Every year about this time, Mercer's Quality of Living global city survey prompts a round of teeth gnashing from cities that consider themselves unfairly treated.

The management consultancy's 2010 edition has proved particularly irritating to some.

Many Sydneysiders and Wellingtonians see their respective ratings as the 10th and 12th most liveable cities in the world as well out of step with their own view.

Particularly galling for them is the fact that Auckland has held on to its fourth placing.

Cue remarks about soullessness and a city as dead as the volcanoes on which it lies.

Quality of living means, to a degree, different things to different people.

The young may consider the vibrancy of, say, London and Amsterdam makes them particularly appealing places to live.

Yet Mercer rates them 39th and 13th, respectively.

Such people might, in turn, find Vienna, Zurich and Geneva, which fill the first three places, staid and uninspiring.

Mercer, however, maintains that, whatever the differences of age, gender, social position and so on, there is basic agreement on individual needs.

This, it says, provides the foundation for objective measurement based on factors that people consider representative of quality of living.

Everybody wants to live in cities that provide a safe and secure environment, ready access to healthcare, a good transport infrastructure, easy access to consumer goods, and adequate housing and education and recreation opportunities.

Only the weighting that individuals give to such factors at a given moment or in certain situations will change.

This all reinforces the idea that the world's larger cities have become too big for their occupants' comfort.

The likes of noise, air and water pollution and congestion combine to reduce the quality of living.

This optimal size of a city is much smaller.

It can hardly be coincidence that the first five cities on Mercer's list - Vancouver shares fourth with Auckland - have populations not too much larger than Auckland's 1.4 million.

On the basis that Mercer's measurement technique points this way, Sydney (population 4 million) can consider itself to have done relatively well, if not as well as Munich (population 5 million), which was rated eighth.

Mercer also ranks cities by their environmental credentials. Again, a pattern emerges. First in the eco-ranking - based on water availability and drinkability, waste removal, quality of sewage systems, air pollution and traffic congestion - is Calgary.

Wellington is fifth and Auckland 13th equal. Logically, smaller cities have a head start in the race to be eco-friendly simply because of their lower numbers.

Such rationale does not, of course, satisfy, the "we're better than them" brigade. They continue to decry a quality of life approach that one Sydneysider said promoted "a roll call of the nice but dull".

They will continue to be miffed that the Sydney Opera House and, say, the entertainment on offer in New York and London do not get what they consider their fair due.

They also point out, fairly enough, that Auckland has problems too, such as traffic congestion, poor public transport and contaminated beaches.

But the point is that Auckland's problems are, thanks to its population size, not on the scale of the world's larger cities.

The expatriate multinational executives who fill in Mercer's annual questionnaire confirm as much.

Perhaps the critics could, for once, acknowledge that, even if sometimes more by luck than management, Auckland is not doing too badly.