Sydney or Melbourne – which is more liveable (part 2)?

I noted on Friday that the 2010 Mercer annual quality of living survey says Sydney is more liveable than Melbourne.

However neither of these surveys define what liveability is from the point of view of the residents of a city, begging the question: what makes one city more liveable than another? And in particular, which is more liveable, Sydney or Melbourne?

The strategic plan for Melbourne, Melbourne 2030, uses the term liveability liberally and even asserts that the plan’s “main purpose is to continue to protect the liveability of established areas” (page 1). It lists liveability as one of the city’s key strengths, but this is the closest it comes to a definition (page 23):

“liveability: metropolitan Melbourne overflows with sporting, cultural and recreational opportunity; the public transport system makes the city generally easy to traverse; health and safety standards are high, as is environmental quality; metropolitan Melbourne and the surrounding region has outstanding natural landscapes and coastlines”

At page 40, liveability is summarised as “quality of life, security, amenities, etc” and at page 50, in the context of activity centres, it is summarised again, this time as “safety, convenience, comfort and aesthetics”.

This is all a bit inexact. Whether the authors quite meant it or not, it seems implicitly to define the liveability of Melbourne as the quality of the public realm i.e. life outside the front door of residents’ houses and workplaces. The focus seems to be on ease of mobility, safety, leisure opportunities and the quality of the natural and human-constructed environments.

This seems a useful starting point. In theory, it should be a reasonably straightforward matter to construct some sort of index of these attributes as a basis for comparing the liveability of cities (although some traits, like the quality of the built environment, are inherently subjective).

Conceptualising liveability as an “index” makes sense to me, but doesn’t Melbourne 2030 leave out some key characteristics? For example, I often hear the difference between Sydney and Melbourne described in terms of qualities like friendliness, tolerance, cultural diversity and even the quality of coffee, food and shopping.

In my view there are problems with most of these attributes. Some of them are just plain lightweight. Some aren’t susceptible to easy definition and/or measurement. And it’s hard to believe that there are significant differences, on average, between Sydney and Melbourne in relation to most of them – or at least differences on such a scale that it affects the comparative liveability.

I’m amazed at the number of people who seriously claim that “the coffee” or “shopping” in Sydney are better than they are in Melbourne, or that the people in one place are friendlier or more tolerant than in the other. How can they objectively know this?! I suspect people who make these kinds of claims extrapolate from a handful of very personal experiences to arrive at some very sweeping and highly suspect generalisations.

And while there are definitely differences, how serious are they? Consider, for example, the proportion of the population who were born overseas (which is often used as a measure of cultural diversity). At the 2006 Census, 39% of Sydney’s population was born overseas and 35% of Melbourne’s (they both had the same proportion of migrants from english-speaking countries).

Based on these numbers, it would be a big call to say Sydney is notably more culturally diverse than Melbourne and an even bigger call to say Sydney is consequently the more liveable (or not) of the two cities.

This is very different from the US where there is much more variation between cities than there is in Australia. Similarly, if I were comparing Melbourne against international cities like London or Paris, then I would expect to find more significant differences. There is also much more variation within Australian cities than there is between them, as I’ve mentioned previously.

In any event I don’t think asking whether Melbourne is more liveable than Sydney is the same as asking which city is best, or most exciting, or whatever. As I see it, liveability implies a more basic set of qualities that are common to every city.

What in my view is missing from the “definition” of liveability implicit in Melbourne 2030 is job opportunities, housing affordability and accessibility, none of which are addressed directly in the Mercer or The Economist surveys. Jobs affect your income, housing costs affect your disposable income and accessibility determines how much discretionary time you have available.

What do these variables say about Melbourne vis a vis Sydney?

The differences in terms of average pay, unemployment rates and job security are not large like they are between cities in the US, so we can ignore job opportunities (remembering recessions like Melbourne in the 90s tend to be temporary).

But as I said here, you can buy a house at the median price in Melbourne 12 km from the CBD, whereas in Sydney you have to go out 23 km to buy the median priced house. The house is $70,000 cheaper in Melbourne too. Sydneysiders also travel further and longer on average than Melburnites. So my vote goes to Melbourne – on other attributes these two cities are either too similar or any differences can’t be measured reliably.

5 Comments on “Sydney or Melbourne – which is more liveable (part 2)?”

  1. Bruce Dickson says:

    A nice overview Alan and agree with you about the importance of those three different measures you point out are missing from the liveability definition.

    However I can’t help but feel that not just the perception of the built environment but most aspects of liveability itself are inherently subjective.

    Okay, you can compare some measurable factors but I feel even notions like ease of mobility, safety, and leisure possess an additional strong and meaningful component – of how each is ‘perceived’ by different residents – attached to them as well.

    People can view, value and weight/evaluate things in their own minds very differently (even in relation to the same ‘objective’ measurable and data based things). And in doing so, it is also interesting to think about their different capacities to do such valuing and weighting or evaluating.

    What would be the outcomes for someone who has never travelled outside of Sydney, versus someone who is personally very strongly familiar with not just Sydney but Melbourne and Brisbane as well. Or New York , London, Rio De Janeiro and Mumbai as well?

    Another key issue, in terms of the personal weighting and evaluation process and results for each resident, is what if they accepted say 15 different liveability criteria as meaningful for them to compare with other people’s experiences of those things and even how they felt these stacked up in other cities, BUT when it came to a crunch over their overall conclusions about being happy with the liveability of a particular place, just ONE factor was the most critically important (subjectively) to them! For example they absolutely cannot stand traffic congestion and delays? Or they cannot stand their own subjective measurement of the differently perceived and experienced ‘paces’ of different cities – fast pace of life versus slower pace of life?

    What about differences in age and lifecycle desires in relation to different residents’ responses? Drawing on the same example, the older may not want the fast lane life, they younger would feel the city was not ‘liveable’ for them if it lacked pace and energy and excitement as perceived through its offer of various experiences in their own eyes?

    The more these issues are explored the more variables, complexities and potentially omitted considerations there seem to be!

    This whole issue of perception and its importance in life and life’s decision making and attitude towards just about anything has long sat at the heart of marketing theory about people and how things really function!

    • Alan Davies says:

      You’re right, how people perceive a city is very subjective, not only in terms of their personality but also a host of demographic factors like stage in the lifecycle, marital status, etc etc. There’s a “different” Melbourne for everyone of its 4 million residents!

      Because I’m interested in the public policy implications I chose to focus on the set of more “objective” attributes.

  2. Debbie Dresner says:

    What I liked about your post was the fact that, unlike many people who find their hometowns on the ‘losing’ end of a survey, you didn’t become defensive and you didn’t take it personally. How refreshing!

    I feel you and Bruce have already covered the ins and outs of what makes for a quality survey (and what doesn’t).

    As a database analyst, I am well aware of the pitfalls of surveys. But in this case, you would REALLY have to slant a survey to cause the results to conclude that Sydney is more liveable…

    The beauty of Sydney’s harbour/beaches? Sure. Iconic sites? Absolutely. Historical Significance? Yup. A GREAT place to visit? I’d recommend it to anyone. Liveability???????? WTF?

    While not exactly on topic, I couldn’t help but give my two cents about what I personally think of the iiveability of Sydney vs. Melbourne.

    I am not trying to make this into a Sydney vs. Melbourne debate, but darn it!!! I just couldn’t believe that someone could rate Sydney’s liveability higher.

    This is an example of subjectivity at its best:

    My point of view comes from the fact that I am a Californian/Oregonian, and I lived in Sydney for 4 years. I spent quite of a bit of time in Melbourne as well. I come from two towns in the US that are known for their liveability (San Diego and Portland) and feel spoilt by having lived in both.

    These are big generalizations, but overall, paint a picture of the two cities:


    The good things – you CAN find good coffee, the food is good if you are willing to be ripped off, the beaches, harbour and surrounding natural areas are STUNNINGLY beautiful – Sydney truly has some of the most scenic places one could find ANYWHERE.

    The other 90%: Sydney is a pain in the ass, has many rude and stressed out people, it’s very hard to get around, and it is outrageously expensive.

    There was (in my experience) none of the community values that Portland offers, and the people are so used to the building styles that they don’t even realise how architecturally foul a majority of the suburbs are. (Having said that, the CBD, etc, and some of the wealthier suburbs are beautiful.)


    The good things – I feel a genuine sense of community, there is a nice downtown (esp. the Victorian buildings that still exist), a vibrant culture, GREAT coffee (better than Sydney – as someone from the Pacific Northwest, I feel qualified to judge…), FABULOUS food that in general is reasonably priced, a real sense of tradition and institutions, and there is a laid back yet intelligent, vibrant population. It is very easy to get around compared to Sydney (with the exception of that bizarre toll road system)

    To me, Melbourne is a more refined city that is comfortable with itself, and has all of the elements that make a place ‘liveable.’

    The not so good: Nothing can beat the beauty of Sydney Harbour…Port Phillip? Kind of blah. Uh…that’s about all I can say… well, some of the outer suburbs are yucky, but compared to Sydney? Much nicer.

    How can lack of good infrastructure, affordable living, community,
    and ease of life in general be more liveable?? Bizarre.

  3. […] in “liveability” in the past, especially as it relates to Sydney/Melbourne rivalry (e.g. here, here and here), so naturally I had a look at the […]

  4. […] this before in the context of the ‘Sydney vs Melbourne’ debate – see here and here). The EIU comes up with this embarrassing tautology: “The concept of liveability is simple: it […]

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