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Promoting the liveable city

The Landscape Institute is making ‘liveable cities’ one of its main campaigning platforms, because the topic encapsulates so much of what landscape professionals can offer to the public. But what exactly are they, and who is doing them well?

The concept of ‘liveable cities’ is not new. There is a growing body of research that is experimenting with new methodologies for analysing cities in terms of their liveability, and pioneering people-focused urban planning and design projects. This research is providing a new way to frame discussions about what a 21st Century city should be and informing not just practice and education, but also policy making. The idea of liveable cities should mark a new remit for the built environment – a people-focused remit centred around improving quality of life.

Liveable cities are not the preserve of one discipline, but require a multidisciplinary approach to city building that is driven by a fundamental concern for life at the human scale. By 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. More than ever before, it is the liveable cities that will be globally competitive.

Where does the idea come from?
The concept of liveable cities has been made popular by annual lists or rankings of the ‘world’s most liveable cities’. The most well-known of these are produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Forbes and Monocle. In addition, some of the ideas around liveable cities have been adopted by organisations as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. These include Philips’ Livable Cities Award, Siemens’ Sustainable Communities Awards and IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenges.

Each applies its own criteria. Rankings such as EIU and Forbes base their assessment largely on crime rates, health statistics, sanitation standards, expenditure on city services, unemployment, income growth and cost of living. Monocle has in the past defined its highest ranking cities as: ‘Places that are benchmarks for urban renaissance and rigorous reinvention in everything from environmental policy to transport’.

This final definition perhaps gets closer to what the International Making Cities Livable Council (IMCL) intended when it reportedly coined the term ‘liveable cities’ in the 1980s. For the IMCL, liveable cities should do more than just provide good living standards. They should provide good quality of life. It says: ‘Once fundamental health and safety is achieved, standard of living issues are not directly correlated with happiness, with a sense that life is meaningful, that we are of value to others, and that there is much to be discovered and celebrated in the human and physical world around us. These are important aspects of quality of life and are profoundly influenced by the built environment – is by a city’s livability.’

For the IMCL, a city’s liveability is clearly brought into focus when considering the needs of the most vulnerable members of society: children, elders, and those who are economically or socially marginalised. This sentiment chimes with the Healthy Cities movement, which originated in Toronto, Canada in 1984 and led to the World Health Organisation’s Healthy Cities Symposium two years later. Professor Yvonne Ridin, who led UCL’s Lancet Commission on Healthy Cities2 has said that, while cities have the potential to be healthier places for their citizens, this requires active planning, as ‘economic growth cannot be assumed to lift all urban citizens into a zone of better health’. The same might be said for liveability.

But ‘liveability’ as a term remains difficult to define. Researchers at Community Research Connections at Royal Roads University closely examined the city of Vancouver, which regularly ranks in the top ten of the world’s most liveable cities. For some, they said, liveability is intrinsically tied to physical amenities such as parks and green space. For others it is tied to cultural offerings, career opportunities, economic dynamism, or some degree of reasonable safety within which to raise a family. Perhaps most interesting of all, where liveability is linked to sustainability and infrastructure issues, it is normally as an alternative development model to the expansion of sprawling suburbs with low densities of both population and services, and where infrastructure provision is costly to ecological, economic, and social capital.

Defining liveable cities
What all of these various approaches have in common is that they see the city as a set of interconnected relationships that can be planned, designed and managed, so as to deliver outcomes that enhance quality of life. The fact that the characteristics of liveability can vary from city to city means that liveability should be regarded as policy of participation and inclusive planning, rather than any preset physical infrastructure goals. A liveable city, then, is a destination that we should always strive to arrive at. It is a lens through which any 21st-century review of a city’s built environment should be undertaken, because it starts with the needs of the people who live in it.

Case studies:
Liveable city initiatives

A wide variety of research bodies, local and national governments are already investing in programmes aimed at either establishing a methodology for the liveable city concept or improving liveability through people-focused urban development projects.

Liveable Cities, UK
This project is a collaboration between UCL, Birmingham University, Southampton University, Lancaster University and EPSRC. It is a five-year programme of research to ‘create a holistic, integrated, truly multidisciplinary city analysis methodology, which uniquely integrates wellbeing indicators, is founded on an evidence base of trials of radical interventions in cities, and delivers the realistic and radical engineering solutions necessary to achieve our visions’.

Liveable Cities is supported by about 35 academic researchers and some 90 multidisciplinary expert panellists from academia, public, private and not-for-profit organisations. It is exploring eight research themes: city analysis framework; resources; wellbeing; ecosystem services; energy; economic viability; policy and governance; and future visions. The authors hope to create a framework that they will then use to develop realistic solutions for achieving the UK’s carbon reduction targets and test them in three cities – Birmingham, Lancaster and Southampton.

The Liveable Cities Programme, Australia
In Our Cities, Australia’s Department of Infrastructure and Transport defines liveable cities as: ‘Cities that offer a high quality of life, and support the health and wellbeing of the people who live and work in them. Liveable cities are socially inclusive, affordable, accessible, healthy and safe. They also feature attractive built and natural environments. Liveable cities provide choice and opportunity for people to live their lives, and raise their families, to their
fullest potential.’

The Liveable Cities Programme is part of the Australian government’s National Urban Policy, which targets more effective planning and design, and efficient use of new and existing infrastructure, in 18 of the country’s capital and major regional cities. The AU$20m programme from 2011–13 has been developed to meet the challenges of supporting quality of life in these cities. It is supporting the development of demonstration projects that drive strategic urban development which contributes to improving productivity, sustainability and liveability in its cities. Approximately 21 projects are currently under way across the country and the aim is that these will provide lessons in achieving good planning outcomes that can then be applied in other cities.

Monash Water for Liveability
Australia’s Monash University is undertaking research to provide the evidence needed to formulate a policy blueprint for Water Sensitive Australian Cities. It hopes that Monash Water for Liveability Centre will play a pivotal role in transforming Australian cities to become resilient to current and future challenges. The Centre sees water-sensitive urban design as not only a means to facilitate liveable cities, but also as necessary for adapting urban environments to climate change and population growth.

Singapore’s Ten Point Plan for the Liveable City
Singapore is the world’s third densest city. In 2008, the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) was set up based on a strategic blueprint developed by Singapore’s Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development. The CLC’s goal is to share knowledge on liveable and sustainable cities and, early last year, it distilled the success of Singapore’s ‘people first’ approach in 10 Points for Livable High Density Cities: Lessons from Singapore 5. These ten points are intended to trigger ideas with city planners, developers and dwellers about what they want from their city.

Plan for long-term growth and renewal
A combination of long-term planning, responsive land policies, development control and good design has enabled Singapore to have dense developments that do not feel overly crowded, and are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Embrace diversity, foster inclusiveness
Density and diversity work in Singapore because there has always been a focus on creating a sense of inclusiveness through encouraging greater interaction.

Draw nature closer to people
Nearly half of Singapore is now under green cover, which is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also improves the air quality and mitigates heat from the tropical sun.

Develop affordable, mixed-use neighbourhoods
The ease of living in a compact neighbourhood that is relatively self-contained can add to the pleasure of city living. With density, it becomes more cost effective to provide common amenities. Neighbourhoods in Singapore’s new towns have a mix of public and private developments that are served with a full range of facilities that are easy to access and generally affordable.

Make public spaces work harder
Singapore has sought to maximize the potential of dormant spaces by unlocking them for commercial and leisure activities. The idea is to make all space, including infrastructural spaces, serve multiple uses and users.

Prioritise green transport and building options
Singapore has adopted a resource-conscious growth strategy that relies on planning, design and the use of low-energy environmental systems for its buildings. It has also developed an efficient public transport system and well-connected walkways to give city dwellers transport alternatives to driving.

Relieve density with variety and add green boundaries
Singapore intersperses high-rise with low-rise buildings, creating a skyline with more character and reducing the sense of being in a crowded space.

Activate spaces for greater safety
As Singapore became denser, designs of high-rise public housing estates were modified to improve the ‘visual access’ to spaces, so the community can collectively be the ‘eyes on the street’, helping to keep neighbourhoods safe.

Promote innovative and non-conventional solutions
To ensure it had sufficient water, Singapore developed reclaimed water under the brand name NEWater to drinking and industrial standards.

Forge ‘3P’ (people, public, private) partnerships
The city government and all stakeholders need to work together to ensure they are not taking actions that would reduce the quality of life for others. The Urban Redevelopment Authority launched the Singapore River ONE partnership to get the various stakeholders to feel a stronger ownership of Singapore River, so that social and economic activity in the precinct would be developed in a coordinated and sustainable manner.

San Francisco’s Liveable City
Liveable City is a 40-year plan to shift travel in San Francisco away from cars to walking, cycling and public transport. This shift will also support complementary land use, so that public spaces are revitalised and well-maintained, walkability is integrated into neighbourhood plans, street and corridor projects, and there is more affordable housing stock in accessible locations.

The Liveable City group works with other pedestrian advocacy groups, including Walk San Francisco and Senior Action Network, to advocate better planning, design, traffic management, education, and enforcement to improve pedestrian safety and promote walking in San Francisco. It also aims to create a bold cycling plan for the city that will facilitate an increase in the number of trips made by bicycle from 3–5 per cent to 10 per cent by 2015.

While principally about using transport reform to make San Francisco more liveable, the programme’s goals share sustainable development objectives, for example, by lessening the impact of transportation on the environment and by promoting compact and mixed-use development that minimises the distance and cost of transport. It also supports the integration of more green infrastructure as the city’s transportation system is redesigned.

Bogotá’s Urban Happiness movement ‘A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both,’ says Bogota’s former mayor Enrique Peñalosa. Peñalosa’s Urban Happiness movement promoted a city model that gave priority to children and public spaces over the car. He set up a separate team outside of his administration to design, implement and manage a new transport infrastructure that would ultimately change the city.

Two particular transport initiatives have had significant effects on the city’s liveability. Bogotá’s CicloRuta is one of the most extensive cycle path networks in the world. It covers over 211 miles (340 km) and connects citizens to major BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) routes, parks, and community centres. The design took into consideration the topography of the city – the manmade and natural features, such as essential facilities, hills, waterways, and parklands – to create the best possible flow and function. The system has reduced car dependence and associated emissions, but also fundamentally changed behaviour in the city. By 2007, 4 per cent of the population were travelling by bike, compared to 2 per cent in 2000. 6 

Complementing this is the Bogotá Transmilenio system. This Bus Rapid Transit system averages 1,600 passengers per day per bus, reducing travel time by 32 per cent, eliminating the need for 2,109 public-service vehicles, reducing gas emissions by 40 per cent  and, by making zones around the main roads safer, decreasing accident rates by 90 per cent.

Curitiba’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) System
Cited by Jan Gehl as an exemplar of people-focused design, the BRT system in Curitiba, Brazil, has seen a modal shift from car travel to bus travel. It is estimated that the introduction of the BRT has resulted in 27 million fewer car trips per year, with 28 per cent of BRT riders having previously been car users. Compared to eight other Brazilian cities of the same size, Curitiba uses 30 per cent less fuel per capita and has one of the lowest rates of ambient air pollution in the country. About 1.3 million passengers use the BRT every day, which is 50 times more than 20 years ago, and Curitibanos spend well below the national average on travel. It is one of the most heavily used but low-cost transit systems in the world.7

What’s the secret to its success? The buses run frequently (some as often as every 90 seconds), stations are convenient and well-designed, and it offers many of the benefits of a subway system but is above ground and visible.
But its effect on the liveability of the city as a whole is thanks to a masterplan that integrates transportation with land-use planning. Commercial growth is encouraged along the transport arteries radiating from the city centre, reducing the traditional importance of a single downtown area and thereby reducing peak congestion. Land within two blocks of the transit arteries is zoned for high-density development to generate more transit ridership per square foot and, beyond two blocks, density tapers in proportion to distance from the transitways. Limited parking is available in the downtown area and most employers also offer transport subsidies.

Melbourne 2030
In 2012, Melbourne was ranked the world’s most liveable city by the EIU for the second year running and the second best place to call home in Monocle’s 2013 annual survey. Over the past decade, the city has aggressively revitalised its central business district by making it much more pedestrian friendly. It boasts the highest ratio of street furniture per person in the world and now has more than 600 outdoor cafés (up from fewer than 50 in 1990), and the number of pedestrians in the city on weekday evenings has doubled.8 

Many of these improvements have come about as a result of recommendations by Jan Gehl, whose Public Spaces and Public Life survey in 1993 (updated in 2004) recommended creating opportunities for outdoor dining. Keen for Melbourne to remain one of the world’s most liveable cities, the State Government’s Department of Infrastructure is developing Melbourne 2030 – a plan focused on how land use and transport can best support economic, social and environmental needs of the city during the next 20 to 30 years.

Auckland 2040
With Auckland’s population set to grow from 1.5m to an estimated 2.4m by 2040, AECOM’s Interdisciplinary Global Cities Institute team was asked to determine what factors would enable Auckland to become the world’s most liveable city by 2040. This informed the Auckland Plan, which the council adopted in March 2012. The conclusion was that ‘connection’ is at the heart of a liveable and prosperous city. Five broad themes emerged from AECOM’s work:
• Connectedness of the economy, society and the environment
• Transformational change to a high-value, high-wealth economy
• Investment in transport to make it easier to move around Auckland
• Inspiring confidence through credibility
• The need to work together (public and private interests).

Critical success factors for liveable cities
Community Research Connections has found that there are frequent parallels between the liveability agenda and sustainable development. For example, reduced use of car transport, an increase in green space, and opportunities for social capital and participatory planning regimes, are all improvements for sustainable development. The study concluded that both concepts are crucial to the resilience, stability and future communities. It set
out five crucial factors for successfully identifying and implementing liveability as an integral part of sustainable development:

• The value of liveability as an overall theme, among others, in the development of a community’s sustainability plan
• The overarching role of public engagement in the articulation of what is meant by liveability – an acceptance that liveability may differ significantly from community to community
• A recognition that liveability extends to economic dynamism and career opportunities as well as recreational, aesthetic, cross-generational and cultural activities
• The ability to embed liveability concerns into the culture of the municipality rather than politically motivated short-term initiatives
• The recognition that the provision of a diverse residential community with a full complement of services, means that a system approach to both the city region and the individual neighbourhood is required. This will ensure that individual neighbourhoods do not become ‘liveability ghettos’, but have a real and vibrant place within the whole city region context.
Notes meaning-livability infrastructure/land-use-planning/what-makes-a-city-liveable LessonsfromSingapore.pdf
Liveable cities and the
Farrell Review

A commitment to liveable cities was at the heart of the Landscape Institute’s response to the Farrell Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment (due to be published at the time of going to press). The opening section of the response included the following comments.

‘The success of the Olympic Park as it approaches the first anniversary of its opening is a timely example of why any review of architecture and the built environment needs to go beyond an analysis of the design of buildings. The creation of this new part of East London has demonstrated the success of landscape architecture, master planning, landscape engineering, urban design and horticulture. The legacy and the massively increased value created by the site is testament to the power of a well-designed landscape in which the management of water, ecology and architecture have combined to create a superb new part of the city.

‘The main lesson from the Olympics, we believe, is that the best results for local communities, developers, and cities as a whole are achieved when a concerted, cross-professional effort is made to create a liveable environment, with long-term legacy uppermost in everyone’s mind. We urge the Farrell review to consider the designed environment as a whole, with a focus on creating liveable cities. This is the way forward for all of the built environment professions, and unless we all think in these terms, none of us can deliver what society needs.

‘Since the review conducted by Lord Rogers’ Urban Task Force  fifteen years ago, there has been a significant increase in the understanding of the pressures faced by cities and of our relationship with the natural and ecological forces that influence the structure and working of our built environment. These include rapidly expanding urban populations, scarce resources, environmental and economic challenges, the evolution of SMART cities, sustaining biodiversity, green infrastructure, the rise of the biophilic cities movement and the development of water sensitive urban design...

‘The Landscape Institute believes that this Review will set the terms of future debate about our designed environments for some time, both within government and beyond. For this reason, we want to ensure that it clearly sets out the main strategic challenges, so that it stimulates a productive and forward-looking debate.’

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