What parts of Melbourne would you show to visitors?

The other night my son and I had the pleasure of attending a seminar titled Emotional Cities at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne’s wonderful cultural institution for discussion of writing and ideas. The seminar was billed, somewhat pretentiously, as an all-star line-up of literary luminaries discussing the “architecture of the mind and the cities that inspire them”. It was actually much better than that.

We heard moderator Louise Swinn in discussion with Matthew Condon, who’s just published a book titled Brisbane, and Kerryn Goldsworthy, who’s about to publish one titled Adelaide. These are two in a series of books on Australia’s major cities published by UNSW Press – others include Sydney (Delia Falconer) and Melbourne (Sophie Cunningham). What a great idea! Regrettably, I haven’t read any of them yet.

One of a number of interesting questions put to the panellists by Louise Swinn was what places in their cities they’d show a visitor. I’m not familiar enough with Adelaide to appreciate Kerryn Goldsworthy’s picks, but I know Brisbane very well. Matthew Condon said he’d show his visitors Brisbane’s Southbank, starting with the new Gallery of Modern Art, moving through the various buildings in the cultural precinct and on to the pools and palm trees opposite the CBD.

This is an interesting way to think about any place. I concur with Matthew Condon. When I lived in Brisbane in the 90s Southbank was a “must see” for visitors – I thought of it as “the people’s five star resort”. The superb GOMA has made it even better and while there I’d throw in a visit to the nearby Grey Street and Roma Street railyards redevelopments. In my view almost any part of inner city Brisbane is worth seeing for those magnificent ridge lines, timber bungalows and fecund sub-tropical gardens. Even the standard of new building and urban design is generally very good.

Yet notwithstanding Brisbane’s wonderful natural and human-made assets, it seems it might still lack something vital for Gen Ys. We recently had a new graduate from Brisbane stay with us for a few weeks. She told us she knew of seven other Brisbanites in their early 20s who’d also moved to Melbourne from the north around the same time. What’s particularly interesting is they’ve ignored the siren call of Sydney, the traditional “greener pasture” for young Brisbanites. It’s about jobs, culture and buzz – Melbourne’s got it, Brisbane hasn’t. Nor, it seems, has Sydney. (And yes, one should be careful extrapolating from the particular to the general!).

What to show a visitor in Melbourne? That will depend on who you are and who they are. Children make an enormous difference to tastes and practicality, as does the age and interests of your visitors. Our Gen Y friend is likely to have different tastes from some of my baby boomer friends. But there are some universals, like the harbour and opera house in Sydney. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Why is public transport patronage increasing?

Public transport patronage growth in Australian cities (chart by Chris Loader)

As the accompanying chart shows, public transport patronage has grown sharply in some of Australia’s capitals this past decade but the rate of growth has generally slowed significantly over the last 18 months.

We’re accustomed to thinking that growth in patronage is driven by higher petrol prices but the chart indicates the explanation is probably more complex.

In particular, the considerable differences between cities suggest that one single factor is unlikely to provide a satisfactory explanation. Patronage grew spectacularly in South East Qld, Perth and Melbourne, but was modest in Greater Sydney and unremarkable elsewhere.

It needs to be borne in mind that all of this growth is from a relatively small base. For example, public transport’s share of all motorised travel (weekday and weekend) in Melbourne is even now only around 11%. This is only slightly lower than Sydney’s. Perth is likely to be only around half Melbourne’s level and Brisbane somewhere in between.

The usual suspect when looking at increasing public transport patronage is higher petrol prices. However if that were the key factor we’d expect a more uniform pattern of growth across cities. Canberra has one of the highest levels of car use of all capitals, yet public transport patronage in the nation’s capital barely moved over the period. The same is true of rising traffic congestion. Sydney would have to figure much more prominently if this were the key driver. Read the rest of this entry »

What is the inner city?

We all use the term “inner city” but I doubt we’re all talking about the same geographical area.

For some people, the inner city means the area where cafe society thrives – probably a 10 km circle around the CBD in cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Or it might mean the extent of medium density historic terrace housing.

Some Brisbanites think of the inner city as the large area covered by the Brisbane City Council (1,367 km2) while some Melburnians think of it as the area serviced by tram lines.

Planners have addressed this problem by adopting simple measures. For example, in Melbourne the inner city is customarily defined as the area covered by the central municipalities of Melbourne, Yarra and Port Phillip (77 km2). Sometimes the Prahran portion (SLA) of the City of Stonnington is also included.

In my work on Melbourne I define the inner city as the area (79 km2) within a 5 km radius of the City Hall . This approximates closely to the three inner municipalities, but I use it because it’s consistent with what’s done elsewhere. US researchers typically use a 3 mile radius to define the inner city – an area approximating the size of the central Counties of the larger metros.

There are a number of problems with this sort of ‘administrative’ approach. A key one is that there is no underlying rationale for where the boundary is drawn – why not 2 km or 10 km? Another is that it doesn’t really connect with people because it has no obvious reference like, say, the tram network. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Melbourne better today than it was in the sixties?

Little Collins St traffic 1960 (by FailingMemory)

I’ve previously discussed the argument advanced by the CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, Andrew Mcleod, that Melbourne can get better as it gets bigger.

Mr Mcleod has another interesting contention – he argues that Melbourne is unambiguously better and more liveable today than it was in 1960. Back then Melbourne had a population of around two million but now it has four million.

I have my doubts about the political wisdom of running that line but that’s neither here nor there – my primary interest is whether or not Mr Mcleod’s proposition makes sense.

I’ve no doubt the response of many people would be that housing in Melbourne is now less affordable than it was forty years ago and the roads and public transport are more congested. Some people also think it’s less safe, less equal and has a much larger per capita ecological footprint. For others, the footy lost something really important when the AFL was created.

On the other hand, many would argue that Melbourne is now more tolerant, more diverse and more exciting than it ever was. It’s now a city with a global profile, a better educated population and a vastly more sophisticated lifestyle. You can drive from the west to the south east fringe today entirely on freeway in under an hour in the off peak and you can take a train around the CBD. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Sydney really more liveable than Melbourne (part 1)?

On Wednesday the Sydney Morning Herald reported the release of the 2010 Mercer annual quality of living survey with the headline, “Sydney beats Melbourne in world’s top cities league”.

This is not news. Sydney beat Melbourne in the 2009 Mercer survey too. Sydney has stayed in 10th position and Melbourne has “slipped” from 17th to 18th out of 221 cities across the world.

Victorian politicians prefer to reference the annual survey done by The Economist Intelligence Unit. Its 2010 Global Liveability Report ranks Melbourne 3rd after Vancouver and Vienna. Sydney is ranked 7th.

Do these surveys really indicate that Sydney is more “liveable” than Melbourne, or vice versa? No, they don’t.

For one thing, the difference in scores is miniscule. In the Mercer survey, Sydney scored 106 points to Melbourne’s 105. In The Economist’s survey Melbourne scored 97 and Sydney 96.

Clearly rankings give a misleading impression of the two cities relative merits.

These sorts of surveys have been criticised on a number of grounds, including lack of transparency about their methodologies, definitions and quality of data. But that criticism misses the point that they are designed for a different purpose – to assist companies determine living allowances for staff posted to an overseas destination. The lower the city ranks, the higher the compensating allowance. Read the rest of this entry »