Forget Rio: it's time for the urban Liveability Olympics

Will Melbourne win the gold for most liveable city for a sixth year running? Image: Getty.

Influenced by the Rio Olympics, I am really proud that the City of Melbourne is going to win the equivalent of a silver (or maybe bronze) medal in the 2016 Economist Global Livability Ranking. Actually, if the 2015 rankings are anything to go by, then Adelaide, Sydney and Perth will also be in the top ten.

Melbourne has come to expect the gold, having been ranked the world’s most liveable city for the past five years in a row. But my RMIT University colleague, Michael Buxton argues that the city may have blown its chances in 2016. A number of issues would explain a drop in the ranking – traffic congestion, long commutes, poorly performing public transport and the growth of high-rise apartments among them. Throw in the homelessness problem and the fact that few young people can afford to buy a house in the city, and Melbourne may have a lot of work to do to regain the top ranking.

Does it really matter?

Maybe we should just ignore the new ranking. I argued a year ago that the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) ranking is not about liveability at all, but is designed to help the human resource managers for transnational corporations determine the compensation paid to their mobile global talent. The ranking tells you very little about living as a local in Melbourne, especially if you don’t have a whole lot of money.

There are other rankings out there that we already ignore. These include Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking, in which Melbourne ranked 15th in 2016. There is Monocle magazine’s Quality of Life Survey, where Melbourne dropped from fourth in 2015 to sixth in 2016. The Monocle reviewers' comment on Melbourne’s drop was that “clever housing solutions are still needed!”

Here is how the rankings compare. Vienna is the clear winner with a strong showing in all three rankings. But hats off to Sydney, the only Australian city to be ranked in the top ten by Mercer, Monocle and EIU.

Principles of Olympism

Perhaps it would be better, however, if we came up with a ranking of our own. So again, taking the Rio Olympics as inspiration, I propose a totally new city ranking – the Liveability Olympics Ranking.

I have the impression I am not alone in feeling somewhat disconcerted by the scenes in the run-up to the Rio Olympics when protesters threw themselves in front of the Olympic torchbearers. There is a concern in segments of the Rio population, in Brazil and more widely, that the Olympics bring few benefits to the locals.

John Oliver tapped into this concern in his sketch on the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil when he explained how he was both excited and conflicted about this event.

John Oliver airs his conflicted feelings about global sport mega-events.

The fundamental problem is that these mega-events put too much strain on cities and divert resources from where they are needed. They are just a major corporatised sales event for big companies and a bucket-list experience for the globe-trotting privileged.

Susan Fainstein raised this issue with respect to the 2012 London Olympics when she argued that:

...the huge expenditure involved took away resources from other parts of London and the country more widely without providing them any benefits beyond the glory of hosting the Games.

No matter how much we love the Olympics and how much pleasure we gain seeing our team win, shouldn’t we question the value of these games for the city (or country) that hosts them? Wouldn’t the money be better spent solving problems facing the host city?

What if, for example, Rio used the money to upgrade the informal settlements (slums)? It is estimated that close to 1.5m people live in the Rio favelas – around 24 per cent of the city population. Wouldn’t that be more in line with the Olympian emphasis on universal ethical principles?

It has also been argued that the very nature of these mega-projects may mean few cities are capable of, or interested in, hosting the winter and summer Olympics. This relates in part to the fact that research shows that the economic assessments underpinning past Olympics have been flawed. They just don’t bring local economic benefits on the scale predicted.

There is also the problem of what happens to Olympic (or World Cup) facilities after the event. Some are under-utilised and eventually fall into disrepair.

Jeux Sans Frontières

Perhaps as we move forward there will be more calls for the transformation of the Olympics away from the current model. Recalling Peter Gabriel’s 1979 song, Games without Frontiers (Jeux Sans Frontières), I would like to suggest that rather than cities competing to host the Olympics, we should promote a global competition between cities. After all, town planning was an Olympic event in the 1928, 1932, 1936 and 1948 games.

The video for Peter Gabriel’s Games without Frontiers carries references to the Olympics.

How would this work? It is pretty simple really. Instead of volleyball, swimming, athletics, gymnastics and so on, cities would compete on hunger, poverty, unemployment, affordable housing, homelessness, crime, drugs, public transport, renewable energy, cycle-friendliness, traffic congestion and many more.

So we could have the situation where Melbourne works on and eventually wins the gold medal for its outstanding efforts to reduce homelessness. Or a gold medal could be awarded to the athletes who record the best time racing across a city by public transport. To compete fairly, cities need to be drug-free (or legalised drugs only).

At the end of the day, we have to question why we neglect problems in our cities while we invest huge resources every four years in the Olympics or World Cup. Hey, I love the Olympics and World Cup just as much as you do – but the way we organise these games just seems badly broken.

Brendan Barrett is a research fellow and research coordinator in the UN Global Compact Cities Programme at RMIT University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The video for Peter Gabriel’s Games without Frontiers carries references to the Olympics.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.