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.

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.