Liveable for whom? RMIT takes sheen off global liveability reports

Australian cities consistently top “most liveable cities” polls, but new research out of RMIT warns this liveability isn’t a reality of many capital city residents.

The culmination of five years of research, the Creating Liveable Cities in Australia report provides the first measurements of liveability across all the country’s capital cities. It analyses seven key metrics of city liveability that also relate to health and wellbeing: walkability, public transport, public open spaces, housing affordability, employment, and the food and alcohol environment.

But contrary to glowing international reports, the research found that no major Australian city performed well on all categories, and many cities were failing to meet their own modest policy goals. The current policy settings and guidelines of states also did not appear to be informed by a growing body of literature on how to make cities healthy and liveable.

As we have flagged previously, there were strong geographic inequities in how liveability policies were distributed, both within and between cities.

There was little evidence cities were achieving policy targets across the entire metropolitan area for walkability, public transport or public open space.

“With few exceptions, people living in outer (and many middle-level) suburbs are substantially less well served than inner-city residents by the integrated planning required for the urban design, amenities and infrastructure that create liveable communities,” the report found.

An evidence-based walkability map was created that found only a minority of those in cities lived in walkable neighbourhoods – and Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane still had dwelling-density policies of 15 dwellings a hectare for suburban development, which the report said was too low to achieve walkable neighbourhoods.

All Australian cities were failing to meet their modest targets, with average dwelling densities “ranging from 5.7 dwellings per gross hectare in Brisbane, to 12.9 dwellings per gross hectare in Sydney.”

Perth’s target of 26 dwellings a hectare and Brisbane’s target of 30 dwellings a hectare for urban development were “more likely to result in walkable neighbourhoods”, the report said.

However, this greater density needs to be integrated with other urban design interventions, and access to destinations and public transport, though this is not happening. For example, the report found while some of Perth’s outer suburbs were walkable, they had poor access to public transport.

Public transport was a typically poor performing area, with most cities not living up to their goals (though these varied in ambition). In Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide about 36 per cent of residents had access to proximate and frequent public transport services; but only 18 per cent in Perth; 12 per cent in Brisbane, Canberra and Hobart; and four per cent in Darwin.

Chief investigator Professor Billie Giles-Corti, director of RMIT’s Urban Futures Enabling Capability Platform, said the report showed more consistent and comprehensive policies were needed as populations grew.

“One significant way to create liveable cities and to improve people’s health and wellbeing is through urban design and planning that create walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods,” Professor Giles-Corti said. “But Australian cities are still being designed for cars.”

She said walkable neighbourhoods would never be achieved in outer suburbs with the current policy settings.

“Higher residential densities and street connectivity, mixed land-uses, and high-quality footpaths are all desperately needed to achieve walkable cities. Yet, we don’t have the policy frameworks in place in Australia to create vibrant walkable communities.”

Co-author Dr Jonathan Arundel said the lack of close-by and frequent public transport created a risk of rising inequality.

“Given that outer suburbs have poorer access to public transport, household expenditure on cars is likely to be higher there than in other areas, meaning these residents are losing out twice over,” he said.

“Integrated land-use, transport and infrastructure planning is required to meet even current public transport targets, with higher-density development required in particular around public transport nodes and activity centres.”

The report provides seven recommendations to governments:

  1. Evidence-informed policies – Evidence-informed integrated transport, land use and infrastructure planning is needed to deliver affordable housing, public transport, accessible employment and amenities, and to create walkable neighbourhoods as the foundation of a liveable city.
  2. Short, medium and long-term targets – Include measurable spatial standards in state government urban, transport and infrastructure policies, regulations and/or guidelines, including short-, medium- and long-term targets as appropriate.
  3. Spatial indicators – Develop spatial indicators of Australian cities to benchmark and monitor the implementation of state-based policies designed to create liveable communities.
  4. Expand the National Cities Performance Framework – Expand the federal government’s National Cities Performance Framework to include policy implementation indicators for access to public transport, walkability, public open space, employment and affordable housing.
  5. Data standards – Develop agreed standards for the collection and categorisation of state government data that could be used to benchmark and monitor the implementation of urban policies in Australian cities.
  6. Five-year update cycle – Update liveability indicators at least every five years, to coincide with the ABS Census, and more frequently when possible.
  7. Metropolitan governance – Move towards metropolitan governance of cities, starting
    by ensuring that state and local government policies are consistent and evidence informed, and specifically designed to create healthy liveable communities.

“This report is a diagnostic tool to understand the current state of liveability in Australian cities that could and should be repeated regularly,” Professor Giles-Corti said.

“What’s even more important is what governments do about it.”

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