By Mark Bruzzone*
The concept of ‘liveable cities’ has become an increasingly used term when talking about planning and designing urban areas.
The desire to tackle challenges such as population growth, climate change, urban sprawl and natural disasters whilst delivering a high quality of sustainable living for Australians has become a key objective of both public and private organisations.
With tightening public budgets expected for the next few years, it is critical to ensure that all spending on our cities and urban regions is directed to the issues that matter the most and those which will have real impact on how we live and prosper as a nation.
By definition liveable cities offer a high quality of life, and support the health and wellbeing of the people who live and work in them.
Given that huge amounts of resources and time are being invested into developing our urban areas, it is crucial to understand what Australians themselves consider as important when choosing where to live and work.
In order to ensure that, as a country, we are integrating what Australians want and need into our plans for the future, MWH Global recently commissioned a piece of independent research of households around Australia to explore attitudes and priorities with regard to what makes cities ‘liveable’. The results were fascinating.
Back to basics
The survey, of more than 1,000 people, found that what Australians most care about when choosing where to live is access to healthcare, followed by employment and essential services such as police and ambulance.
It’s interesting that despite the rise of technology and evolution of culture which have created a highly sophisticated society in many ways, it’s actually the basic needs such as being healthy, secure and safe that matter more to Australians than lifestyle considerations.
In terms of infrastructure, the most important element Australians value when choosing the city, town or suburb they want to live in is water. Water rated higher than electricity, roads or sewage.
The research found that 76 per cent of Australians value water supporting infrastructure more than sewage supporting infrastructure, while 69 per cent value water more than roads and 55 per cent value water more than electricity.
Across Australia, there were some state differences in key priorities in choosing where to live.
For example, those in NSW were more likely to include employment and culture in their top three aspects, those from Victoria and South Australia gave a higher priority to environment, Queenslanders were more likely to name essential services as a top priority, and those in Western Australia were more likely to rank education as a key aspect in choosing where to live.
Further, those living in cities were more likely to rank aesthetics in their top three most important things to have. Those living in remote areas were more likely to rank education higher.
Big smoke versus the bush
The research found that the key drivers motivating people to live in cities and regional centres are fairly similar, with having access to essential services and amenities (65 per cent), being in close proximity to family and friends (58 per cent) and job opportunities (52 per cent) ranked as the most important drivers.
Australians living in rural or remote areas identified better transport links (57 per cent), better access to healthcare (53 per cent), more opportunities for work (46 per cent) and proximity to family and friends (45 per cent) as important factors which would improve their quality of life.
The key themes of access and proximity suggest that wherever they live, Australians value the ability to quickly and easily get to what they need, whether it’s a trip to the doctor, getting to work in the morning or visiting friends and family.
Not surprisingly, over 90 per cent consider high quality roads as an important priority in choosing where they want to live.
In terms of where people want to live, Australia is an overwhelmingly urban nation, with 48 per cent of people saying that in an ideal world they would choose to live in an urban major city or outskirts.
However, there’s clearly an element of ‘the grass is greener’, with four in ten city dwellers wanting to live in a regional, rural or remote area.
It seems that money may be a crucial factor preventing those considering an escape to the country, with 51 per cent of urban residents concerned that their income would fall if they relocated out of a major city.
With over half (57 per cent) of people willing to move to an area that provides them a higher quality of living, getting the basics right will be hugely important to maintain and enhance thriving communities across our nation.
The lesson for regional government is to tackle the basic services such as healthcare, jobs and infrastructure in order to meet the needs of existing residents, and to encourage new potential residents to make the move.
The importance of water
Understandably for a country where it’s often a limited resource, water was ranked as the most important infrastructure need in choosing where to live, followed by electricity and roads.
The survey found that water issues are an important part of what makes a liveable place, with 9 in 10 indicating that water management is vital in the place they live, in particularly those living in cities (94 per cent).
Interestingly, there is still a major stigma associated with drinking recycled water, with almost two thirds of Australians (64 per cent) willing to pay a 10 per cent premium to have drinking water without recycled sewage in the network.
Education around both the necessity and safety of different water supplies is a high priority in order to ensure we are able to maintain a sustainable water supply.
The research did show that most Australians would drink rainwater harvested from their roofs. A key design aspect of our future cities will be to ensure that we maximise the fit-for-purpose use of all of the different available sources of water within the catchment.
Collecting rainwater, stormwater, grey water and recycled water and using these in fit-for-purpose applications will maximise efficient water use and minimise demand on fresh water drinking supplies.
Aside from drinking water, the research demonstrated that people place a real value on the cultural aspects of water for activities such as for recreation. While utilities and regulators rightly place public health as of utmost importance, other factors should be elevated as well.
We also investigated what people are looking for in the future of our cities. Access to safe tap water for drinking was ranked as the most important aspect of where people will live in 30 years, highlighting the need to ensure that quality water and supporting infrastructure is available now and into the future.
Tackling transport problems
Getting public transport right is a very important part of creating liveable cities. People want to live closer to work so they have a choice of transport modes (buses, trains, cycle, walkways, and roads).
However, our cities have historically sprawled to maintain affordability, and the cost of supplying public transport increases as a result.
Poor urban planning can inevitably create segments of disadvantaged communities. Those on the fringe are often shackled by a lack of transport choice, shops, childcare and healthcare. The way we connect our communities to services is critical in creating liveable communities.
The research found that while 54 per cent believe they get good value from the public money spent on roads in their local area, nearly all Australians (91 per cent) believe that road networks will need to be maintained and operated efficiently to make an area liveable.
If there was public transport within one kilometre of where Australians live and work, 77 per cent would actually use it. Those living in cities are more likely to agree (81 per cent).
In our regional areas where access to funding is limited and the majority of wear and tear on roads is created by passers-by, road safety and maintenance is often low on the priority list of allocating public funds.
Federal government grants such as the Blackspot Program are one way local councils can access funds to improve the overall safety of our roads.
When asked what they believe government spending priorities should be, Australians placed healthcare (17 per cent), essential services such as fire and police (13 per cent) and education (12 per cent) as top budget items. Ranked fourth was water; with a similar proportion to roads and electricity, but a higher spend than sewage, environment, aesthetics or culture.
In terms of their own water bills, Australians identified upkeep of pipes (61 per cent), cost of water supply sources (57 per cent) and cost of filtering water (54 per cent) as the top three priorities for water payment.
An overwhelming 81 per cent of Australians believe road safety should have higher funding priority. Those living in regional areas (86 per cent) are more likely to believe road safety should have higher funding priority than those living in the cities and remote areas.
Understanding community priorities for infrastructure spend and balancing this with funds available is the critical task for regional government.
The ability to identify changing community expectations, understand customer and community values and accordingly adjust service is a major challenge but is what will enable us to deliver sustainable, liveable cities that maintain, attract and meet the needs of Australians now and in the future.
The task ahead
The research findings present significant implications for tackling the challenges of urban planning.
For the first time, we have a clear picture of what Australians want from their cities, which is a valuable tool for planning and prioritising resources for the future.
In light of challenges such as increasing natural disasters, climate change and population growth, governments needs to take a long-term approach in order to build a more sustainable environment for people to live in.
This coupled with delivering the services and amenities most valued by Australians, should be at the heart of urban planning.
This is a joint task for government, councils, state departments and service providers as we seek to design resilient communities and cities for the future.
*Mark Bruzzone is Managing Director, Government and Infrastructure Australia, MWH Global.
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