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‘Liveable’ Sydney has clear winners and losers

Sydneysiders’ view of their city’s liveability is very different depending on whether they live in the east or west. Sam Mooy/AAP

‘Liveable’ Sydney has clear winners and losers

Sydney is frequently placed in the top ten of global “liveability” rankings. But despite the growing popularity of the buzzword liveability, questions remain about what it actually entails. What does a liveable city look like? How do we measure liveability? And, most importantly, liveable for whom?

The idea of liveability and liveability rankings has some usefulness. However, such rankings mask the disadvantaged, marginalised and excluded within cities, including Sydney.

In yet-to-be-published research, our analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data from 1991, 2001 and 2011 indicates there are clear “winners” and “losers” in Sydney. Despite the strong economic growth in the 1990s, there is still a clear divide between eastern and western Sydney.

Who defines and rates liveability?

The term liveability has proliferated in planning and public discussions, but few definitions are provided.

Liveability is usually captured by published indices. Broadly speaking, there are three categories of indices: those that focus on decision-making from the perspective of individual lifestyle preferences, the firm, and policymakers.

The best-known liveability indices are developed commercially. These include the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index, the Mercer Quality of Life Survey, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Cities of Opportunity Quality of Life, and the Global Liveable Cities Index.

More recently, Sydney suburbs have been ranked according to various liveability indices (such as Domain Liveable Sydney 2016 and the Urban Living Index). However, overall these liveability indices tend to simplify or disregard crucial factors.

These indices tell a particular and incomplete story about the city. When viewed through the lens of spatial geography, it is clear that Sydney’s ranking as a liveable city requires greater recognition of the ways in which some Sydneysiders experience inequality and disadvantage.

What did our study find?

We compared ABS data from 1991 or 2001 to the data from 2011, focusing on four issues: income, unemployment, travel to work, and housing tenure.

Our analysis of employment found that the proportion of people employed in Greater Sydney slightly increased (94% in 2001 compared with 94.3% in 2011) and the unemployed decreased (6% in 2001 compared with 5.7% in 2011). People in full-time employment decreased while the number of people working part-time increased, bringing it almost on par with the Australian figure.

However, the data does not reveal the disparities in people’s incomes according to where they live. When we viewed the data spatially, it was evident that people who live in the central city, inner east, inner west and the north shore of Sydney have higher weekly incomes than those living in the western parts of Sydney.

Income levels in Sydney

Highest-income areas are shown in red, with lowest-income areas in blue. Author provided

Our analysis also found spatial disparities in the way people commute to work. Driving remained the main form of travel (49.2% in 1991 compared to 53.8% in 2011), demonstrating continued car dependence in Sydney.

The disparity between east and west was evident in people’s opinions and preferences about travel. People in eastern Sydney felt more able to live close to where they work (72% compared with 62% in western Sydney).

People in western Sydney were less likely to feel they had the transport they needed (86% compared with 91% in eastern Sydney). But, interestingly, they also felt that transport was less important than eastern Sydney residents.

Finally, our analysis of housing tenure over the 20 years to 2011 found the level of outright home ownership fell by almost 10%. The proportion of people with mortgages increased (26.6% in 1991 compared with 33.2% in 2011), as did the number of people renting (28% in 1991 compared to 30.4% in 2011).

Housing tenure in Sydney

Areas with highest rates of outright home ownership are shown in blue, with areas of highest rates of mortgages in red. Author provided

To sum up, the winners: live in the city, inner east, inner west and parts of northern suburbs, have relatively easy access to well-paid work, and own their homes.

The losers: live further from the concentrations of economic activity (jobs), have higher job insecurity, longer travel-to-work times, poorer transport choices and connections, lower incomes, more rental stress, less time with families, and poorer reported wellbeing.

Our analysis aligns with other recent research – see, for example, findings by the Grattan Institute, the Australian Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development and the Australian Housing Urban Research Institute.

How can liveability be better shared?

How then do the various liveability indices account for spatial inequality and disadvantage? In 2012, the Economist Intelligence Unit added a category based on “spatial adjustments”. The Spatial Adjusted Liveability Index now makes up 25% of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability score.

Various programs and policies have also been designed to tackle liveability. These are helpful initiatives, but a more holistic and interdisciplinary approach is needed. Approaches to liveability need to be integrated (both place-based and people-based).

  • First, to be effective, institutions need to decrease fragmented responses.

  • Second, greater social inclusion is vital. This includes participatory approaches to planning and equitable access to jobs, services and amenity.

  • Third, cities need co-operative governance whereby citizens can affect decision-making through legitimate involvement.

A greater focus on these recommendations might bring Sydney a little closer to being a liveable city for all.