In 2011, The Economist named Melbourne the world’s most liveable city. In many circles this was celebrated as the culmination of two and a half decades of investment in the quality of Melbourne’s centre – particularly the amenity provided in the public realm. But this is not a fair reflection of the reality. The Australian and Canadian Cities that consistently top The Economist’s liveability indexes do so in large part due to their suburban densities, the very suburbs that are the focus of increasing criticism on environmental and public health grounds. The rural/urban dichotomy does not adequately describe the modern city. As we edit our cities to prepare them for the 21st century, the last thing we should be doing is glossing over the form, the fabric that generates the differences, for comparison’s sake.
There are in fact two Melbournes: Greater Melbourne and the City of Melbourne. Greater Melbourne is the full extent of the Melbourne Metropolitan Region with a built-up area of around 2,152 km² and a population over 3.4 million. It can take two hours to drive across. This region is what The Economist bases its liveability survey on. The City of Melbourne is a small municipality within Greater Melbourne with a population of 100,000 in an area of just 37.6 km². It is the commercial hub of the region and can be cycled across in 30 minutes. The City of Melbourne has been celebrated for innovative urban design while Greater Melbourne has been criticised for suburban sprawl. 73% of residents of Greater Melbourne live in detached, single-family dwellings compared to 77% who live in apartments in the City of Melbourne. In this way, two distinct patterns of habitation are described by the same moniker: Melbourne.
The trumpets have sounded and the critics have heralded mankind’s passage into an age of cities, with more than 50% of the world’s population now ‘urban’. Indeed, The London School of Economics has declared the beginning of the Urban Age. But is it too soon? Or as Malu Byrne in the NYT suggests, is it too late, and the young creative class is fleeing cities in search of affordability. In Melbourne’s case, is it right to label a predominantly suburban agglomeration (defined by a flexible administrative boundary) a city? Or is it the case, in fact, that we need a better definition of what constitutes a city, particularly when we discuss quality of life, sustainability and health in relation to urban form?
Suburban densities of the kind found in Greater Melbourne (1,567 ppl/km²) and many western cities are the subject of intensifying criticism for their environmental impact, exposure to increasing oil prices, congestion and over-representation in lifestyle disease statistics. These statistics are often embedded in an administrative boundary that describes both suburban and urban conditions, just as The Economist’s quality of life data is. The endemic lack of articulation has resulted in situations such as people leaving cities to pursue a ‘healthy lifestyle’ in the suburbs – when studies have shown they should do the opposite. Likewise, when we say the majority of the world’s carbon emissions come from cities this is misleading – they come from the suburbs (of cities).
A better definition
What if we took the rural/urban definition and added a third category: suburban. In Australia it may work like this: According to The Economist, 89.1% of Australians lived in urban areas in 2011. But if we include 2006 Australian Census Data for housing typology a different picture emerges:
11% of Australians lived in rural houses (rural)
67% of Australians lived in detached houses (suburban).
22% of Australians lived in apartments and attached houses (urban )
Australia is not in an Urban Age, nor is most of the Western world, and most of the cities that top the quality of life indices (Vienna is a notable exception worthy of further study) – the same cities that have some of the highest per capita carbon emissions and obesity rates in the world. We have declared globally that it is the beginning of the ‘Urban Age’, romanticizing humanity’s migration towards the cause and panacea of its problems: the city. In fact, many western cities are in a Suburban Age where large, detached, single-family homes are considered a birth-right. As liveability, health and sustainability merge, it will become increasingly evident just how suburban the world’s most liveable ‘cities’ actually are. One of the great architectural challenges of our age will be urbanising suburbia. Another will be convincing developing countries what first world cities have experienced first-hand – that cities built for cars are less successful than those planned around pedestrians. Liveability data should be carefully studied before it is used for anything other than what it was intended: a tool for remuneration. Until we link urban form with quality of life in a more robust way it will be difficult to argue that sustainability, liveability, health, connectivity and competitiveness are one and the same – as many of us already feel to be the case. Meanwhile, we can celebrate Melbourne, the world’s most liveable suburb.
Further Reading: Urban does not necessarily mean central city, as this article by Christopher B. Leinberger of the Brookings Institute explores.
Gehl Institute bloggers are Simon Goddard, Claire Mookerjee, Jo Posselt and Jeff Risom