Our Liveable City

What is it?

A recently completed, 6-month study commissioned by The Age and undertaken by Tract Consultants and Deloitte Access Economics into the liveability of Melbourne’s 314 suburbs.

The term liveability is in itself difficult to define, with research into its parameters marking the start of the study. According to Adam Terrill of Tract Consultants, the definition eventually agreed upon was “the general quality of a place which makes it pleasant or agreeable for people to reside in”. 9 broad criteria were selected, inspired by qualities valued by the real-estate market, by urban planning guidelines and by international indexes like those used by the Economist Intelligence Unit (see our article on the EIU’s recently released 2011 rankings, here). Most of the criteria are unsurprising inclusions: access to public transport, parks and schools, the presence of open space and trees, the impact of traffic congestion and crime. More unusual (and criteria that perhaps reflect a quintessentially Melburnian attitude to living) are access to shops and restaurants.

In top spot is South Yarra (51), followed by East Melbourne and Armadale (49), then Toorak (48) and Hawthorn East (47) to round out the top five. Hallam (13), in the outer south-eastern fringe, receives the wooden spoon.

An article providing an overview of the study, with contextualisation of its findings and links to the full list of suburbs, is viewable here.

What do we think?

Melbourne is one of the largest and least dense cities in the world: 120km from edge to edge and only 15.9 people /hectare. To put this into perspective, this is in comparison to Melbourne’s own 1951 population density of 23.4 people /ha and Hong Kong’s current density of 64.8 people /ha.

The big problem with such a spread out city, and the problem most certainly being faced by Melbourne today, is equitable access to infrastructure. An inner-city suburb like South Yarra provides access on foot to an array of public transport options, to parks, recreation facilities, key services, shops and restaurants. Conversely, a more recently developed, fringe suburb like Hallam has been designed for the automobile, with many residences isolated from day-to-day facilities. The nearest train station may be many kilometres away and instead of corner stores, delicatessens, and local video shops, there is a single shopping centre surrounded by a sea of car-parking spaces that services multiple suburbs.

The sceptic may well ask, What’s wrong with driving to a shopping centre? It does, after all, provide every commercial facility one could need in a single location. We argue that the problems with this picture are so systemic they touch on almost every facet of our lives:

  • By driving, we consume a finite natural resource and release carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming.
  • To manage the increased number of trips, families often need to purchase a second car, taking on the additional financial strain of ownership.
  • We miss out on the opportunity to walk or cycle, reducing our fitness and mobility, and increasing long-term health issues.
  • The extra time taken to get to work or school reduces our time for work, play and recreation.
  • We congest roads that are already overwhelmed by absurd traffic volumes.
  • We subject ourselves to the bland placelessness of a shopping centre when we could instead participate in the more enriching experience of a local community or shopping village.
  • We inhabit an inhumanely-designed urban environment, built for the speed of the car where the destination is always more important than the journey.

These problems bridge both quantitative and qualitative issues. Though the latter are by nature more difficult to measure (and are thus often overlooked by the general public), improved mental wellbeing, an appreciation of history and a sense of community are, we suggest, the most important benefits of living in an inner-city suburb.

This brings us back to the Our Liveable City study and its clear conclusion that inner city suburbs are more liveable than their fringe counterparts. A single glance at the index map at top shows that by and large a suburb’s proximity to the centre of Melbourne is directly proportional to its liveability.

What should we learn?

There is the commonly held belief that the average Melburnian’s dream home is a standalone dwelling on a quarter acre block. To this end we collectively accept our ever-expanding urban growth boundary (just this month Matthew Guy approved a new 400 hectare development in Clyde North, a suburb on the south-eastern fringe not even included in the Our Liveable City study). Curiously, we point to the last century of our history for evidence of the quarter acre block dream, this despite our population density 60 years ago being almost double what it is today.

No, the quarter acre block is all well and good, but only as long as it exists in a healthy mix of other housing options that address the true diversity of Melbourne’s demography.

If we are to take away a single lesson from the Our Liveable City study, it should be that we live better the closer we are to Melbourne’s centre. Our city is more than big enough as is – it’s time for the urban growth boundary to stop growing, to even begin shrinking. It is time for the State Government, local Councils, the residential market and individuals to all start making decisions that leave the farmland at the fringe of the city alone and instead increase the living density of already established suburbs.

We can only hope that Our Liveable City acts as a catalyst for these decisions to start today.

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