“If a city is not safe, it can’t be livable”

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OBOR-Q-&-A-Interview

Melbourne has bagged the tag of ‘most livable city’ in many indexes over the years. In a wide-ranging conversation with OBOR editorial team, Kevin Louey, Councillor, Prosperous City & Deputy Chair of the Arts, Culture and Heritage, Australia, and Geoff Lawler, Senior Strategic Advisor, City of Melbourne, explain how their city retained the tag of the most livable city

Melbourne has topped many livability rankings. What makes Melbourne so livable?

Kevin Louey: The city has a reputation of being an environmentally sustainable and livable city. In Melbourne, we consider environmentally feasible infrastructure as the most important aspect of its planning. Melbourne is built for walking. We have focused on planting of trees. Every year we are planting 20,000 trees. We maintain our rivers and water bodies well and they are major features of our city.

Liveablity is about putting citizens first. How much the city governments engage with their citizens and ensure that the city is not on a wrong path of development. Melbourne is also part of many international environmental initiatives.

Mr Lawler, you have been a part of this transformation phase. So what are the initiatives that you have taken to improve urban environment because the issue has featured in SDGs, COP21 and in the New Urban Agenda. Inclusivity is another major aspect of city planning because when we are panning for cities and are making policies for every section of society—differently-abled, children and elderly population. What are the initiatives you have taken for catering to different sections of the society to ensure the services are delivered and needs of these groups are addressed?

Geoff Lawler: Just to extend a little from what councilor Louey was saying, I think one of Melbourne’s most distinguishing features  is one the value it places on its public environment. That begins some 40 years ago with rediscovering the main river that runs through the city. It was up till then an industrially polluted river. Huge efforts were put into cleaning the river; and also importantly, we make sure that the edges of every water way, not just in the city but also in the state, was publically accessible. That is a really important thing because in a dry country the ability to experience water gives a great sense of pleasure.

The other thing that Melbourne has insisted on continuously is quality in terms of its private sector development. Making sure private sector development respects public environment. We do not allow walls to be built between a private building and the street because it’s really important that public feel that the street is part of their private domain and vice-versa. It is credible environment for creating a sense of safety, and ultimately, if you are not a safe city, you will not be a livable city. 

True, Australian cities have advantage of space but many cities in Asia face congestion problem. What can they learn from Australian cities?

Lawler: Greater Melbourne has about 4.6 million people however in our terms it is now growing very fast. It’s growing since the Second World War in population terms. We are also as a community struggling to keep a sense of openness and accessibility. In the phase of this rapid growth, there is a very strong emphasis on design and using planning and other regular tray systems to insist on good design wherever it happens. To insist that with the growth of any given settlement, what comes with that is the mandatory provision of public space, especially public green space. By spaces, I mean which are not just there and open, but places which people can use.

The other thing is that Melbourne and other Australian cities have pursued the idea of mixed usage, not having separate uses of a space. It has been easy to do that immediately as the Australian economy has moved from an industrial economy to a service economy. The ability of people to live, work, learn, recreate in the same space and to be able to walk is really a defining characteristic of livability because everybody can walk and for those who can’t, we have to assist them to be able to enjoy that public freedom.

Every country is planning smart cities. What is the role of local leaders, councilors and city Mayors in smart city scheme of things?

Louey: Of course, leadership is very important. In Melbourne, we have a council of living. So the process is much simpler in terms of decision making. Cities also do need a capable administration to work on the programs. All initiatives are driven from administration and basically, it is the council which then makes a decision on the implementation.

What is the role of women in leadership at city level in Australia? In many Asian countries, 33 per cent reservation is given to women.

Louey: Gender equality is an important aspect. We have a gender equality policy. We certainly encourage women participation. Whether it is a council or any board, we try to have a balance. We are quite open minded in this regard.

Managing the finances of local bodies is a big challenge. How can we create a sustainable business model for cities?

Lawler: In Victoria State of Australia, I think 80 per cent of the Victorian population lives in the metropolis of Melbourne. It means that there is as much interest in the cities from the states as there is from the local governments. Both levels of governments have property taxing. The local governments can charge for Municipal services and also can levy fines. It also has property taxes but they are largely restricted to commercial property. Income taxes and the Goods and Services Taxes are collected by the federal government but portions of that are distributed back to the states. In some of the cases, local governments fund capital works. It is often supported through surpluses in operating budget and careful accumulation of those surpluses over years or from that classic combination of grants from the state government or borrowing from the banks. We have seen a regime of very low interest rates. The ability to borrow for infrastructure purposes is quite definite at least for the forseeable future. In Australia we really do depend upon cooperation between the levels of governments to achieve big things.

Every city is facing the problem of air pollution. Is poor air quality a challenge in Australian cities?

Lawler: We are very lucky that the Victorian government established Environment Protection Authority in 1970. I believe it was the second government in the World after California to do so. The Environment Protection Authority introduced regulations to control emissions to air, water and land. It has been our key to success. It does not mean that everything is perfect but there is a regime with very severe penalties in place to control emissions and there is also public awareness. People can be held accountable.