Melbourne, the fifth estate, liveable city

Melbourne has again won the Economist Intelligence Unit’s most liveable city crown – an unprecedented seven times in a row – but again the chorus has risen: “For whom?”

These surveys always need to be taken with a grain of salt, though are usually accompanied by a mountain of sugar from government PR machines.

“Every Melburnian knows that they’re living in the world’s greatest city – and this proves it yet again,” Victorian tourism minister John Eren declared. “Victoria has the best of everything.”

Lord Mayor Robert Doyle was a little less hyperbolic, even defensively lashing out at the “naysayers and whingers” in a statement prepared well before the release of the report.

Of course it’s great news that Melbourne and many other Australian cities are topping the charts of liveability, so what’s the problem?

While anyone who has been stuck in Melbourne congestion would scoff at the index’s perfect score for infrastructure, for many Melbourne is a fantastic place to live. It’s green, walkable, full of exciting cultural destinations, transport is generally a breeze. Well, if you’re lucky enough to live close to the vibrant CBD.

And that’s the crux of it. The tension all comes down to questions of inequality of access to that liveability.

If you’re a professional working for one of the large, successful companies the Economist is selling its Liveability index to, you probably will be able to afford to live close to the inner city, and the index may have some use.

But for those not as fortunate, cities like Melbourne and Sydney can be entirely different experiences.

Professorial fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Health and Ageing Jim Sallis told The Fifth Estate Melbourne presented as “a tale of two cities”.

“Melbourne is extremely liveable in the centre, but not in the outskirts.”

Professor Sallis, who usually resides in the US, is founder of the International Physical Activity and Environment Network, and his research focuses on the intersection of built environment and health, so he is particularly scathing of car-dependent suburban sprawl.

“The biggest issue is there are vast suburbs of Melbourne where the people are car dependent,” he said.

“Not everybody is sharing in that liveability.”

He warns that if cities like Melbourne don’t learn to manage growth and spread liveability, its claim to titles like world’s most liveable city could erode.

Sallis is particularly scathing of the way most greenfield development is being built as single use housing estates.

“We know so much now about how unhealthy living in the suburbs is. We have so much data that it’s contributing to our major health concerns of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.”

Sallis’ solutions are the typical ones we’ve been hearing for years – increasing density, mostly near arterial roads and shopping zones, through development incentives. He also advocates creating “whole communities” with walkable access to services.

“We should be creating whole communities. We should not be creating housing estates. We need to make entire communities so people can do most of what they need to do in their own communities.

“For thousands of years that’s how towns and villages and neighbourhoods were built. There are some things that are timeless truths … and building whole communities is one of those timeless truths.”

Aside from “bringing the benefits of walkability” to the suburbs, Sallis says cycling infrastructure needs to improve significantly.

As a Sydneysider who has lived in Melbourne, it is particularly galling to hear that Melbourne’s cycling infrastructure is not up to scratch.

“From my own observation as a frequent visitor, I don’t see many people bicycling,” Sallis says. “The bicycle infrastructure is extremely limited. This is something that Australia and America generally share … a lack of commitment to bicycling.”

He says, however, he can point to a number of cities in the US where cycling culture was changing dramatically.

“That dramatic commitment and investment is not happening in Australia. I have not seen it.”

Sallis says close to 50 per cent of trips taken in cities were within bicycling distance, which he says, spans to around 5-7km.

“Most of those are being done by car. Imagine if half of those trips were being done without cars, and what that would do to congestion, pollution, making cities less noisy and more pleasant. Bicycling has the potential to really transform transportation in a city, and a lot of Australians have not experienced that. There’s just not enough bicycling in place to make a dent. So drivers too don’t see the benefits.”

He said it would take commitment from the government and investment in the supporting infrastructure.

Inequality issues growing in Sydney

We’re not even going to start on the lack of cycling infrastructure and culture in Sydney, so let’s talk more about inequality.

Committee for Sydney provocateur Tim Williams penned a piece recently on the shocking inequality of the emerald city.

He has now been backed up by new research finding that Sydney is all but ignoring its most disadvantaged areas, providing much less than the per capita average, while Melbourne is putting money into its most disadvantaged areas.

This is shameful, considering Sydney is already “the most polarised of Australian cities”, according to the joint University of Melbourne and UNSW study.

“Sydney is … characterised by two patterns of spatial divide: first, between the more affluent north-east and more disadvantaged south-west and, second, between the inner and outer suburbs,” Locational disadvantage and the spatial distribution of government expenditure on urban infrastructure and services in metropolitan Sydney found.

“In the last few decades, polarisation has seen income rising faster in suburbs closer to the city centre than in suburbs further away. As a result of such polarisation, Sydney has some of the most affluent urban areas in Australia, as well as the largest (and most rapidly increasing) number of highly disadvantaged suburbs.”

While there was a “redistributive pattern” in funding generally, the most disadvantaged areas were “neglected in allocation of resources”.

This tactic of funding “the better off among the most in need” left critical urban resources “further from the reach of the very people arguably most reliant on locally provided services”.

Take a look at Sydney’s metropolitan plan and you’ll see focus on the global city and economic corridor – shoring up success for the already successful, while much of the poor south-west is all but ignored.

A Plan for Growing Sydney: Sydney’s metropolitan strategy

This, along with path dependency – “political and practical difficulties to radically change existing spatial patterns of infrastructure investment” – are listed as key reasons for Sydney’s growing divide.

Others are doing things differently. As a counterpoint, take a look at New York City’s OneNYC plan, and its focus on tackling the scourge of inequality.

Let’s hope the government’s next iteration of the metropolitan plan sees fit to tackle this widening, disgraceful divide.

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  1. Love that map! Talk about tentacular!
    The ‘arc of affluence’ proves all roads lead to Rome (Sydney).