Over the past decade, The Economist’s Intelligence Unit (EIU) annual liveability report has revealed an interesting trend: the top rated cities come from non-US, New World countries. This year, as our very own city scooped the title of World’s Most Liveable City, the trend continues – all but two in the top 10, Vienna and Helsinki, are from Australia, Canada or New Zealand.
Having grown up in Canada and made Melbourne my adoptive home for the last decade, I must admit that it’s no great shock that Australia and Canada produce consistent contenders. Low population density, low crime rates, quality health care, education and transportation infrastructure – these are the principal criteria of The EIU’s selection process, and most Australian and Canadian cities tick these boxes admirably. Still, these criteria remain woefully inadequate in revealing anything about the soul of a city.
Is it possible that there’s something about the New World’s social structure that give it an edge in the liveability stakes?
Associate Professor John Rundell, a social theorist at the University of Melbourne’s School of Political and Social Science, is also unsurprised that Melbourne and Vancouver frequently jostle for top spot. However, for him, what makes their consistently high liveability rankings predictable is “the way in which they’ve both developed into dynamic, hospitable and open-minded multi-cultural cities, in a way that European cities are still struggling with or closing this experience down.”
Melbourne, like Vancouver, is a young city founded on immigration. Its very identity is fluid, culturally plural and our city remains future-oriented, dynamic and open.
“If social wealth is also bound up with a city’s ability to generate different kinds of experiences and diversity of experiences – in other words, to generate what might be determined cultural wealth or even political wealth in the sense of the emergence of mass public spheres, the development of free flowing zones of conflict, then that becomes an interesting series of phenomenon,” says Rundell. “The New World societies are interesting in the sense that they generate multiple public, multiple cultural spheres… Multiculturalism is symptomatic of that particular kind of vitality.”
European cities, for all their enviable heritage and cultural wealth, are less equipped to adapt to post-modern realities. As deeply entrenched cultural identities encounter the reality of massively fluid population movements, we find tendencies towards aggressively assimilationist politics of the type currently en-vogue across much of Europe. These policies fracture cities, disenfranchise large swathes of the populous and contribute to the boiling over of civil unrest so graphically illustrated in the recent London riots.
The word cosmopolitan may not be the first to come to mind when people think of Australia, but that’s precisely what we are. A cosmopolis is literally a “universal city”. Without any one dominating cultural identity, cities of immigration like Melbourne seem to benefit from a true and organic cosmopolitanism. The EIU’s liveability rankings certainly seem to suggest that society benefits when its only shared universal attribute is difference.