How liveable are our major cities?

How residents of our five largest cities (combined) see liveability

Adelaide is the most liveable capital city in Australia and Sydney is the least, according to a study released earlier this month by the Property Council of Australia.

The Australian reports that Sydney might have the harbour, Opera House and Bondi, but most Sydneysiders live a long way from these attractions in less salubrious places like Liverpool, Strathfield and Penrith.

The Property Council’s study is based on a national sample of 4,072 respondents in the nation’s eight capital cities (with around 600 in each of the four largest cities). They were given 17 attributes of liveability and asked, firstly, to rate them by importance and, secondly, to rate how well their cities perform on each of them. These two dimensions were then combined to produce a ‘liveability score’ for each city.

I’ve taken quite an interest 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 study.

These sorts of surveys are often problematic and this one is no exception. For example, information on the representativeness of those who actually responded to the survey is scant and some of the attributes are sloppily conceptualised and poorly worded.

So with that caveat, let’s look at what the study found. The aggregate liveability scores of the eight capitals are probably the least useful aspect because the differences are small – Adelaide does best with 63.4 and Sydney does worst with 55.1. Third ranking Melbourne scores 60.9 but sixth ranking Brisbane scores 60.2. Put Sydney aside and there’s not enough in it to be useful.

What’s more interesting is how respondents define liveability. I’ve put the accompanying chart together to show how the five largest capital cities perform in aggregate i.e. Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide (you won’t see this table in the Property Council’s report because I had to correct the figures in the Appendix to the report. Also, make sure to have a look at the full text of the questions).

The first column shows how important respondents think each attribute is for liveability (smaller is better). The second shows what proportion of respondents agree that their city exhibits this attribute.

What’s clear from the first column is that safety and security is the primary concern of residents of our big cities. In fact the most important attributes to residents – safety, health and jobs – are those where arguably urban policy makers have least influence. Conversely, some attributes that are very important to planners, like having a choice of housing types, diversity, sustainability and the look and design of the city, are rated by residents as the least important.

What seems clear from the second column is that residents rate their city’s performance poorest on the attributes that they actually consider most important. For example, although it’s the most important attribute, safety and security ranks 13th in the assessment of city performance, with just 44% of residents agreeing that their city performs well on this quality.

Residents rate our five largest cities best in terms of their performance on recreational opportunities, cultural opportunities, climate and natural environment. However these attributes are towards the back end of what residents think is most important in making a city liveable.

Public transport and traffic congestion, on the other hand, are rated as reasonably important for liveability but the performance of our biggest cities on these characteristics is poor – they are the 14th and 17th rated attributes respectively. At least we do considerably better with public transport than we do with roads.

Liveability compared across five largest cities

The second chart compares the five largest cities. It shows how residents rate their metropolis against all 17 attributes (BTW, the differences between cities in terms of the importance or weighting given to each attribute aren’t large).

It’s obvious that Sydneysiders are deeply unhappy with their city, with 50% or more of residents finding the city lacking on 10 attributes (compared to 5 for Melbourne and Brisbane and 3 for Adelaide). In fact Sydney does not excel relative to its peers on a single trait. It also does very poorly on some of the most important attributes e.g. safety and security, standard of living, housing affordability.

Only 13% of Sydney residents agree that Sydney has a good road network with minimal traffic congestion and just 17% think it has a good range of quality affordable housing. The corresponding figures for top-ranked Adelaide are 44% and 57%.

Predictably perhaps, Melburnites are critical of the city’s weather, but more likely to praise their home town’s healthcare services, job opportunities and appearance, than residents of other cities. Still, in no capital is there a majority of people happy with traffic congestion and public transport. Only in Adelaide are more than 50% happy with housing affordability.

I’d be wary about accepting some of the detailed findings of this study but at the macro scale I’m more relaxed. Safety and security is the most important determinant of liveability. Sydney has serious problems and is approaching ‘basket case’ status. Adelaide looks good if you’re not too worried about where your next job is coming from.

Housing affordability isn’t as important to liveability as I’d expected, but that’s probably because a large proportion of the sample already own or are buying their house. By comparison, the great bulk of residents might perceive their safety is under threat. Yet public transport is rated just as important as traffic congestion for liveability, even though only a relatively small proportion of travellers use it, even for the journey to work.

Perhaps the most important message to take away is that how we perceive what makes a city liveable is shaped not just by our own first hand experiences but also by the way it’s portrayed in the media.

15 Comments on “How liveable are our major cities?”

  1. Michael says:

    I think the answer to your implicit question about the high value placed on public transport is answered by more than personal utility. The gap between the value placed on pubic transport and the proportion of trips is probably best explained in part by PT as a public good. There’s a selfish public good argument (“if only all of those OTHER buggers would use PT, my freeway run would be clear”) and a more generous one (“I drive because I have to, but I’m glad that others take the train/bus/tram”).

    Still, like you, I’m not convinced this is an ideal way of asking people to rate their values. Stated preference surveys, like this, never quite bridge the gap between what I’d like my values to be and what they actually are.

    “Everyone’s a saint in public and an egotistical utilitarian in the privacy of the ballot box”, as an old friend used to say…

  2. Matthew says:

    Welcome back Alan.
    These livability ratings are all incredibly subjective. Sure you can get objective figures by surveying large enough populations, but how the different measures are weighted is also subjective. For me air quality is the most important thing, and cultural activities would be completely unimportant. At least Adelaide ranks higher than Melbourne. That’s pretty much true 100%. All those other surveys saying otherwise were obviously just plain wrong.

  3. Tanya says:

    Ha- before I read your article I was going to ask if any of the researchers had actually lived in Adelaide, but now that I see it is self-nominated, I wonder how many of the respondents have lived in another capital city and thus able to make a proper comparison.

  4. Bruce Dickson says:

    Alan, the most serious consideration that strikes me as missing with all these constant ‘most livable’ ratings for cities is that – while some attributes and assessments by residents may well hold water when an overview of the whole city is in mind – most likely the more telling results would apply to evaluations of the livability of particular sub-zones and geographical locations found WITHIN most of these cities.

    In Sydney, for example, Eastern Suburbs’ residents will give you an entirely different version of how livable they feel their parts of the city are when compared to say the Liverpool, Parramatta, North Sydney or Northern Beaches areas.

    In California’s San Diego, the contrast might be simply comparing living on or near the beach in wealthy North County (and all that this means as a consequence) with living in the hotter, more affordable and non ocean-cooled inland areas.

    So many elements can vary from one to the other – a strong sense of safety & security versus a low one; the availability and frequency of public transport options; the availability of jobs that keep you in the local area rather than leaving you facing congestion and substantial daily losses of time commuting to the CBD; higher density v lower density living; walk to the beach versus drive to the beach; hundreds of choices of food and entertainment options versus comparatively fewer, etc., etc.

    And of course the value, meaning and virtues or sins assigned to each of these factors by residents within each zone will also be totally subjective as well – adding another layer of genuine complexity when trying to make sense of their responses. High density is high energy and excitement to some people while to others it is a near death experience! And vice versa.

    There is also the issue of how wealth coupled with ‘good’ location can result in a livability outcome most likely totally different to relative poverty coupled with ‘bad’ location. The variables go on forever …

    Finally there is the lack of attempt by this survey in particular to attempt to come to terms with such intangible (and difficult to grapple with but often highly significant) factors as how positively people view their wider area’s and even immediate suburb’s ‘sense of community spirit’ … and what is viewed as evidence of this.

    (This aspect could be very significant given the way the way that work satisfaction surveys so commonly disclose that people place a higher value on the more intangible element of being given respect in their workplace over the more tangible element of how much they are being paid.)

    Closely allied to sense of community would most likely be perceptions by residents of e.g. their fellow Melbournian or Sydneysiders’ social & cultural values … and the often overlooked fundamental contributions these can make to generating either a positive or less than positive view of life in a place.

    Why do so many New Yorkers (and visitors to NY) love that place so much? They often talk in terms of the spirit of the place and their fellow New Yorkers.

    Why do so many residents of Portland (Oregon) love that city’s many varied idiosyncracies so much? Probably because these are further manifestations of the overwhelmingly liberal values and pulpable sense of community that this city’s people possess and reflect in their behavior, interests and social/civic causes.

    Finally, as one last variable or factor to consider in attempting such surveys and assessments, what about the possible existence and potential significance of any differences in responses – in relation to livability – from different migrant/cultural groups and settlers in a city? Then add on top the issue of long term versus short term residency, being more knowing and less knowing??

    Very few drilled down factors of this kind ever seem to be addressed by most of the livability methodologies & measures employed around the world.

    Yet these variables may well disclose some of the most interesting and valuable insights.

  5. Michael (another Michael) says:

    I don’t think the importance placed on public transport is that unusual. For a lot of people it’s probably an important backup. They might only use it as a last resort but the fact that it exists and is usable is valuable. That’s the reason I pay my ambulance subscription for my family, even as I hope we never need to use it.

    it would be interesting to know how many people regard proximity to public transport as important who also don’t use it much. Without any access to public transport some families migth also need an extra car, which is a significant ongoing cost.

  6. Michael says:

    It really does come down to one’s perception on what they consider to be important in terms of day to day lifestyle.

    I for one consider traffic congestion to be quite frustrating and understand that Melbourne is more populated than it was 10 years ago but don’t believe our infrastructure is in any state to be supporting this influx. Comes down to a lack of planning at both State and Federal..

  7. Eli Gescheit says:

    I recall a recent survey by Demographia which stated that Sydney was the most unaffordable city in the world. Nevertheless a different study around 2-3 years ago suggested Sydney was the most attractive place to live in terms of the types of amenity it offers.

    The fixation of affordable housing impacts people’s liveability as they would prefer to live in larger homes compared to a shoebox apartment. For this reason, I decided to leave a tiny Bondi unit and relocate to the North Shore to live with my in-laws with our 2 children.

    After living in a 5 bedroom house with a huge garden I can appreciate suburban living, but I still miss the wide range of amenities offered in Bondi. The debate continues with my wife whether to move back. Nevertheless, I believe we need to make sacrifices on the type of housing we choose…

  8. kr says:

    Strathfield insalubrious? Really? Last time I checked it had wide leafy suburban streets and heritage-listed houses.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Well, the term used by The Australian’s reporter was actually “less salubrious” and I think the implicit comparison was with the better known ocean and harbour-side suburbs. Yeah, Strathfield is very pleasant as suburbs go – and a lot more amenable than Penrith or Liverpool.

  9. […] it also has methodological limitations, at least the Property Council of Australia’s assessment of the liveability of Australia’s capitals is based on the expectations of permanent residents. […]

  10. Peter Wone says:

    I have lived in every capital city on the eastern seaboard. What follows is of course only my opinion, but I have also lived in cities like Paris, and little towns like Gatton, and I think that puts me in a stronger position to opine that most people.

    Inner Melbourne is the place for the finer things in life if you don’t have a car and you’re an indoor sort of person. Chapel street is shopping heaven, especially if you’re a girl.

    Central and eastern suburbs Sydney is the place if you’re young and cashed-up. I used to adore living on the harbour and walking to the Pyrmont fish markets for cheap and super fresh sashimi. For those who don’t have plenty of spending money, Sydney is an expensive, noisy, dirty rat-hole.

    Brisbane was the place to bring up a family until it it was overrun by escaping not-so-well-heeled Sydneysiders who came here in such numbers that they turned it into the very thing they wanted to escape (traffic jammed suburban hell puntuated with ethnic thuggery).

    Adelaide is wonderful for Saturday afternoon live-music in beergardens. It’s that, go surfing or go to church – there’s nothing else open after noon on a Saturday. I suspect this is why Adelaide produces so many fantastic bands. If I were to raise a family now, and had to live in a city, I’d probably pick Adelaide. The public transport there is rubbish but who cares when there are no traffic jams and nothing is terribly far? And it limits the range of your offspring, making them easier to control.

    Where, after all that, have I actually chosen to settle down? On the bank of the Brisbane river, in a quiet but well-heeled little estate where the smallest block is more than an acre. I feel slightly embarrassed about not remembering the local kids’ names because they always remember mine when they ask permission to fish from my pump-float. As for the 40km commute, I ride my motorcycle for 35 minutes up a little road that winds through hill and dale.

    I think the most liveable city is the one you live near.

  11. […] environment, culture, education and infrastructure. However, as I’ve explained before (here, here and here), there are a number of reasons why liveability league tables are best left to the […]

  12. Tim Boroughs says:

    I grew up in Adelaide, lived in Melbourne for 5 years. Adelaide’s inner and middle ring suburbs are quite charming but after a year or so you have seen everything. Its a good retirement city but now that prices have spiked in the decent suburbs its getting too dear. Brisbane looks on the surface like quite a modern city but scratch the surface and it is a large and quite bigoted country town. Sydney is being fucked by governments that are powerless to do do anything about the woeful public transport and as usual developers bang up any old hi rise shit. Anyone who lives in an outer suburb here is consequently mad and fucked at the same time.

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