Recent studies show Melbourne’s and Sydney’s fast-growing outer suburbs lag behind other parts of the city in access to urban design, employment and amenities and services that foster liveability. The National Growth Areas Alliance of local councils launched a national campaign, “Catch up with the outer suburbs”, on Monday. But what is it really like to live in these areas?
Living Liveable is a short documentary film produced by RMIT University researchers showcasing the lived experiences of residents in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. The film includes interviews with 11 residents that highlight their perceptions and experiences of liveability in their suburbs. This article explores their reasons for living where they do and recounts their experiences of life in the outer suburbs.
Why all the fuss about liveability?
Liveability and its underlying indicators have been the subject of substantial research. Most well-known liveability indices produced by the private sector — such as the Mercer Quality of Living Ranking and the Economist Intelligent Unit’s Liveability Index — rank cities against each other. And most Australian capital cities are ranked relatively high in such global liveability indices.
These measures overlook inequities within cities between established inner areas and newer outer suburban areas. Many of these urban fringe suburbs are experiencing rapid population growth. RMIT researchers have developed spatial liveability indicators, showing that residents in outer suburbs lack access to basic amenities that inner-city residents take for granted.
Yet residents’ perceptions of their neighbourhoods and their lived experiences are often unheard in such measures. The interviews show that a combination of factors shapes decisions to live in an outer suburb. These include perceived affordability, people’s aspirations for a good life, and access to public transport. As one resident said:
I was looking for an affordable area where I can, you know, buy a decent-size house within a decent budget and all those things. So, this area probably suits me, which is nearest for public transport, but yeah, it’s a bit far from the CBD area, which is alright. – male resident of Wyndham
Access to green spaces and a sense of community were among the things residents loved most about living in their suburb:
We live opposite a beautiful park … it’s right at our doorstep. We feel very, very lucky to live opposite this beautiful park, it’s very well maintained by the local council and it’s highly utilised. So even just out there walking, I’ve got to know people in my neighbourhood. – female resident of Wyndham
Traffic makes life worse
However, traffic volumes and poor access to daily living destinations and public transport had negative impacts on residents’ lived experiences. While current liveability indices usually consider access to daily living destinations – such as food outlets, schools, hospitals, and public transport – traffic is often overlooked. Yet, 10 out of 11 people mentioned traffic, in 30 separate instances, as something that makes their neighbourhoods less liveable.
A painter living in the City of Casey described how increasing traffic in recent years was forcing him to wake up half an hour earlier and get back home half an hour later in the afternoon.
I’m a painter, so I work anywhere from here to the city. The Monash [freeway] … I call it my driveway. So I’m on that every day, and it just depends which exit I’m taking for the day.
So, I get up at the moment at 4.50am. I get up to beat the traffic, which starts at about 5.20, and then I get to the job, and then I might have a bit of a snooze in my car or eat breakfast. And that’s just all just to beat traffic. And I can stay there for an hour before I have to, you know, knock on the client’s door, and say, “Oh I’m here to start.”
And, yeah, then at the end of the working day, which is 4pm, after I’ve done my eight hours, I just have to grind with the traffic on the way home… I might get home at about 6.10pm.
For some, the traffic has affected their mental health and increased stress levels.
We’ve lived in this house for 16 years and just the buildup of traffic … I was used to getting from A to B very quickly. I now have to plan, embed in my day, more time to get from A to B. I think that’s the biggest negative.
And it’s certainly one that impacts my husband. He doesn’t work locally. He works in the eastern suburbs and he also has to travel around a lot for his work. And that’s becoming a bit of a nightmare for him and actually creating a bit of stress. – female resident of Wyndham
Lack of access to daily living destinations, including employment and supermarkets, means residents depend on their cars. This adds to their cost of living and reduces neighbourhood liveability.
Lack of public transport or infrequent services also has negative impacts on residents’ quality of life and well-being.
I take my hubby to work in Derrimut and so that normally takes me … about two hours easy; just over two hours. … he doesn’t drive. He can’t use the train simply because the train doesn’t go anywhere near where he works. There’s nothing. No public transport to take my husband to work.
S0 … we’ve got no choice. So, if something happens to me, uh, we’re in a load of trouble. That’s where it’s difficult. We need more public transport. We really do. – female resident of Wyndham
Planners need to hear what residents say
The film highlights the gaps in current measures of liveability. For example, future liveability indices should consider including traffic and car-dependency indicators. Increasing traffic, the time spent travelling, and the financial burden of car dependency can detract from some of the key reasons residents choose to live in Melbourne’s outer suburbs – namely, affordability and sense of community.
We need to engage with communities and hear from them about their lived experience to better understand and measure their quality of life, their health and their neighbourhoods’ liveability. Objective measures of the quality of access should be accompanied by insights from residents about their lives in the suburbs. The voice of residents needs to be included in the planning of our cities as they grow, as well as the metrics of how successful we are in delivering equitable cities that foster healthy, affordable and prosperous lives for all.
Authors: Leila Mahmoudi Farahani, Research Fellow in Urban Studies, RMIT University