwan difficult – particularly for foreign nationals. 

American Colin LaGesse is one of many Taipei residents who have issues regarding city traffic. “Drivers here have extremely dangerous habits, and a lot of those are reinforced by poor road design and any meaningful traffic law enforcement,” he says.   

The city’s pedestrian and cycling paths also leave much to be desired (see the article on road safety in this issue).  

While Monocle’s 2022 report cited Taipei’s average monthly rent of NT$23,000 (US$775) for a studio apartment as relatively affordable, rising costs of rent coupled with stagnating salaries have made housing a serious livability issue for many Taipei residents. The problem received further attention recently when news reports noted that the rent index, which tracks changes in housing prices as a proportion of the overall cost of living, rose to a record high in June.  

Both the EIU and Monocle surveys also considered environmental factors, including climate, air quality, and the availability and accessibility of green spaces. 

Studies in the U.S. have shown a direct correlation between the amount of urban green space and citizens’ mental and physical health. But while Taiwan’s Urban Planning Act calls for at least 10% of areas in Taiwan’s six special municipalities to be green spaces, the Taipei City Parks and Street Lights Office estimated Taipei’s green spaces at only 6.56% in 2021. This figure is noticeably low compared to other capital cities in Northeast Asia. Seoul and Tokyo boast 27.91% and 7.5%, respectively. 

Noise pollution can also have a surprising effect on the health of residents. According to the Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), noise levels of 50-70 decibels may cause light discomfort in some people, and long-term exposure to more than 70 decibels can cause anxiety-related symptoms. 

A team of researchers led by Academia Sinica and the Soundscape Association of Taiwan in September last year released an interactive map showing noise levels in areas within Taipei City. The finding was that three in ten Taipei residents live in “noisy” areas by World Health Organization (WHO) standards, with many localities far exceeding both WHO- and EPA-recommended noise levels. 

At a press conference, Academia Sinica researcher Chan Ta-chien noted that Taipei lacks enough quiet spaces where residents can avoid high decibel levels and suggested that natural barriers be used to help reduce road traffic noise. 

The good news 

Despite slipping in some surveys, Taipei – and Taiwan more generally – continue to enjoy a strong ranking in other indexes. A qualitative survey of foreign nationals conducted by expat guide InterNations ranked Taiwan second in its recently released 2023 Quality of Life Index. This analysis rated 53 countries in five subcategories: travel and transit, leisure options, healthcare, environment and climate, and safety and security. For a country to be included, a minimum of 50 respondents was required. 

Taiwan ranked fifth on InterNations’ list of the best places for foreign nationals to live and ninth for best places to work abroad. One area where Taiwan particularly stands out in most surveys is personal safety. In InterNations’ survey, not a single respondent reported feeling unsafe in Taiwan, as opposed to 8% of respondents globally. A high 76% of respondents also gave their personal safety the best possible rating (compared with 49% globally). 

Healthcare is also perceived as one of Taiwan’s most impressive features. In the latest InterNations survey, 91% of respondents expressed satisfaction with the affordability of medical care in Taiwan, while 93% were satisfied with availability. Moreover, 60% of respondents gave Taiwan’s quality of medical care top marks in the survey – a figure surpassed only by South Korea. 

Stories of positive experiences with the Taiwanese healthcare system abound when speaking to foreign nationals living in Taiwan. LaGesse, who has been a resident for six years, says that living in Taiwan saved his life when he was diagnosed with cancer in February 2021.  

“I quickly sought treatment when I noticed symptoms because I knew that healthcare would be affordable,” he says. “If I had been in the States, I would have been scared of medical debt and probably would not have gone to the doctor.”  

Taiwanese nationals agree with this favorable view of the healthcare system, as public satisfaction with the National Health Insurance system stood at over 90% last year. Even more frequently praised is the ease of accessing services and public transport in Taipei. 

“The public transportation here is really developed and priced affordably,” says Chen Hsin, a Zhongli native who moved to Taipei three years ago. “Transportation is convenient, and so are all of the other amenities in the city. No matter what you’re trying to find, you’re likely to be able to find it somewhere in Taipei.”  

LaGesse also considers public transportation to be one of Taipei’s most significant assets. “Having clean and reliable public transportation is really nice,” he says. “Even taxis are reasonably priced as opposed to the runaway prices in the U.S.” 

Efforts by government to increase Taipei’s livability are starting to take effect. To meet the housing needs of citizens, the Taipei City Government has launched new social housing projects on publicly owned land. Units are available for rent, and in some cases for purchase, for citizens who qualify on the basis of need.  

According to Taipei City’s Department of Urban Development (DUD), social housing not only improves the overall urban landscape and quality of life, but also introduces much-needed social welfare and commercial facilities to the surrounding areas. These include public-private partnership childcare centers, nonprofit kindergartens, and community-based long-term care institutions, and help establish a comprehensive community support system. 

DUD is employing various approaches to overcome the challenge of creating a more livable and sustainable city. Strategies include the repurposing of city-owned land, integrated development of public land focusing on transit and ecology, collection of public feedback, and the renovation of unused military dependents’ housing. The aim is to acquire land for development and continuously increase the stock of social housing. 

Taipei’s aging schools are also a high priority. DUD estimates that of the 236 elementary and junior high schools in the city, 70% of classrooms will require rebuilding within the next 15 years. With this inevitability looming, the city has developed a plan for campus renovations. According to DUD, this plan aims to integrate campuses with their local areas and utilize buildings for vertical compounds. It will also provide diverse public services to the surrounding areas, promoting the regeneration of the neighborhood.  

Faced with a declining birthrate and an aging population, DUD is also working to increase livability for families and aging residents in Taipei. Social housing projects are now prioritizing families with two or more children by providing additional chances to be selected as well as additional rent subsidies for families with children – including an additional NT$1,000 subsidy per child. 

For aging residents, DUD is actively promoting an elderly-youth home exchange plan that assists elderly residents in relocating from walk-up apartment buildings to those equipped with elevators. The plan also seeks to make it easier for extended families to live together to care for aged family members.