Learning liveability lessons – London and Melbourne

Wednesday 17 July 2019

London could learn from Melbourne’s transformation into one of the world’s most ‘liveable’ cities through ‘externalising’ buildings, taming the motor car and giving more streets over to attractive public spaces.

That was one of the key lessons from last week’s live hook-up between the two cities at NLA on Store Street and an evening audience gathered at Australian Unity on Melbourne’s Spring Street.

Melbourne mayor Sally Capp began by saying that liveability was one of her favourite topics, with the city having been recognised as a world leader on a number of indices, even given its status as the fastest growing city in Australia. Melbourne has a population of 4.9 million people but expects to top 8 million by 2036, when it will be the country’s largest city and roughly the size of London now. But unlike the UK capital it is much less dense, London being four times denser, and transport is ‘absolutely central to liveability’, said Capp, with pedestrian congestion one of the city’s big problems. Melbourne is expressing its ambitions too by creating more open spaces and civic spaces, said Capp, with an ambitious programme of new urban parks over the next decade. The diversity of people in the city is one of the standout successes, added Capp, liveability having a lot to do with the ‘humanity that we show’ and a big focus is to do with what is happening with rough sleepers – ‘knowing them by name’.

GLA’s Debbie Jackson said there were a lot of parallels with London, which is home to 8.8 million people with 270 nationalities and 300 languages, and which ‘revels in our diversity’. ‘Our job is to make sure that everyone who works in and lives in the city has the chance to benefit from its growth’, she said, referring to ‘Good Growth’ principles expressed through the forthcoming London Plan, which she branded a ‘step change’ from the last edition. ‘A big part of London’s future is the way we engage with other cities’, said Jackson.

Back in Melbourne, the city’s director of City Design and Projects Rob Adams said cities around the world are engaged with ‘urban choreography’; bringing different forces together to make sense of the city. Melbourne had ‘good bones’, but needed a good walking environment, achieved by subdividing the city with large blocks and then subdividing further to create lanes and arcades. ‘We wanted a city that was urbane’, said Adams. Vehicles were ‘weaned off’ the streets in order to create people spaces in a general move to ‘externalise’ life onto the pavements and create an attractive city. Another key move was to reintroduce residential to the centre, which brought food and beverage with it and encouraged retail back into the centre. Attention was also paid to high quality public realm and making public transport something you did ‘with dignity’, as well as mitigating climate change through extensive tree planting. If there was a regret, though, it was that, unlike London, Melbourne does not have a Green Belt to contain sprawl. And then there was Melbourne’s other secret weapon: coffee. But one final message was that increasing densities means bills go down with it. ‘This is an economic proposition, a social proposition and an environmental proposition’, said Adams.

Other speakers included Selina Mason, director of masterplanning at Lendlease, who suggested we have a huge amount to learn but that a lot of the metrics on liveability are ‘top-down’ and that we are not as ‘cohesive’ as we once were. There was space, she said, for ‘happy city metrics and a thriving places index’, and more cities need to be heading towards metrics that are not as much about consumption and growth. But the infrastructure is also inefficient in supporting the idea of villages, Mason added. ‘It is fundamentally around getting from the outside to the inside’, she said, with the challenge of creating a radial transport structure remaining. Finally, a panel discussion included director of LSE London Tony Travers, who felt that the structure of government was hampering London making large scale interventions across the central area of the city, and that there was a ‘trade-off between liveability and hyper-density’.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ


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NLA’s International programme facilitates global discussion, connecting London with other cities in order to exchange information, discuss and debate shared urban issues, and compare approaches.