Adelaide is the most liveable capital city in Australia and Sydney is the least, according to a study released earlier this month by the Property Council of Australia.
The Australian reports that Sydney might have the harbour, Opera House and Bondi, but most Sydneysiders live a long way from these attractions in less salubrious places like Liverpool, Strathfield and Penrith.
The Property Council’s study is based on a national sample of 4,072 respondents in the nation’s eight capital cities (with around 600 in each of the four largest cities). They were given 17 attributes of liveability and asked, firstly, to rate them by importance and, secondly, to rate how well their cities perform on each of them. These two dimensions were then combined to produce a ‘liveability score’ for each city.
These sorts of surveys are often problematic and this one is no exception. For example, information on the representativeness of those who actually responded to the survey is scant and some of the attributes are sloppily conceptualised and poorly worded.
So with that caveat, let’s look at what the study found. The aggregate liveability scores of the eight capitals are probably the least useful aspect because the differences are small – Adelaide does best with 63.4 and Sydney does worst with 55.1. Third ranking Melbourne scores 60.9 but sixth ranking Brisbane scores 60.2. Put Sydney aside and there’s not enough in it to be useful.
What’s more interesting is how respondents define liveability. I’ve put the accompanying chart together to show how the five largest capital cities perform in aggregate i.e. Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide (you won’t see this table in the Property Council’s report because I had to correct the figures in the Appendix to the report. Also, make sure to have a look at the full text of the questions).
The first column shows how important respondents think each attribute is for liveability (smaller is better). The second shows what proportion of respondents agree that their city exhibits this attribute.
What’s clear from the first column is that safety and security is the primary concern of residents of our big cities. In fact the most important attributes to residents – safety, health and jobs – are those where arguably urban policy makers have least influence. Conversely, some attributes that are very important to planners, like having a choice of housing types, diversity, sustainability and the look and design of the city, are rated by residents as the least important.
What seems clear from the second column is that residents rate their city’s performance poorest on the attributes that they actually consider most important. For example, although it’s the most important attribute, safety and security ranks 13th in the assessment of city performance, with just 44% of residents agreeing that their city performs well on this quality.
Residents rate our five largest cities best in terms of their performance on recreational opportunities, cultural opportunities, climate and natural environment. However these attributes are towards the back end of what residents think is most important in making a city liveable.
Public transport and traffic congestion, on the other hand, are rated as reasonably important for liveability but the performance of our biggest cities on these characteristics is poor – they are the 14th and 17th rated attributes respectively. At least we do considerably better with public transport than we do with roads.
The second chart compares the five largest cities. It shows how residents rate their metropolis against all 17 attributes (BTW, the differences between cities in terms of the importance or weighting given to each attribute aren’t large).
It’s obvious that Sydneysiders are deeply unhappy with their city, with 50% or more of residents finding the city lacking on 10 attributes (compared to 5 for Melbourne and Brisbane and 3 for Adelaide). In fact Sydney does not excel relative to its peers on a single trait. It also does very poorly on some of the most important attributes e.g. safety and security, standard of living, housing affordability.
Only 13% of Sydney residents agree that Sydney has a good road network with minimal traffic congestion and just 17% think it has a good range of quality affordable housing. The corresponding figures for top-ranked Adelaide are 44% and 57%.
Predictably perhaps, Melburnites are critical of the city’s weather, but more likely to praise their home town’s healthcare services, job opportunities and appearance, than residents of other cities. Still, in no capital is there a majority of people happy with traffic congestion and public transport. Only in Adelaide are more than 50% happy with housing affordability.
I’d be wary about accepting some of the detailed findings of this study but at the macro scale I’m more relaxed. Safety and security is the most important determinant of liveability. Sydney has serious problems and is approaching ‘basket case’ status. Adelaide looks good if you’re not too worried about where your next job is coming from.
Housing affordability isn’t as important to liveability as I’d expected, but that’s probably because a large proportion of the sample already own or are buying their house. By comparison, the great bulk of residents might perceive their safety is under threat. Yet public transport is rated just as important as traffic congestion for liveability, even though only a relatively small proportion of travellers use it, even for the journey to work.
Perhaps the most important message to take away is that how we perceive what makes a city liveable is shaped not just by our own first hand experiences but also by the way it’s portrayed in the media.