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A report card on liveability in our cities

This article provides a quick analysis of the 128 page document, Creating Liveable Cities in Australia. Although it does not provide a complete picture, it finds many obvious flaws which suggest that it should not be accepted at its face value.

Creating Liveable Cities in Australia [download from http://cur.org.au/project/national-liveability-report/] bills itself as "the first “baseline” measure of liveability in Australia’s state and territory capitals. It represents the culmination of five years of research." It warns that, "by 2050 Australia’s urban population may double, increasing pressure on transport, congestion, infrastructure and housing affordability. Planning that creates compact, pedestrian-friendly and inclusive cities is essential since liveable cities are recognised as part of the solution to chronic disease and health inequities."

The full report is at: http://cur.org.au/project/national-liveability-report/
This report also contains a summary of the key points of ‘Creating liveable cities in Australia: Mapping urban policy implementation and evidence-based national liveability indicators,’ October 2017.

Key Points

The government asserts that:
• Governments in Australia and internationally recognise the benefits of urban liveability.
• Liveable communities are good for the economy, social inclusion and environmental sustainability, and promote the health and wellbeing of residents. They have affordable housing linked by public transport, walking and cycling paths to workplaces, public open space and all the amenities required for daily living.
• The ‘Creating Liveable Cities in Australia’ report details the first measurement of liveability in Australia’s state and territory capital cities.
• The report maps policy standards designed to create liveable cities and seven domains of urban liveability that also promote the health and wellbeing of Australians – walkability, public transport, public open space, housing affordability, employment, and food and alcohol environments.
• The report also assesses policy implementation.
• In many cases government planning policies are failing to deliver liveability equitably across our cities. Measurable spatial policy standards were identified for only three of the seven key liveability domains.
• Current policies and guidelines do not appear to be informed by the growing body of evidence about how to achieve healthy, liveable cities.
• No Australian capital city performs well across all the liveability indicators, with many failing to meet their own policy targets designed to create liveability.
• There are geographical inequities in the delivery of liveability policies within and between cities, with outer suburban areas generally less well served than inner-city suburbs.
• Evidence-informed policy and practice are needed to maintain and improve urban liveability, improve the health and wellbeing of residents, and ensure that people’s quality of life is maintained as our cities grow.

• All Australian capital cities appear to value walkability and liveability, but there is little evidence that the policies reviewed are sufficient to create, maintain and enhance urban liveability in Australia.
There is also little evidence the policies are informed by the growing body of evidence on how to create healthy, liveable and walkable cities.
• No measurable spatial policy standards were identified in any capital city for promoting local employment, housing affordability and access to healthy food choices, or limiting access to alcohol outlets.
• Policy standards for walkability, public transport and public open space varied markedly in the specific urban characteristics measured and their level of ambition (e.g. residential density targets varied from 15 dwellings per hectare to 30 dwellings per hectare, in the case of urban areas in Brisbane).

• Some states had similar policies but different targets. For example, WA’s target for access to public transport is that 60% of dwellings should have access to nearby public transport, while NSW’s target is much more ambitious and less achievable i.e. that 100% of dwellings should have access to nearby public transport with frequent services.
• In Melbourne, nearly 70% of dwellings had access to a nearby public transport stop in line with the policy. However, once half-hour service frequencies were included, this dropped to only 36% of dwellings having access to a frequently serviced stop. How our cities are performing
• Cities with less ambitious policy targets were meeting their targets, but generally not performing as well as other cities with more ambitious targets in terms of creating healthy liveable communities.
• No city performs well across all the policy and/or evidence-informed liveability indicators. For example, Perth has some walkable neighbourhoods on the urban fringe, but these areas have poor access to public transport.
• There is also substantial variation within cities, with inner-city areas (and many middle-level suburbs) substantially better served than outer suburbs by the urban design, infrastructure and land use planning policies needed to create liveable communities.

Overview

The study identifies many problems, such as the need for access to public open space and the excess of fast food and liquor outlets (which are not seen as a health problem). (In Perth, Sydney and Brisbane, on average, there are more fast food outlets than supermarkets within 3200 m of residents’ homes, see p.78 of the report). The report does not mention our large gambling industry which is able to manipulate planning deals gaining access to public land.

Competition among commuters

There are many references to walkability in cities, which should include all forms of active transport, such as cycling, which was mentioned only once. However these all have different requirements. Cycling is better for commuting than walking and should be isolated from vehicles on dedicated cycleways. Shared paths create problems as human densities increase. No mention that the higher the density, meaning more people, the more important transport systems, including cycleways, will become, and the harder it will be to find land corridors for all forms of transport . There is also a need to address the requirements of new technology especially when it comes to defining what is “active transport,” since there are now a large variety of electric powered devices like scooters, skate boards and segways, all of which are fast and incompatible with walkers and cyclists.

Pets left out of this ‘vision’

There was no mention of the health importance of pets and their requirements, such as leash free areas, poo bag dispensers. Nor was there mention of the benefit of domestic animals like chooks, ducks, and even goats. These bring benefits both as pets and as providers of fresh food but become difficult or impossible in high density areas.

Dangerously overcrowded footpaths

The report also argues that “walkability” [ hence liveability] in cites is directly related to densities and that this requires densities higher than 15 dwellings/ha. While this is true in terms of accessing shops, cafés and other venues, it ignores the casual walker who simply walks for pleasure. Nor does it address the issue of congestion which will deter walking or lead to increased risk of injuries. New York State averages nearly 300 pedestrian fatalities annually because footpaths have become so crowded that people are forced to walk on the roads. See, for instance: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/nyregion/new-york-city-overcrowded-sidewalks.html and https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/11/opinion/unjamming-the-sidewalks-of-new-york.html and NYC Bill Would Improve the City’s Dangerously Overcrowded Sidewalks.

Public Open Space (POS) set to decline

While admitting that, as our cities increase population densities, they will need more public open space to avoid a decline in the amount of POS per person, they do not say how this can be done, except in new suburbs. For inner suburbs with ever increasing densities there can only be a decline in POS/person.

Housing unaffordability acknowledged but main cause avoided in this public discussion document

The health impacts of housing affordability were discussed but there was no explanation as to why houses were expensive, nor was unaffordability linked to population growth. The report also failed to cover the increasing rates of psychosis and depression associated with increased densities. See, for instance, Kristina Sundquist, Golin Frank, Jan Sundquist, “Urbanisation and incidence of psychosis and depression: Follow-up study of 4.4 million women and men in Sweden,” The British Journal of Psychiatry Mar 2004, 184 (4) 293-298; DOI: 10.1192/bjp.184.4.293 and Lederborgen, F. et al. 2011. “City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans,” Nature 474, 489-501, 23 June 2011, cited by Tony Recsei in Health, Happiness, and Density, New Geography, 2013..

No mention of danger of developer-related money-laundering or corruption in safety

There was no mention of how densities, height limits or heritage restrictions can be changed by developers or how some suburbs seem to remain immune from consolidation. Importantly developer-related corruption was ignored even though this has created many of the problems that have arisen including shoddy buildings, money laundering, and even buildings that are unsafe, a situation made worse by government policies of de regulation and privatization.

Failure to consider heat-island climate impact

However the biggest flaw in this research paper must be its almost complete failure to consider the effects of climate change on cities even though they are already apparent. There was one mention of the Urban Heat effect which could see temperatures reach 50 degrees, enough to cause breakdowns in important facilities like power supplies , fires to become uncontrollable, and cities unlivable According to a UN report

The effects of urbanization and climate change are converging in dangerous ways. Cities are major contributors to climate change: although they cover less than 2 per cent of the earth’s surface, cities consume 78 per cent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60% of all carbon dioxide and significant amounts of other greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through energy generation, vehicles, industry, and biomass use. At the same time, cities and towns are heavily vulnerable to climate change. Hundreds of millions of people in urban areas across the world will be affected by rising sea levels, increased precipitation, inland floods, more frequent and stronger cyclones and storms, and periods of more extreme heat and cold. Source: “Climate chage – UN-Habitat, https://unhabitat.org/urban-themes/climate-change/

To combat climate change cities need to become more energy efficient and less dependent on external services like power, water, food, waste disposal and sewerage. Increasing density through high rise apartments does not do this. In fact, it increases reliance since they lack enough roof area to collect rain water or solar power for all residents. They often are impossible to design with flow-through' ventilation and thus become dependent on air-conditioning, while the exhaust from the condensers pushes hot air into the streets or other units.

The above comments were a quick analysis of the 128 page document and do not provide a complete picture. However considering the importance of the report there are enough flaws to suggest that it should not be accepted at its face value.

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