This year, Melbourne was the only Australian city to take a top-10 spot in the Economist Intelligence Unit liveable cities index, sharing tenth place with Osaka. But how meaningful are these rankings?
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) liveable cities index is often reported as a definitive ranking of city liveability, but according to the Director of the Australian Urban Observatory, Associate Professor Melanie Davern, the ranking does little to reflect the experience of city residents.
“The one benefit of this list is that it does get people talking about city liveability and I think that is a good thing, but the objectives behind the EIU are quite different to ours at the Australian Urban Observatory (AUO),” A/Prof Davern said.
“The EIU was developed to estimate the costs of executive re-location and has been used ever since to compare the liveability of whole cities. Our aim with the AUO is to understand the liveability of neighbourhoods and suburbs within a city, understand where liveability strengths and weaknesses are and to take appropriate action and planning that will improve the liveability of areas and address health inequities.”
According to A/Prof Davern, although Melbourne is a liveable city, the reality is more nuanced than the EIU ranking suggests. “Not everywhere in Melbourne performs so well and our ever-expanding growth areas are a perfect example. We need to move on from these inter-city comparisons and think more deliberately about intra-city results and use evidence to lift liveability where it’s needed most.”
Since 2020, the Australian Urban Observatory, based at the Centre for Urban Research, has made available liveability indicators for Australia’s 21 most populous cities. Based on years of research, the AUO uses indicators of social infrastructure, transport, access to food, access to alcohol, public open space, employment, and housing to determine liveability.
“We work to a clear definition of liveability developed by a team of experts and our major objective is to connect the understanding of liveability to the social determinants of health and urban planning – because how we design our cities has a huge influence on people’s health.”
“Where people are born, live, learn, work, play and age (the social determinants of health) can explain up to 50% of health outcomes, including preventable cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes type 2, lung disease, loneliness and depression,” A/Prof Davern explained, “Where a new public transport stop is located, a new park is created or even where a new supermarket is built has a big impact on both physical and mental health and many of these decisions are guided by planning.”
This year, the EIU named Vienna the world’s most liveable city followed by Copenhagen and Zurich. While the EIU index is a global ranking, the AUO is a national resource, and part of a growing international network of urban observatories. It was recently certified by the Global Urban Observatory Network (GUO-Net), convened by UN-Habitat.
“The major objective of the GUO-Net is to enhance the production, access and use of urban data and knowledge, and global agendas such as the 2030 Agenda and the related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” A/Prof Davern said. “Involvement, recognition and certification from the GUO-Net is really valuable in connecting the importance of liveability to sustainability and the 2030 Agenda, and the importance of the SDGs at local, national and international levels.”
“Collaboration with UN-Habitat partners also demonstrates the importance of these issues on an international scale and that liveability is not just about public-relations and marketing but tackling serious global issues.”
While we can assume that the indicators used by the EIU – of stability, culture and environment, education, and healthcare – are important to most people, indicators of liveability presented by the AUO could shift the way people think about liveability.
Perhaps the way we think of liveable cities in the future won’t be based on a list borne of executive relocation costs, but on what research tells us is a city that supports physical, mental and environmental wellbeing.
Story: Jenny Lucy