When The Economist named Melbourne as the world’s most liveable city for the sixth year in a row, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle and former premier Jeff Kennett quickly boasted this proved the city was the world’s best to live in – and castigated any critics of the ranking.

This ranking seems harmless and, at best, may help promote the city’s attributes internationally, bringing tourism, visitors and investment.

But, at worst, it diverts attention from the real problems Melbourne’s citizens face and allows politicians to bask in the false glow of unearned and misleading approval. Political boasting about one magazine’s ranking of the city does nothing to solve the city’s real liveability issues.

Whose ranking?

The Economist’s Intelligence Unit uses 30 criteria to assess a city’s performance across five areas – stability, infrastructure, education, healthcare, and culture and environment – measuring variables such as crime rates, climate, private schooling, healthcare, housing and transport.

It serves fundamentally to rate the comparative attractiveness of cities for mobile international professionals, business executives and knowledge workers.

Many Melbourne residents fit this socioeconomic group and enjoy high liveability. They live in expensive housing in safe, well-serviced suburbs. Their children attend private schools and they never need join a public hospital waiting list. But the experience of other Melburnians is very different. 

The Economist’s ranking does not fit the world of the million residents living in poorly serviced outer suburbs, or the young couples who can't afford to buy a dwelling because of exorbitant house prices, or the daily struggles of people to get to work on clogged roads and overcrowded, unreliable public transport.

This is not the world experienced by a highly paid international executive relocating to Melbourne for a short time.

There is nothing objective or definitive about The Economist’s ranking. Other surveys gain different results from different criteria. For example, Mercer’s Quality of Living survey ranked Melbourne 17th in 2012 and 12th in the latest evaluations. Politicians don’t mention such surveys.

Cities are facing more challenges than ever to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.

True liveability

So what are the liveability issues affecting Melbourne? The term ‘liveability’ loosely refers to amenity, or the attractiveness of a place and the benefits it provides residents.

But it is best measured by citizen satisfaction, a subjective factor. Some people, for example, might tolerate poor transport services in return for living close to extensive parkland and a high quality environment.

Retaining elements which add to liveability is critical. Melbourne’s heritage buildings and open spaces provide a sense of wellbeing and identity to its citizens, but also substantial economic benefits.

Liveable cities retain these kinds of values but Melbourne’s politicians are colluding with developers to destroy them. Turning Melbourne into alienating high-rise canyons makes a less liveable city, but this factor is not high on the list of liveability ratings agencies.

Most of the new dense high-rise development in Melbourne is so poorly constructed and designed that it will become unliveable within a generation and be abandoned.

Similarly, locating huge numbers of low-income residents to poorly serviced suburbs on the urban fringe will reinforce alienation. Both outer-urban sprawl and inner-urban high-rise are clear manifestations of future urban dysfunction – the very opposite of liveability.

Future infrastructure

Liveability surveys measure some physical and social services but their narrow focus restricts even these assessments. For example, Melbourne has one of the world’s most extensive public transport systems but its performance is poor when measured against the best international standards.

Governments have abandoned long-term urban planning integrated across a range of sectors and have handed over many urban services to the private sector. This bodes badly for the future of the city.

The government has to get itself back into the equation and start planning for a 100 year period. A projected city of six- to eight-million people will require massive new physical and social infrastructure. Planning must commence for this now and the infrastructure deficit must be eliminated across the city.

Proper planning also requires fundamental mode shifts, particularly from roads to public transport. The required public transport infrastructure, for example, will make the Metro Tunnel seem insignificant.

The time for self-congratulation by politicians is well past if Melbourne is to continue to function effectively and not drift into a series of separate cities – many displaying the various signs of alienation and dysfunction.

The era of government abrogation of its responsibilities and of handing control over city functioning to corporate interests should be put to a not too merciful end.

 

"Interested in shaping the future of cities? Find out more about RMIT's Environment and Planning degrees."

 

About the expert: Michael Buxton is Professor of Environment and Planning at RMIT. His research interests include international environmental law and its impact on national policy; integrated transport–land use planning and city planning; fringe area and rural planning; and natural resource use.

 

First published 1 October 2016.

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