Corner King and Collins St, Melbourne, 1916

The Age’s state politics editor, Josh Gordon, reckons Melbourne is growing at an unsustainable rate (Five reasons Melbourne is no longer the world’s most liveable city). It’s “by and large a decent place”, he says, but nevertheless:

Melbourne has become badly complacent, coasting on a tired major events schedule, an ageing, overburdened public transport network, and misleading labels such as ‘the world’s most liveable city’.

He offers five reasons why Melbourne “no longer deserves the title” of the world’s most liveable city:

  1. (Traffic congestion) is growing at an unsustainable pace.
  2. Crime is rising rapidly.
  3. Housing affordability has plummeted.
  4. Many state schools are struggling to cope with demand.
  5. Victoria’s environment has deteriorated.

But in the writer’s view these are essentially symptoms; the key issue he identifies is population growth. He finishes by saying:

(Melbourne) is also just another big city that is rapidly getting bigger, more expensive, more troubled. Underpinning many of these problems are unsustainable rates of population growth. Unless we wake up to this, our problems will only continue to grow.

***

Mr Gordon doesn’t provide much evidence or analysis to support his claims; nevertheless, I accept they’re all important and relevant issues, although some of them – like plummeting housing affordability – are in large part due to factors that affect all of Australia’s capital cities (e.g. federal taxation policy and failure to fund public housing) and many international peer cities.

A key problem with the article is the set-up; the “world’s most liveable city” gong is a straw man. While the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) ranking has many relevant metrics, they’re combined purpose isn’t to measure liveability for permanent residents. As the writer and The Age well know, it describes liveability for expatriate business executives on temporary assignments. Politicians and the media love it of course, but the city’s paper of record should be actively correcting the “world’s most liveable city” myth, not perpetuating it. Melbourne’s a great place to settle permanently in my view, but I haven’t seen any convincing evidence it’s the best of the best (see Is the EIU’s Worlds’s Most Liveable City gong rubbish?).

Another problem is the five “reasons” aren’t put in any context. Given the set-up is to show Melbourne is slipping compared to its peer cities, it’s not very useful to say “crime is rising rapidly” without showing how Melbourne fares against comparable cities. We can be confident that housing affordability is low by international standards (although considerably better than in some other high-ranking EIU cities), but is over-crowding in state schools significantly worse? Do Melburnians spend a lot more time on the road? Are they desecrating their environment more wilfully than Sydneysiders, Vancouverites, or Aucklanders? Interestingly, Melbourne scores very highly on education and the environment in the EIU’s metrics.

The nub of Mr Gordon’s complaint though is unsustainable population growth. The term “unsustainable” is potent, but it’s misused in this context. Melbourne can easily keep growing; there are around 100 cities in the world with a larger population than Melbourne and about 40 with double its population. Sure, immigration-fuelled growth brings short-terms problems and makes some residents worse off; but the evidence seems to be that in the longer run the average resident is better off. The challenges are largely political e.g. investing in infrastructure, but mostly using what we’ve already got more efficiently.

The implicit assumption that rapid growth means a significant loss of liveability overlooks the reality that cities adapt to the forces driving growth e.g. residents change the location of their job and/or dwelling, or they change how they travel (see Will Sydney and Melbourne implode as they get bigger and bigger?). For example, Mr Gordon complains it currently takes more than an hour to drive from outer suburban Epping to the city centre in peak hour; and he estimates by 2037 it will take an extra 45 minutes! But residents will adapt by taking the train to the city centre rather than driving; in fact they already can and mostly do! Improvements made over the last 20 years and initiatives currently underway mean train travel from Epping in the future should be more reliable, more frequent, more connected and possibly even faster than it is at present (see What’s government done to make public transport better?).

***

Mr Gordon rightly identifies some of the issues that need to be addressed, especially by all levels of government, if Melbourne is to continue to grow at its current high rate (which is by no means certain) and remain an attractive place to live. Like every other city, there are good things and bad things about Melbourne and they vary considerably with who’s doing the residing. But Melbourne is growing because notwithstanding its imperfections, it’s nevertheless doing a lot of things right (also see What’s Melbourne good at?). If it continues, growth will undoubtedly change Melbourne in positive and negative ways but I expect there’ll be more winners than losers. The public will continue to have a key role in keeping the pressure on governments to manage change effectively.