Rankings of liveability

David Page is contributing to a debate at the Euroscience Open Forum in Copenhagen from the 21- 26 June. In a session led by Professor Julie Sommerlund, David joins Jan Gehl and others on the panel to discuss ‘rankings of liveability’ under the title ‘A Liveable city: myths and realities’. The following is a broad summary of his contribution:

In considering the concept of ‘liveability rankings’ two aspects of the concept are striking:

1) ‘liveability’ measured as an on the ground experience - for which score cards are a novel way of comparison between cities,

2) compared with on the other hand how you build ‘liveability’.

In many ways the components of what should be built are captured in the liveability rankings but the reality of achieving it is incredibly complex and not a straightforward process. Of course we can idealise the perfect setting and process of delivery. However delivery is subject to commercial and public funding forces which have a momentum of their own not shaped by ‘liveability’ criteria. An extreme way of putting it would be to say they are shaped by ‘unliveability’ criteria. A simplistic summary would be that that development interest:

- has a tendency to bulk up, spread out and grow upwards in a land hungry and exploitative manner.

- the result is an ubiquity of outcome in plan and built form shaped by global material and component suppliers producing a sameness irrespective of wherever you are.

- the result is a commercially driven anonymity.

The key challenge is how do we moderate these ‘unliveability’ forces or diffuse their impact?

One way is related to our work with existing settings in protecting and adding to them. There are in broad terms a number of qualities related to existing settings, buildings, street structures and landscapes which can contribute to this moderating influence:

- the first which I feel is a cultural responsibility is that we all have to protect embedded culture in this built and landscape fabric – in many ways the more overlays of time associated with a place, the more interesting we find it.

- the second is that protection of the existing environment can act as a brake to future development, for example, retention of part or all of existing buildings, settings, street structures and landscapes acts as a restrictor to that rapacious development interest by demanding contemporary development considers ‘fit’.

- thirdly, the retention of existing settings can control the inertia of contemporary development which leads towards that ubiquity by complicating the blank canvas demanding place specific responses - indirectly ‘a stone in the shoe of banality’.

On reflection there are many such controlling factors that can help to support ‘liveability’ criteria in contemporary development such as ensuring walkability, landscape etc. As a small contribution to the debate, in our work it is the complicating aspect of the critical retention of existing fabric that makes development of particular places that only can be achieved in that one location. In comparative terms it promotes the idea that one aspect of ‘liveability’ is being different to everywhere else!

One of the issues with Liveability criteria is that they are not seen as potentially contributing to public policy.

In a staff discussion paper of the Australian Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission they conclude on liveability measures:

'7 Conclusions

Many liveability measures and rankings are used for direct comparison of international and domestic cities and regions. The subjective nature of the inclusion of factors relating to liveability, the weighting of these factors, and the vastly different indicators being included, results in different measures providing different rankings of the liveability of cities. There is a lack of theoretical underpinning for these measures, particularly for composite measures. It is questionable whether any of the above composite measures would be directly relevant for informing public policy. A mix of locally relevant factors could, however, be selected and used for the purposes of public policy analysis.’

It is perhaps similar to broader health assessments – rarely do they say who is the healthiest as inevitably that is seen as a measure of excessive privilege. Rather they focus on measures of ill-health as out of these come new policy opportunities to improve the situation. It is harder to work back from excellence, easier to work towards excellence from a base of weakness.

Adopting ‘unliveability’ criteria might be a more substantial base of concern to promote public action.

Some of us live in cities where the propensity is towards ease of delivery of development, ie. the desire is to have development of any form rather than none at all, hence qualitative values come far down the list.

In such cities it is the battle against and controlling the forces of 'unliveability' that is the focus.