Pondering Batmania – part 1

I’m staying in the world’s most liveable city, allegedly. I like it here, but I refuse to believe this is as good as it gets.

Melbourne, Australia has been popping up on “most liveable city” lists since 1990, and the most recent version of The Economist‘s liveability ranking puts the town on top again.

(Random trivia: Melbourne was founded by Batman, and Batmania was one of the proposed names for the city – so I like to use that. Pardon my juvenile sense of humor. John Batman was no hero, though… But I digress.)

Melbourne certainly has good points – it has a lot of cultural activity, great cafes, and perhaps the best public transport in Australia, in that it works, is kind-of  frequent, and has integrated ticketing. (Melbournians  complain a lot about their public transport, but I’ve lived in Sydney and Jakarta, and Melbourne is way ahead of both.) There’s a reasonable amount of green space, the water in the bay is clean and clear (if you pick the right beach, away from stormwater drains) and you can cycle with less fear of death than in Sydney. It’s also the social entrepreneur capital of Australia, which is great if you’re a passionate changemaker.

But it’s expensive if you want to live near those great cafes, and has sprawling suburbs if you don’t want to pay those prices. It can be hard to be without a car, though not as hard as Sydney or American cities. And like most Australian and North American cities, the carbon footprint is huge.

And then… Sydney is also in The Economist‘s top 10, which makes me question the whole exercise. Sydney is my hometown, and I’m glad to be away from that beautiful, congested, expensive city, and I regularly run into other Sydneysiders who feel the same way.

Are these cities the standard we want to aim for? Surely we can do a lot better, but how do we get there? I’m all for protesting for more bike paths, and voting for candidates who support public transport, but we’re making slow progress on these things… when we’re not going backwards.

Suburbia, highways and McMansions are helping to drive dangerous climate change, and they’re often creating stressful places to live. We need a major change in awareness, in expectations, and in the conversations we have about our cities – whichever part of the world we’re in.

Where would you start? Where will you start? Leave a comment below, or on the Facebook page for Appropedia. And stay tuned – the conversation continues…

Better places to live

The Sustainable Cities Institute describes a positive vision for cities, towns and neighborhoods. It’s one of many sites and communities advocating better places, places designed to human scale and with our planet in mind.

There’s also Peter Calthorpe, an urban designer who emphasizes economical use of space to create better places. He advocates transit-oriented development with well-ordered transit nodes, to make travel convenient and sustainable, and greatly reduce the need for cars. He also talks about urban design’s key role in fighting climate change. He’s part of the New Urbanist movement – which has an approach and an aesthetic which is sometimes controversial, but which has a clear vision for what it takes to make a city sustainable and livable.

Other “city thinkers” are designing buildings and cities with dense housing interspersed with large amounts of green space – Singapore is a leader in this approach and has become a desirable city to live in. Proposed developments in Kuala Lumpur take the idea further, with tall buildings that narrow down at the bottom to allow more space for greenery.

Visions for the future aren’t all about high rises. Peter Newman describes the Danish “dense-low” tradition – compact, walkable communities of 2-3 storey buildings and plenty of open space.

This is just scratching the surface. StreetsWiki is a great source for more ideas about making a great city – sadly it’s no longer active, but we’re making an effort to reach out to that community, to support and continue the work.

There is no shortage of ideas, but there’s a need for better coverage and presentation of these ideas in a way that policymakers, journalists and voters and can use to inform themselves.

We have the ideas and experience to tackle this, and we’re looking for partners in the urban design and planning fields. Please leave a comment below, or contact us.