Who decides what a “liveable city” means – and how can Australia achieve it?

The world's most liveable city? St Kilda's Habour, Melbourne. Image: Getty.

Australia's prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has just created a new ministry for cities and the built environment. Announcing his decision last month, he said:

Liveable, vibrant cities are absolutely critical to our prosperity. (They are) where the bulk of our economic growth can be found... (and they are) economic assets. (M)aking sure that Australia is a wonderful place to live in, that our cities and indeed our regional centres are wonderful places to live, is an absolutely key priority of every level of government. Because the most valuable capital in the world today is not financial capital... (it’s) human capital.

While the question of what is a “liveable city” inspires endless debate, less thought has been given to making urban planning a more democratic process.

Natural evolution and the birth of urban planning

In the 18th century, one of London’s pioneer police magistrates, Henry Fielding, strove to keep the streets of the city clear of crime and vice. But in the course of his work Fielding also went out of his way to help prostitutes and petty criminals. He understood that the city was made up of all sorts of people with different values and cultures.

Fielding was living in a period when London was experiencing a population boom, going from just over 500,000 in 1700 to 900,000 in the 1801 census. He was interested in making London a liveable city – although the term would have been anachronistic to him. Yet it appears almost ubiquitous in contemporary policymaking, urban planning and in the public imagination.

Today, 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in cities, which have historically drawn people from myriad economic, social and cultural backgrounds. Cities have always been places of integration, intense population pressures, migration flows, cultural interactions and variations in socioeconomic positioning and values. A liveable city has become the highest form of praise we can give to a city space. 

But liveable for whom? The implication is that ordinary people should be able to inhabit cities. Yet how governments generate affordable housing, and even who is allowed to have a say in the planning and development of a city, is often badly developed.

Where does democracy fit in?

Is a liveable city a democratic city? Who gets to participate in the process of governing and shaping a city?

In the early 20th century, modern cities were thought to evolve according to “natural” processes, combining migration, growth and the urban form. Urban sociologists from the Chicago School outlined how cities evolved like living social organisms balancing conflict and co-operation, density, heterogeneity and tolerance.

Ernest Burgess even suggested that the very form of the modern city developed in predictable fashion as a set of “concentric rings”, with production and workers’ cottages in a singular inner centre and more affluent suburbs at the extremities.

A failure to plan contributes to urban sprawl as cities spread along major highways. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Remi Jouan, CC BY-SA.

Such ideas have given way to a more complex depiction of post-modern cities, incorporating multiple or absenct centres, historical communities, development interests and urban planning. Urban planning is seen as an essential technical science: a failure to plan is associated with dystopian images of suburban sprawl, of the “exopolis” without facilities or a civic centre, or of “edge cities” growing like lichen along the intersections of major highways.

Appropriate planning is aimed at building the best cities to enhance quality of life and attract the elite of the global workforce. Australia strives to find a formula for the most liveable city and potentially top the EIU’s Global Liveability Ranking (which Melbourne achieved in 2015).

Urban planners today explore how cities can be sustainable, and how a continuous food and water supply can be ensured. But they also deal with concerns about over-population, migration and what happens when poverty is concentrated in certain areas, which can increase the potential for crime.

Cities as economic sites or liveable places

Soon after his appointment, the new cities minister, Jamie Briggs, conveyed his vision of cities as economic sites:

Cities are one of the great drivers of our economy. Most Australians live in our cities and the majority of businesses are based in or around them. They are the engine room of commerce, infrastructure, innovation, the arts, science and development.


While it’s true that historically people have been drawn to cities because of the economic opportunities they offered, such claims disguise both the difficulties for urban migrants and environments that economic opportunities have created, as well as the negative implications for those remaining in rural areas.

A focus on the city as an economic space can lose sight of how cities are made liveable

Before 1871, migrants from across France settled in Paris as a consequence of its economic opportunities and political importance. The social disconnection implicit in such movement became evident in Emile Durkheim’s 1897 study of French suicide rates and the breakdown in traditional forms of social solidarity.

Migration also played out broader social inequalities across the nation in urban space. People grouped in neighbourhoods based on shared languages and dialects that related to their home regions. Within those districts, rich and poor shared the same buildings, their wealth demarcated by their positioning in the building.

Perhaps this was better for social integration than many modern environments – but a focus on the city as an economic space can lose sight of how cities are made liveable. Social relationships are key to central ideas of safety, belonging and ownership.

In 1903, Georg Simmel described the metropolis as a blasé, rationalised space that alienates people from people and feelings, in that:

… punctuality, calculability, exactness are forced upon life by the complexity and extension of metropolitan existence.

Sixty years later, however, Jane Jacobs defended the city as a myriad of communities in that:

… the trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts.

So what makes the ideal Australian city?

Liveable cities like Melbourne pay attention to the aesthetic and human qualities of urban space. Image: AAP/David Crosling.

Is it Canberra, which divides public opinion with its low density, its roundabouts and planned streets? Is it Sydney or Melbourne, with their high-density cultural vibrancy? Or is it the small country towns, which often appear communal in ways larger cities do not?

We often think of the attachment we have towards cities in emotional terms; we love or hate a place, we feel comfortable or settled in some spaces but not in others. We instinctively speak about cities in terms of their emotional impact on our lives.

Even Wordsworth, renowned for his love of nature and solitude, spoke of his emotional attachment to the city. Reflecting on his first sight of London, he wrote:

A weight of ages did at once descend

Upon my heart – no thought embodied, no

Distinct remembrances, but weight and power,

Power growing with the weight…

For Wordsworth, as for others then and now, the city inspired a complex set of emotions.

What the new ministry needs to do

First, it needs to recognise the cultural, aesthetic and emotional elements of cities. It needs to acknowledge the importance of cultural activity ahead of the pursuit of commerce and the idea of cities as “economic assets”.

The aesthetic qualities of space are crucial to the notion of a liveable city. These became important in the 18th century with a growing appreciation of the ways that environment shaped the self and emotional behaviours.

To produce “civilised” behaviours in their populace, urban planners laid out wide streets, introduced sewage systems and flowing water, added street lamps and began to police both the behaviour and cleanliness of the urban environment. This was not just about practical benefits to the population, but reflected a strong belief that surrounding yourself with beauty enabled people to be better versions of themselves.

The people of Copenhagen still benefit from the city’s 18th-century reforms. Image: AAP/Visit Denmark.

Such ideas remain important to the present. Historians of emotions spend a lot of time thinking about how cities and spaces create emotions, historically but with implications for modern spaces. Urban planning (or its lack) can produce emotions in inhabitants, whether that is the disgust at poor sewage and disease that inspired reform in 18th-century Copenhagen or 20th-century Sydney, the anger and tensions caused by ghettoisation of minority groups, or the political unrest caused by poor housing and overcrowding.

Perhaps most famously, cities have provided “outcast” individuals, such as gay men and lesbians, with a space to create a community, to find affirmation of their feelings and to build pride and political identity. A narrow focus on the city as a driver of the economic, without an appreciation of how the urban shapes those who live within it, can act as a challenge to social stability and personal wellbeing.

Historically, the use of space in cities has been a matter of pride, displaying important cultural and architectural landmarks, but also an issue of public health and safety, preventing the spread of diseases, fires and crime. Our historical knowledge of cities can be enormously helpful in informing current ideas about city planning by showing how people have reacted emotionally to city spaces in the past.

The answer to the question of what makes a city liveable is complex and constantly evolving. Because of this, we should be insisting on answers about what will be happening to Australia’s cities in the next few decades.The Conversation

This article was co-written by several Australia-based contributors to The Conversation. Merridee L. Bailey, Senior Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions; Amy Milka, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions; Craig Lyons, MSc Candidate in Human Geography, School of Geosciences, University of Sydney; David Lemmings, Professor of History; Gordon Raeburn, Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Emotions, University of Melbourne; Katie Barclay, Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions; Roger Patulny, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Wollongong, and Thomas Bristow, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

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


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.