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How do we create liveable cities? First, we must work out the key ingredients

Good access to people, services and other essential ingredients of wellbeing is a defining feature of liveable communities. flickr/US Department of Agriculture, CC BY

How do we create liveable cities? First, we must work out the key ingredients

Good access to people, services and other essential ingredients of wellbeing is a defining feature of liveable communities. flickr/US Department of Agriculture, CC BY

Liveable communities and resilient cities are buzzwords of the moment. But exactly how do you define a “liveable” community or city? Our research focuses on this exact question.

In an extensive review of liveability definitions used in academic and grey literature in Australia and internationally, we found some consistent factors. Critical factors for liveable communities are:

  • residents feeling safe, socially connected and included;

  • environmental sustainability; and

  • access to affordable and diverse housing options linked via public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure to employment, education, local shops, public open space and parks, health and community services, leisure and culture.

These are the essential ingredients for a liveable community. They are needed to promote health and wellbeing in individuals, build communities and support a sustainable society.

The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services agrees with our definition. It has been adopted in the recently released Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Plan 2015-2019. This plan provides the overarching framework to support and improve the health and wellbeing of all Victorians.

Liveability requires broad wellbeing

We live in an urbanising world. Cities are increasing in prominence as major social and economic hubs. For such cities, liveability rankings and awards can provide welcome global recognition and marketing tools.

Such rankings can operate to attract (or detract) people to a community. For example, many people will know Melbourne has been repeatedly voted the “world’s most liveable city”. A key question is: liveable for whom?

While helpful at the broadest level, these rankings focus on the inner city, remuneration packages and economic productivity. The rankings mask intra-city inequities.

To overcome this, our definition of liveability considers the underlying conditions that support health. Our definition focuses on equity and recognition that where you live can predict health outcomes and life expectancy.

Location shapes life expectancy. The interactive Health Happens Here exhibition at the California Museum offers a great explanation of how many key factors beyond diet and exercise influence health.

The Health Happens Here exhibit offers an interactive journey through all the ways and places that affect health.

We are creating liveability indicators that are linked to urban, transport and infrastructure planning policy. This is guided by our understanding that health is influenced by individual personal factors, social and community supports and broader socioeconomic, cultural and environmental conditions. These conditions include housing, education, workplaces and access to services.

Developing these liveability indicators is a key component of our research at the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Healthy Liveable Communities led by the McCaughey VicHealth Community Wellbeing Unit at the University of Melbourne. The policy-focused research is governed by advisory groups in Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland and links evidence to state-based policies and practice.

In Victoria, liveability indicators developed through our research are made freely available to all members of the community through Community Indicators Victoria. This supports the democratisation of data, engagement and measuring progress in communities.

Designing cities for good health

We need to build cities based on a clear and consistent definition of liveability. The goal is that it can be objectively measured and tracked over time using indicators that provide an understanding of each city’s strengths and challenges.

Our definition is not values-free: it is guided by the view that cities must be designed to promote health.

A city built well is a healthy city that provides all residents (not just the fortunate few) with opportunities to live in areas with all the essential ingredients of a liveable community. It is a place that promotes healthy and happy people and community wellbeing – a place where people want to live.

A more liveable city is a great place to live. It is more resilient as well, with competitive social, economic and environmental advantages. Using our definition, a liveable city is also a healthy city, promoting health, wellbeing and equity.

This would be an excellent outcome for all Australians and all government ministries. Let’s hope our new federal minister for cities and the built environment is listening.

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