MELBOURNE AND THE POPSICLE TEST. A FEW CONSIDERATIONS ON THE WORLD’S MOST LIVEABLE CITY Carolyn Whitzman, vice president of the Conference concerning the state of Australian cities, gives a great heuristic consideration to the liveability classification of the so called Popsicle test: considering you are an eight year old child, can you get to the corner shop on a hot summer day, buy yourself a popsicle and get back home before it melts? This is not an immediately evident question about urbanism but, if we give it some thought, we must admit that the fundamental issues of city liveability and therefore of urban planning are involved. This statement appeared on the weekly magazine of Melbourne’s historic daily newspaper The Age. The article presented the improvement of Melbourne’s metropolitan area according to the Global Liveability Report, a survey involving the world’s most representative cities that the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has been carrying out for ten years. In this report Melbourne was classified in 2012, for the second time consecutively, the most liveable city in the world. Melbourne gives great importance to the liveability issue and to the indicators which measure it (including the Popsicle test) as well as to the deriving classifications which have been giving rise to lively debates and considerations over a number of years. The Report includes thirty indicators subdivided into five distinctive categories: political and social stability, health service, culture and the environment, education, infrastructures. This is not evidently the proper seat to judge the opportunity to set up these classifications. It is more worthwhile to enquire if such standards of the Global Liveability Report have been taken into consideration by the responsible political authorities of these “global cities” and how much they have influenced or have the power to influence their policies and future decisions. On at least two occasions, in 2006 and in 2011, the municipality of Melbourne intervened in a very relevant way: first through a survey on the concept of “global city” and then through a study on comparative methods of analysis between some main international cities. This research had the effect of concentrating the debate on local and State competences in the definition of liveability policies and made it possible to identify clearly the level of responsibility when making decisions (local, state, federal) as well as the decisions on which the municipal authorities could have a direct action on. In the years between these two studies, the substantially uncritical goal to maintain the top position was replaced by greater scepticism. It was almost with cynicism that they came to say: «Free publicity is probably the most effective use for city comparison studies». The study ends underlying the need for a greater reliability of the official programmes of data collection on national (Australian National Development Index), State (Community Indicators Victoria) and local levels (Future Melbourne Community Plan). If most observers believed that the town’s long presence in the top position of the classification was due to the intense intervention planning in the city centre, above all in public spaces, Simon Goddard, an Australian architect who runs the blog dedicated to On data in cities from Untapped city & Gehl Institute, believes instead that, in the comparison between global cities, the critical mass of positive data which accounted for the presence in the top positions of many Australian and Canadian cities was due to many factors in suburban quarters. Melbourne could therefore be considered “the most liveable suburban” place of the world. The Economist however states that 89.1% of the Australians live in urban areas. However if we consider the data relative to the type of the dwelling places of the 2006 population census, it can be observed that 11% of Australians live in rural homes, 67% in single houses and 22% in multi-family buildings and terraced houses. The percentage of 67% gives a graphical synthesis to the concept of suburban. Melbourne can be described as the most liveable city of the world because it provides a quality to what cannot properly be considered as urban. These considerations have brought about a complicated dilemma to overcome: all the main surveys concerning the liveability standards on a global scale tend to reward metropolitan areas which present housing models, mostly suburban, which experts in this field find difficulty in considering them virtuous. Melbourne appears all the more as an interesting case because it allows us to take a step forward. In 2011 a research called Liveable Melbourne, came out commissioned by The (Melbourne) Magazine, which measured the liveability standard of 314 suburbs of the town. This allows us, with all the limits of analytical data comparisons, to examine the extent of the contribution of the various parts of the metropolitan area to the general liveability. According to the research, liveability depends on the specific characteristics of places and of physical spaces in general. The debate arising from the publication of the research underlined the lack of suitable social-economic indicators. This ended up by meaning that what the places had to offer and not the expectations of the inhabitants was therefore considered more important for the measurement of liveability. Most indicators substantially indicate the proximity to an urban facility assuring liveability while the intrinsic quality of the liveability factor is never taken into consideration. The approach can however be considered acceptable when long periods are concerned, when the presence of a liveability condition is more stable and reassuring compared with more changeable criteria representing the specific service offered. At this point an inevitable question arises: «Liveability for whom?», because the complexity of the population of a metropolitan city, with its diversified needs, cannot in fact be easily considered in terms of a unique model of liveability. Kevin O’Connor, Professorial Fellow in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne, gives a metropolitan interpretation of Melbourne and rejects the long lasting prejudice according to which the development of a metropolitan area is always considered in terms of a great monocentric dependence. The key value of closeness to the city centre which appears in all analyses concerning liveability is however challenged as most of the population considers a good level of liveability dependent on the short distance of one’s working place, social relations, family and community life from one’s home. It is also just as important to consider that Greater Melbourne is an entity without administrative autonomy whose various municipalities act with considerable autonomy of competence compared with the State, but without the contribution of a metropolitan authority having the function of an intermediary government. The model suggested by O’Connor, which goes under the name of: «Five Melbournes», “divides” the metropolitan area into five sections, similar to cake slices. Each section, coinciding, broadly speaking, with the walls of the historical development of the town in correspondence with its railway lines, avails itself of metropolitan level facilities thanks to which the local inhabitants do not have to move to the other sections not only if they need to use of the most common facilities, but also for rarer services of State competence such as for example universities or hospitals. Furthermore, 60/70% of the inhabitants live and work within their residential sections and two thirds of the workers are employed in local units outside the city centre. O’Connor identifies this structure as the main framework on which to found the strategic planning of the metropolitan area. Let us go back to the question we asked at the beginning: what use should analysers, planners and decision making politicians make of the enormous quantity of statistical data, indicators, benchmarking measures, classifications of standards that exist on the international scene and in particular on the Australian one. Official Council documents and independent studies have underlined some recurring mistakes in the use of these means of research and of evaluation. However, the main difficulties in the Australian debate seem to be due to a clear underestimation of the importance to take into consideration specific social and political factors of a community when establishing how indicators and classifications can be developed and used. Only recently have research trends been formulated which give the right importance to the significant role of the participation of the people in setting up the standards of urban liveability. Selecting different types of communities in the metropolitan framework has a direct influence on the way the system of indicators is perceived and it consequently establishes the often restrictive conditions for its realization and further development. It is eventually necessary to deal with planning and with government policies which require further attention. I underline two issues in the light of Melbourne’s long strategic (metropolitan) planning experience and also of other Australian cities from which it is necessary to carry on the debate: the first concerns the importance given, in the Australian debate, to the problem of finding the best way to integrate facility indicators, benchmarking and monitoring in the decision making processes attaining to public territorial policies. In the attempt to build a strong connection between senior management and political staff, the debate openly deals with the problem of reaching a necessary, but impossible “objectivity” of our knowledge, with a not naive faith in the possibility of achieving transparency, neutrality and universality of the process which for us Italians (and Mediterranean Europeans) is inconceivable. The second issue concerns the specific planning “style” of the State of Victoria. All observers agree in attributing a greater immobility to it in conceiving modifications or operating planning changes as it has always followed an incremental approach without having the ability to actively influence future scenarios. This approach was fostered by the lack of a formal process of constant revision and improvement of a shared strategic planning which is, on the contrary, foreseen in other States. Moreover, in Melbourne, planning means have always shown a preference for efficiency goals with less public “interventionism” action on government decisions and a greater dialogue between the central State and municipalities. Sydney has instead concentrated on objectives of equity and on a more centralized policy. A more positive disciplinary interpretation associates “incrementalism” with convenient remodelling interventions and scenario changes in the existing activities. Efficient strategic planning can therefore be considered in terms of a series of patient and constant interventions in the world surrounding us, which need to go on until the initial situation completely reaches the quality aims which are believed to be acceptable. Melbourne has concentrated a great part of its planning policy and an entire political season on the liveability of its metropolitan area. These last considerations lead me to establish a comparison with the Italian case, but only at the end of this article.
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