Liveable Towns and Cities: Approaches for Planners

Article excerpt

There are both potential pitfalls and opportunities for planners in the increasing use of 'liveability/liveable' terms in setting urban policy goals, in developing policies and strategies and in managing implementation routines and projects. The pitfalls are associated with the blandness often found with similar label terms, 'community' being the lead example, so that they tend to lose any meaning they originally had, being applied wholesale to any policy area or package which it is desired to promote in a friendly, un-challenging and un-challengeable sort of way. As such, liveability and liveable will have to take their chances along with the rest.

In contrast, the opportunities are more associated with providing a robust guiding principle or touchstone embodying key values to be used in practice. These opportunities typically abound in three primary areas: in local place-making where planning has become stereotyped, bound up with regulation and has lost its sense of wider purpose; secondly, in promoting exchanges of learning and practice among and between cities and citizens, both nationally and internationally; and, thirdly, in providing an essential knot in the network of public policies which link planning in with related areas, for instance, with health and quality of life concerns, with sustainability and with arts and cultural activities.

Global reach and its messages

The liveability agenda currently receives a global reach, usually in association with business location, place marketing and tourism promotion exercises using simplistic sets of indicators and impressionistic ranking systems to reach the conclusion that Shanghai is 'the most liveable city in China' or that Melbourne is rated the world's 'most liveable city' (well, at least, for expatriate executives; but no doubt local residents knew that anyway!). While such exercises along with their more limited national counterparts lie firmly in the pitfall category, there is nonetheless benefit to be had in considering their typical input factors since these may provide indicators to more widely shared values: health and safety; culture and environment, including pollution and air quality; infrastructure, including transport, housing, education and utilities. These indeed would seem to be the sort of components to which both international business executives and local residents of ordinary and more deprived cities and neighbourhoods would look in seeking to achieve their aspirations for liveability. Town planning has, of course, traditionally involved itself with the infrastructure and environment factors and reached out indirectly in a network sense towards policy concerns for health, education, safety and culture. However, what the liveability agenda brings to planning is the chance to renew a core part of its meta-values, to relate to people's lives more positively, immediately and directly and to develop closer working relationships with wider urban and other public policy areas.

The liveability agenda in England

The liveability agenda in England is related to local environmental quality issues which affect local residents Outside their front doors' and is focused on the three themes of 'cleaner, safer, greener' (ODPM, 2OO5b). In central government terms it derives from a recognition that too many local places - particularly residential streets, parks and open spaces, town centres - are characterised by neglect, poor management and maintenance, litter, graffiti and antisocial behaviour. For all too many localities there is unfortunately nothing much new in all this experience; however, its recognition as part of the urban policy process is a step forward. And the reasons given are not entirely those of improving the physical environment as a response to such negatives - there is also a more positive approach involved: 'the Government's liveability agenda is about creating places where people choose to live ...' (Cooper, 2004, i)

Central government sees its roles in the liveability agenda as the conventional ones of the development and evaluation of policy, funding support for local experiments and the diffusion of good practice. …