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What really makes cities liveable?

By Ross Elliott - posted Monday, 26 September 2016

So called city liveability rankings are proliferating like rabbits before Myxomatosis. And like rabbits, they can be pest. A couple of recent liveability surveys beggar belief, not just in their method but also their conclusions. Here’s what’s wrong with them, and some ideas for alternative measures of city liveability.

In August this year, that journal of inner city indulgence The Sydney Morning Herald published a front page story boldly declaring “Sydney’s ten most liveable suburbs revealed.” Attention grabbing headline? Tick. Rigorous methodology? Fail. In fairness the study wasn’t by the SMH but a research consultancy, whose approach to assessing what is liveable and what isn’t says a lot about how some in our community are becoming besotted with wealth and privilege at the expense of opportunity and equity.

If you think that’s harsh, first consider their top ten, and where they are:

Sydney's top 10 most liveable suburbs
Lavender Bay
Lower north shore
Milsons Point
Lower north shore
McMahons Point
Lower north shore
Lower north shore
Lower north shore
Lower north shore
North Sydney
Lower north shore
Millers Point
City and east
Elizabeth Bay
City and east
Darling Point
City and east

Yes, it’s a list of Sydney’s most expensive suburbs, all of them inner city.

In a remarkably narrow methodology, the researchers assessed liveability on 16 qualities which are most commonly found in inner city areas where high real estate prices prevail and where wealthier members of the community tend to live. Talk about confirmation bias.

The criteria included: access to employment (the nearby CBD employs a lot of very highly paid people); being close to light rail and trains (most concentrated in the inner city and “essential” they claim for any functional modern city); bus stops (fair enough); ferry access (limited to being close to water which is also where the high priced real estate is); culture (being close to theatres, museums and art galleries – most of which are centralised in downtowns, meaning inner city locations are bound to win); main road congestion (the further from slow moving traffic the better, but inner city residents working in the CBD have less of this problem); education (agreed - the more primary and high schools the better, and the closer the better); shopping (fair enough to a point); open space (agreed); tree cover (nothing quite like those leafy inner city suburbs with the spreading old  deciduous trees imported from the UK); topographic variation (hills are great for expansive views and also high priced real estate); cafes and restaurants (I kid you not, this is word for word: “Access to a decent short black and a sushi train should be a no-brainer.” Yep, they’ve nailed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with that one); crime (obviously best avoided); telecommunications (“We’ve come to expect five bars and speedy broadband at all times and this has never been truer than in today’s world of Pokemon Go and Netflix”- so they obviously have life’s priorities sorted); views (“The more water views – whether it’s of the harbour, a bay or the ocean – the better”); beach access (well of course, life’s a beach in a multi-million dollar home with harbour views and beach access).

Stunning isn’t it? According to this survey, liveability equates with the lifestyles of the Sydney rich and famous. The rest of you mug punters can only watch on in envy. The higher social order has, like some twist on The Hunger Games, spoken.

Another equally vapid survey is by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Their latest world survey concluded that Melbourne was the world’s most liveable city. Their league ladder was as follows:























You can read about their criteria here but it will be obvious to many of you that, like the survey lauded in the Sydney Morning Herald, there’s a preference for cities where wealth and privilege rule (except Adelaide, whose presence on this list given its failed economy is anyone’s guess). Vancouver, for example, is among the world’s least affordable cities but that’s obviously not a liveability problem if you are in the minority for whom that isn’t an issue.  

So what’s missing from these sybaritic surveys of liveability? And what should we be thinking more about? My suggestions are follows:

Affordability. The elephant in all the rooms is housing affordability. How can a city be liveable if that definition really only applies to a minority of the population on the highest incomes or with the greatest wealth? That housing affordability, and the cost of living generally, should so easily be overlooked in measures of city liveability is an indictment on much that passes for urban policy and the thinking that goes with it.

Housing choice. Cities that offer their citizens housing choice, by type and location, surely fair better as more liveable than ones that dictate the form and location of housing by decree? This applies as much to ensuring young people have access to types of housing that suit their needs, and equally for seniors, who are too often shunted out of the areas they grew up in because housing types are locked in stone to uses and a society whose era has long since passed.

Dispersed employment. Highly centralised city economies force more of their residents into longer commutes, which tend to be more costly for those on lesser incomes than the more generous incomes earned by inner city residents. Encouraging employment centres to disperse so that opportunities for work are closer to where more people live is a liveability angle that deserves recognition.

Full or close to full employment. Immunity from unemployment or the risk of it is more likely to be found amongst residents who already enjoy a degree of economic privilege by way of education or otherwise. Lesser skilled city residents are less likely to find quick transitions into new or different jobs so a city with full or near full employment ought to be regarded as more liveable than one where strong employment and ongoing certainty is confined to a minority.

Equal access to economic opportunity. Equality of opportunity is different to equality of outcomes. Cities that offer their residents broadly equivalent opportunities for education, employment, and advancement ought in my view to be considered more liveable than those where inherited wealth or opportunity are the norm. This is different to equality of outcomes – if residents have opportunities and they don’t pursue them or squander them, that is their responsibility at the end of the day.

Tolerant and rational. Free speech and a tolerant, rational approach to social issues is a precursor to liveability, surely? The antithesis of this is residents fearing to speak their mind or venture their opinions. There seems an increasing tendency for self-appointed and unelected urban cognoscenti to dismiss or talk down to others, which is disappointing. The next step on that path is censorship – something no liveable city should tolerate.

Clean and unpolluted. This should go without saying but a city that pollutes its own waterways, skies, or open space isn’t as liveable as one that doesn’t.

Shared benefits. Cities which spread the benefits of their urban infrastructure improvements throughout the metropolitan area are logically more equitable than those that focus all their energies on inner urban domains. If residents in outer metropolitan areas are denied access to transport improvements, open space, schools or other forms of infrastructure because the budget’s been spent downtown, that’s not what I call a formula for liveability.

Innovative and enterprising. Not sure how you could measure this, but I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the support for new ideas as opposed to old established formulas and traditions. Starts ups are the KPI of an innovative economy but how to encourage and facilitate more of this is something we are yet to learn. Unless the answer lies somewhere in the suggestions above?

There are many more suggestions I could add but none would promote the idea that liveability is best measured by some connection to high priced real estate in a limited number of areas enjoyed by a limited number of people. Cities are as much suburban as inner urban and measures of liveability need to recognise the broader measures of what makes life in cities most enjoyable, wherever you live and whatever your income or lifestyle.

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This article was first published on The Pulse.

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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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