Livable communities and resilient cities are buzzwords of the moment. But exactly how do you define a “livable” community or city? Our research focuses on this exact question.
In an extensive review of livability definitions used in academic and grey literature in Australia and internationally, we found some consistent factors. Critical factors for livable communities are the following:
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 livable 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.
Livability Requires Broad Wellbeing
We live in an urbanizing world. Cities are increasing in prominence as major social and economic hubs. For such cities, livability 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 livable city”. A key question is: livable 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 livability 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.
We are creating livability 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 livability indicators is a key component of our research at the NHMRC Center of Research Excellence in Healthy Livable 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, livability indicators developed through our research are made freely available to all members of the community through Community Indicators Victoria. This supports the democratization 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 livability. 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 livable community. It is a place that promotes healthy and happy people and community wellbeing—a place where people want to live.
A more livable city is a great place to live. It is more resilient as well, with competitive social, economic, and environmental advantages. Using our definition, a livable 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.
Melanie Davern, Senior Research Fellow and Director Community Indicators Victoria, University of Melbourne; Billie Giles-Corti, Professor of Health Promotion & Director McCaughey VicHealth Centre, University of Melbourne; Carolyn Whitzman, Professor of Urban Planning, University of Melbourne, and Hannah Badland, Senior Research Fellow, McCaughey VicHealth Community Wellbeing Unit, Centre of Health Equity, University of Melbourne