Canberra scores highly on many of the measures in the OECD's regional wellbeing index

The Herald-Sun recently reported that Canberra is “officially the most liveable city in the world” according to a recent report by the OECD (Is Canberra really the world’s best city? More like capital punishment).

The architecture and design critic for The Guardian (UK), Oliver wainwright, is not the least bit amused by Canberra apparently winning this accolade (50 years of gentrification: will all our cities turn into ‘deathly’ Canberra?).

Seemingly drawing solely on the Herald-Sun’s report, he wrote on Saturday that northern hemisphere observers wonder if, down in Australia, they were looking at the rankings upside down:

Canberra is a deathly place. It is a city conceived as a monument to the roundabout and the retail park, a bleak and relentless landscape of axial boulevards and manicured verges, dotted with puffed-up state buildings and gigantic shopping sheds. It is what a city looks like when it is left to politicians to plan.

Mr Wainwright is a harsh critic of other liveability indexes too and I agree (See Does the gong for world’s most liveable city mean anything?). But he’s so keen to engage in a spot of Canberra-bashing, it looks like he’s missed some important facts.

He doesn’t seem to realise that the rankings aren’t done by the biased denizens of downunder, but by the OECD. More importantly, he conveniently disregards the purpose of the OECD study.

As the exhibit shows, it’s an analysis of regional well-being, not of liveability . Moreover, while the Herald-Sun claims Canberra (actually, the ACT) “officially” tops the OECD’s ranking, the organisation itself emphasises that it presents all ten measures and eschews a single summary statistic.

Mr Wainwright also focuses exclusively on the failings of Canberra’s physical environment – essentially in urban design terms – whereas the OECD report looks at a broad set of criteria that make sense when measuring wellbeing, like income, community engagement, health and safety.

His assertion that Canberra is a ‘deathly’ place will no doubt strike a chord with many, but he offers no evidence in support; he’s happy to play to the existing prejudices of his readers, most of whom don’t live in Canberra and never have, without feeling the need to make his case.

There’s much, much more to a city than a narrow focus on the physical environment is likely to capture. As I’ve discussed before, Canberra has a number of virtues that belie its reputation as a dull, and apparently even ‘deathly’, place (see Is Canberra the worst city in Australia?).

  • Canberra has two of the ‘21 Hippest Suburbs in Australia‘, Braddon and Canberra City (that’s the same number as Brisbane and Perth). These two suburbs have high population density and high proportions of tertiary educated singles. Canberra City is rated as a “Walker’s Paradise” by Walkscore.
  • Canberra has the highest level of social capital of any city in Australia. That applies even after allowing for differences between jurisdictions in factors like income and education, according to Dr Andrew Leigh, author of Disconnected.
  • Canberra has the highest level of cycling of the major capital cities in Australia, with three times Sydney’s mode share for the journey to work and close to double Melbourne’s. It also has the highest levels of cycling for non-work purposes.
  • Canberra is a very young city (it didn’t get established seriously as the national administrative capital until the 1950s) and a relatively small city (less than 400,000), but even so its population density is only a little lower than Adelaide’s and Perth’s, as is its share of commuting by public transport.

The nation’s capital isn’t everyone’s cup of latte and I’ve no doubt there’s considerable scope to improve the quality of public spaces, but there’s much more to the place in 2014 than easy and dated stereotypes convey.

The ACT government’s planned City to the Lake urban renewal project will make a huge difference when it’s realised. The centre will look more like the high density streets served by trams that the Griffins first proposed 100 years ago.

Why it scores well on the OECD’s Wellbeing index is the more interesting question and one which Mr Wainwright doesn’t discuss. I’d suggest it ranks high on indicators like health largely because these measure national characteristics and it’s in one of the world’s richest countries.

But it’s also because it’s small (e.g. short commutes), because it’s a high-level public policy city (e.g. high education and incomes) and because, like many Scandinavian cities, it’s a relatively socially homogeneous place (e.g. civic engagement).

Despite the headline and opening paras, Mr Wainwright’s Canberra-bashing is just a preliminary altercation on his way to the main bout, which is seemingly to have a go at internationally renowned urbanists Jan Gehl and, especially, Richard Rogers. (2)


  1. The law was struck down on 12 December 2013 byt the High Court of Australia.
  2. He refers to some important issues like the privatisation of open space, the conflicted position of designers, and the social impact of gentrification, but the inference that Rogers and Gehl are somehow seriously wanting is, like his treatment of Canberra, pretty thin.