Are these really the most (and least) liveable suburbs in Melbourne?

Liveability index for 314 Melbourne suburbs (from The Age)

I never read those glossy magazine inserts in The Age (who does?) but on Friday I made an exception for The Melbourne Magazine because it promised to tell me “the most liveable suburb in the world’s most liveable city”.

The Age’s Our liveable city project ranks the “liveability” of 314 suburbs from top to bottom and claims to reveal “Melbourne’s best suburbs, the ones improving the most, and where you should buy your next home”.

Liveability is defined initially as “the general quality of a place that makes it pleasant or agreeable for people to reside in”. Fortunately, someone saw that was a tautology and wouldn’t be of any practical help. So liveability is subsequently defined by 13 measurable criteria.

These cover topography, traffic, crime, cultural facilities and parks, as well as proximity to a range of amenities – the CBD, beaches, public transport, schools, restaurants and shops. Scores out of five on each criterion are added to give an overall summary score for each suburb. Each suburb is subsequently ranked from 1 to 314 on an Index of Liveability.

Unsurprisingly with this sort of exercise, there was a lot of criticism from readers, with many pointing to apparent anomalies in the rankings. One said, “once I saw Footscray was rated higher than Middle Park I stopped reading”.

Disagreement is inevitable. People are different and so it’s hard to get consensus on just what does, or doesn’t, make a place liveable. That shouldn’t be surprising – an elderly couple, for example, is likely to have a very different definition of liveability to that of a young single. Throw in further differences, say in education, income or ethnicity, and it gets much more complex.

There is a much more straightforward and reliable way of establishing the relative liveability of suburbs. That simply involves measuring what people are prepared to pay to live in them i.e. property prices. It doesn’t require complex measures and weights (not that The Age bothered with the latter). In fact it sidesteps entirely the hardest and most intractable question of all – defining apriori just what liveability is.

Moreover, it provides a clear ranking and allows us to measure the size of the difference between suburbs. And it’s based on the actual decisions of hundreds of thousands of householders. Knowing that the average property value in South Yarra is three and a half times higher than in Hallam is a much more useful and valuable piece of information about the relative merits of the two suburbs than knowing one ranks 350 places ahead of the other on the Index of Liveability.

There’re distortions in the market so property values aren’t a perfect representation of the relative liveability of Melbourne’s suburbs. I would argue however that this approach involves infinitely fewer compromises than the methodology used by The Age. Of course it wouldn’t make a very interesting story when there’s the option available to the newspaper of bringing some “science” to the issue.

That’s not to say exercises like the Index of Liveability don’t have value. They can be useful to establish just why residents think one suburb is more liveable than another. Knowing why properties average $1,300,000 in South Yarra and $369,000 in Hallam would be very important information for policy-makers.

Interpreted this way, I think The Age’s attempt is actually better than many of the commenters are prepared to concede (even though I’m annoyed that very little information about the methodology is disclosed). You can argue the toss at the margin – for example, I suspect proximity to schools only matters in the case of certain institutions – but by and large the criteria are a reasonable compromise. 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 »

What’s VECCI’s vision for Melbourne?

I've always said street art is rubbish (video)

The Victorian Employer’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI) released five policy papers on Monday aimed at guiding the pre-election decision-making of the major parties.

The paper on Infrastructure and Liveability is of particular interest to the Melbourne Urbanist. Apart from a short introduction emphasising the economic importance of infrastructure, it’s essentially a list of actions, some very specific, which looks like it was cobbled together by the proverbial committee.

It includes some current projects such as the planned Melbourne Metro, but there are some other ideas that are very interesting, to say the least. Read the rest of this entry »

Can we make living together better?

OK so now it’s time to turn to State politics.

I have a modest idea for making our major cities more liveable that I’d like to offer to the Premiers and Opposition Leaders of Victoria, NSW and Queensland in the run up to their forthcoming State elections.

The idea could be named something like the Better Neighbours Initiative or it could as easily be titled Considerate Cities or Liveable Cities or something of that ilk. The idea starts with the recognition that living in close proximity within cities imposes stresses on human relations and demands strong remedial action.

Some of the risks associated with cities, like disease, respond to investment in physical infrastructure. But some don’t – they require behavioural approaches.

The main objective is to limit the stress that inconsiderate behaviour, like noise from “hot” cars or audio amplifiers, imposes on residents and neighbours. I’ll focus on noise here, but the ambit of the liveable cities idea could extend to other problems such as taming the speed and behaviour of cars in local streets and activity centres. Read the rest of this entry »

Where are the special places in Melbourne?

When I think of Sydney, where I lived for 10 years, I naturally think of the harbour. Not the familiar expanse around the bridge or opera house, but rather the myriad small inlets in places like Mosman that can only be fully appreciated from the water.

When I think of Brisbane, where I grew up, it’s those wonderful old latticed timber Queenslanders, laced with tropical vines and shaded by white and pink frangipani, stepping up and down the steep slopes of inner city Paddington.

But when I think of Perth, where I lived for four years, nothing truly special comes to mind. There’re plenty of interesting places, like Northbridge, Fremantle, Kings Park, Cottesloe and Rottnest Island, but they don’t seem different enough to really distinguish Perth from other cities.

So what about my favourite city – what are the special places in Melbourne? My rule is that these can’t simply be nice places to go to if you live in Melbourne. They have to be places that are special and not readily found in other cities – they are either unique or done so well they make a lasting impression on visitors. Here’s some I like. Read the rest of this entry »

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. 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 »