Top of the world: why is Melbourne the ‘most liveable city’?

Night cityscape of Melbourne, Australia

By Steven McGinty

For six consecutive years, Melbourne has been ranked the ‘most liveable city’ by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

In the 2016 liveability survey, the Australian coastal city and state capital of Victoria achieved an overall rating of 97.5 (out of 100), narrowly beating Vienna (97.4), Vancouver (97.3), and Toronto (92.9).

The study assessed over 30 indicators, across five broad categories: stability; healthcare; culture and environment; education; and infrastructure. Each of these categories is weighted differently, so some indicators are valued higher than others. For example, the prevalence of crime is weighted higher than the availability of good quality housing or private education.

Melbourne’s overall score hasn’t changed since 2011, when it took the top spot from Vancouver. It’s also consistently received perfect scores for education, healthcare and infrastructure.

Why is Melbourne such a liveable city?

In an interview with The Guardian, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said that he was incredibly ‘proud’ that his city had retained the title of world’s most liveable city. For him, the city’s success is due to the foresight of Melbourne’s original planners. He explained that:

Robert Hoddle laid out the CBD (central business district) grid, which means our streets are lovely and wide and easy to navigate, while Charles Latrobe set aside large parcels of land around the city for parks and open spaces, which we enjoy to this day

Laurel Johnson, an associate lecturer at the University of Queensland School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, highlighted that the city’s size is an important factor. She observed that there are very few other major cities that allow residents to have a home with a large garden within commutable distance to their professional jobs. In her view, the city’s ‘low population density, range of housing options, culture and focus on green spaces’ explains why Melbourne’s ranks so highly on liveability.

Spiros Alatsas, from the Victorian Multicultural Commission, said that diversity is one of the state’s biggest strengths. With more than a quarter of Melbourne’s population born overseas, it’s unsurprising that the city has a wide variety of cultures and cuisines. In the state of Victoria alone, more than 260 languages and dialects are spoken, with people coming from over 200 different countries.

Melbourne also has smart city ambitions, and has already introduced projects which use data and digital technologies to meet the changing needs of its residents. This includes creating CityLab, a space where innovative ideas and services can be tested and introduced into communities. The lab takes a human-centred design approach and involves working with the users of new services from an early stage.

A recent idea which came from a ‘Hackathon’ hosted by CityLab was the ‘internet of trees’.  This idea evolved into the Urban Forest Visual, a website which provides real-time data on the city, and helps provide a better understanding of issues such as the health of plants and trees.

Several other initiatives have been introduced including:

  • Participate Melbourne – a website which highlights new projects and allows residents to provide their views. Recent discussions underway include the developments of a new skate park.
  • Smart little bins – the solar-powered bins compact rubbish as it’s collected, which reduces the number of waste collections that need to be made.
  • 24-hour pedestrian counting system – sensors are used to measure the activity of pedestrians, and therefore how residents use the city. This insight helps the city meet the needs of residents.

Is this the full story?

There are many who doubt the liveability credentials of Melbourne.

Dr Alan Davies, a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Consultants, questions the validity of the EIU’s assessment. He argues that the EIU is less concerned with how ordinary people live and is more a guide for international companies on how they should pay senior executives working on assignment in other cities. As an alternative, Dr Davies suggests that the ‘spatially adjusted’ most liveable cities index (also created by the EIU, with partner BuzzData) is more accurate, as it considers the lives of permanent residents and issues such as the urban sprawl and connectivity.

Using this index, we see that Hong Kong is number one and Melbourne doesn’t make the top ten. There is also a place for European cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin, and Stockholm, who are largely underrated by the EIU liveability survey.

Michael Buxton, Environment and planning professor at RMIT University, also emphasises that the survey’s principal purpose is as a comparator of cities for highly mobile professionals. However, he also provides further detail on the challenges the city faces. For instance, he argues that many of the new high-rise developments are poorly constructed and will be unliveable ‘within a generation’. And although the public transport system is extensive, it performs badly when compared against international standards.

Alienation is another concern for Professor Buxton. He suggests that dense high rise developments have an alienating affect for residents. Similarly, low-income residents, who are being relocated to poorly connected suburbs, are experiencing a sense of alienation.

Professor Buxton also offers an alternative liveability index, the ‘Mercer Quality of Living Rankings’. This again uses its own criteria – although focusing on similar issues such as economic and political environment. In 2016, Vienna was top of this index, with Melbourne ranking 15th behind southern hemisphere neighbours Auckland, Wellington, and Sydney.

Final thoughts

Although these international indexes are subjective, and unlikely to find a single ‘most liveable city’, they do have their purpose.

Liveability surveys are a useful tool for encouraging debate amongst citizens, academics, and politicians. They also help to generate interest in cities, attracts tourists and skilled workers, and encourage investment.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other articles on cities. 

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