(Image: AAP/Paul Braven)

It’s that time of year again. Last week The Economist‘s annual “global liveability index” named Melbourne and Sydney, respectively, the second and third most liveable cities in the world. Vienna took out the top spot.

However, one day earlier, these same cities were ranked only 23rd and 24th on a “generation Z liveability index”, after last year placing 21st and 24th on the “best millennial cities index”. Compiled by renting platform Nestpick, these studies determine which cities best match the values and interests of young people.

While ranking 20-odd out of 110 cities is respectable, the question remains: why are our cities so much less liveable for youth?

Liveable for whom?

There are more than 500 indexes that rank global cities, ranging from well-respected methodologies of life-quality indicators, to business-focus rankings to ones based solely on the number of dog attacks on postal workers. The Economist’s “global liveability index” is the most widely publicised, but it largely caters to professional expats. As Matt Holden writes, the index “was originally developed to figure out how much hardship money you’d need to pay an executive you were going to post to some far-flung outpost”.

Consequently, it really ranks inner-Melbourne and inner-Sydney, where many wealthy globetrotters reside. Privileged criteria include the quality of private schools but not public ones, and the quality of housing but not its affordability — which suits Australia’s inner ‘burbs just fine.

But the list largely ignores the experiences of those more than a few train stops from the CBD. This is particularly unhelpful for young people, who increasingly must choose between perpetually renting in suburbs proximal to work, loved ones and amenities, or moving to urban fringes to afford to buy a home.

These (barely) affordable outer suburbs, growing rapidly as young families flock, suffer inadequate social and transport infrastructure including fewer and poorer quality schools, hospitals, cultural and entertainment venues, public spaces and parks.

Our lauded “liveability” ends where the bulk of auctions begin.

Fortress suburbia

Why is our “liveability” so concentrated? Partly because of governments’ delayed vital investments in growing areas. But as Grattan Institute and the Reserve Bank have shown, planning rules have also allowed wealthy inner-suburban communities to hoard quality infrastructure and amenities by rejecting new building proposals and locking out young buyers.

But rampant NIMBYism has gone beyond preserving community character and is now blocking reasonable access for young buyers who, unable to buy in well-equipped suburbs, spill over into neglected areas. For instance, the NSW government’s “missing middle” policy to encourage residents to subdivide lots was so heavily resisted that temporary exemptions were granted to wealthy suburbs. NIMBYs in one exempted suburb, Mosman, have now hired a PR company to fight a proposed Woolies.

NSW Labor’s planning spokesman Adam Searle nailed the issue on Sunday, claiming that some councils in affluent areas adopted a “we’re full” approach, which “simply shifts the pressure for housing and other development elsewhere”.

No wonder we got average scores on the gen Z index; the index factors in whether city planners “have shown initiative to act on the demands of previous young generations such as millennials and generation X”.

Yes in my backyard

Earlier this year, I visited long-time anti-development activist Mary Drost OAM in her supremely liveable Melbourne suburb of Camberwell. Drost leads Planning Backlash, a network of over 300 local resident groups across Victoria.

“One by one, all these old houses will be gone,” Drost said wistfully. “They replace these beautiful old homes with new McMansions. It makes me sick.”

I couldn’t help but admire Drost’s passion for the look and feel of her streets. The true value of our cities cannot be expressed in dollars. But for the sake of my generation, something has to give. As Grattan Institute’s Brendan Coates and John Daley wrote, “Either people accept greater density in their suburb, or their children will not be able to buy a home”.

We passed a backyard tennis court slated for subdivision at the owner’s behest. Drost had submitted a challenge to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to prevent the development. Arguably, private tennis courts are the exact kind of urban space we should encourage owners to convert into dwellings if we are to equitably grow our housing supply.

If we don’t, buyers will continue to spill over into communities like Heidelberg West, a few blocks from my home. Once dubbed “the Bronx of Melbourne”, it is the kind of community that can only dream of having “too many McMansions”.

Entire new streets of “concrete slabs” have been developed there on subdivided blocks, largely catering to middle-class buyers priced out of other areas. Some find the prevailing style unattractive, but residents can’t be picky — and they don’t have the money to hire PR companies to campaign on their behalf.

We should focus less on inconsequential disparities between global cities and focus more on the growing disparities within our cities. Until we do, young people will be forced further afield, and our celebrated liveability will be hoarded by the lucky few.

Peter Fray

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