Standing in the empty car park on top of Westfield Doncaster shopping mall on a cold, clear early morning while waiting for my car to be express serviced, I looked out to the Dandenongs to the east, the CBD to the west, the suburbs all around. I startled 20 swallows and two eastern rosellas. Melbourne lay below us (and the other Doncaster high rises), draped across the gentle rolling hills. It was a beautiful picture (mostly), appreciated by no one else.
I remember being surprised – and pleased – that Melbourne’s liveability was recognised several years ago. Being named the world’s most liveable city inevitably invites the Australian tall poppy syndrome. There’s only one way to go – down.
Now, many residents are querying whether the city is in fact becoming unliveable – citing traffic congestion, population size, multiplying high rises and government planning failures. Yet our personal international visitors invariably enthuse on discovering Melbourne’s delights on their short visits. I wonder myself now, just how ‘liveable’ Melbourne is. Do I even want to live here myself?
Melbourne as a very liveable city
Let’s put aside the ‘most liveable’ title and let’s just look at whether it is a good or very liveable city. What would make Melbourne ‘ liveable’? Remember the days when Victoria was known as the ‘garden state’? Melbourne had those beautiful tree-lined boulevards, gracious grand heritage-listed buildings, wonderful public gardens, a good (but not very reliable or comfortable) train and tram system, easy parking, excellent food, BYO restaurants, excellent widespread ethnic cuisines, great entertainment and sports events, excellent education and health facilities which all made it a great city to live in, well before it was recognised as such. The weather always held Melbourne back, but most visitors were surprised by the wonderful variety and accessibility which the city had, compared with its drab, damp, grey reputation.
Melbourne as an unliveable city
One problem with the view above is that it really ever only applied to inner Melbourne –the CBD and the perhaps next 10-15 kms around. Basically the areas with good public transport and which had been planned and built in the early days. People who lived in outer suburbs had a very different view of Melbourne’s liveability, even at that time.
Now, with the influx of huge numbers of foreign students (education is one of Australia’s top export industries), the privatisation of major public land areas (Southbank, Docklands, Pt Melbourne ), the (constant) changing of planning regulations, VCAT’s capture by property developers, the resultant rapid increase in high rise buildings throughout the whole of Melbourne, lack of any significant public transport infrastructure apart from freeways, the decline of the public school system, increased waiting times in medical facilities, liveability has declined.
It’s difficult to get around (Grattan Institute just showed it is as hard to get around Melbourne as in oft-criticised Sydney), public transport – though much more reliable than in the past – is quite crowded, cars line every street, parking is difficult and costly, heritage buildings and green areas are being demolished rapidly regardless of planning regulations, governments refuse to take long term decisions. The rapid influx of foreigners, whether students, backpackers, immigrants, tourists or refugees, coming for a multitude of different and good reasons, make ‘Melbourne’ not the ‘Melbourne’ it used to be. And, while recognising the need for significant change over time for all places, nor is it the ‘Melbourne’ I’d like it to be. I have seriously begun to think about moving away, to somewhere more liveable.
So which is it – very liveable or unliveable?
The ‘answer’ depends on your context. If you live in the inner city and liked the ‘old’ Melbourne, liveability has clearly declined.
If you are young and living in the inner areas, you probably enjoy the increased ‘buzz’ of the new CBD – full of people, lanes, buskers, graffiti, eating on the streets, festivals, late nights, wonderful varieties of everything from all over the world, you can enjoy it all, perhaps living in one of those high rises I despise.
If you’re a foreigner, you probably only experience the inner city and perhaps the tourist attractions and I imagine you find it all pretty attractive, because locals’ views of traffic densities and public transport difficulties are based on comparisons with a bygone past. Melbourne traffic is nothing compared to much of the rest of the world. For you, this is indeed a great, liveable city to visit.
If you’re from an outer suburb, you probably find it very difficult now to access the CBD areas and maybe you don’t even bother. Most people live their lives in a segment of a city, not the whole city. Shopping malls and suburban centres mean much of what you want (except good jobs and international sports and entertainment) are available locally. You probably don’t care about the ‘Melbourne’ that the ‘liveable city’ debate is discussing, apart from trying to travel to it or through it (perhaps to get to the unliveable airport…).
So the ‘losers’ in Melbourne are those relatively rich people living in the CBD or inner suburbs whose genteel, relaxed, environmentally attractive life styles are being rapidly changed, for the benefit of everyone else (yes, that covers me)…except for the ‘other’ Melburnians – those living in the outer suburbs for whom life is getting worse or more segregated. But they never felt Melbourne was very liveable in the first place…
Is ‘Melbourne’ really ‘Melbourne’?
When I go into the CBD, I feel I’m in a homogenised global city. I no longer feel I belong, that this is ‘my’ city. I could be anywhere in the world. So why would people bother to come here…or go there…? Same shops, same food, same music, same entertainment, same Internet. Even the weather is being air-conned into same, at least inside buildings.
‘Melbourne’ has lost its uniqueness. It’s gone for the dollar over the social, cultural and ecological environment. Melbourne has been headed down the global road by its governments, its planners. The direction is not easily changed. These things take eons to play out. We’ll discover too late that we are on the wrong track. Unfortunately, we don’t have the wisdom, courage or leadership to turn back, even if we could see and acknowledge the errors of our ways.
I never thought I’d see the beauty of Melbourne from the Westfield Doncaster car park. I don’t imagine the swallows or rosellas will survive long there in their concrete habitat. But my car was serviced in an hour. I can drive again…