We're in the era of big data, with access to data, it seems, about everything that can be tracked and quantified. But as William Bruce Cameron wrote in 1963, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
Hard data, the things that can be counted, include the 16 metrics in the Livable Sydney 2016 rankings, according to Georgia Sedgmen, associate town planner with Tract Consultants in North Sydney. The metrics are:
- Local employment
- Cafes and restaurants
- Tree cover
- Ocean and harbour views
- Topographic variation
- Train and light rail
- Open space
- Main road congestion
These are useful for recognising what makes a place livable.
“We take all of these 16 indicators and we essentially look at which suburbs have the best of each and then we form everything into ranking tables and it spits you out what the most livable suburbs are based on these hard data,” Sedgmen said.
The things that can’t be counted must be evaluated differently.
“Coming out of the livability study, we started to investigate those unmeasurable indicators and those harder-to-quantify elements of livability, because data can only tell you so much,” said Sedgmen, who will be elaborating on the topic at the next DesignBuild EXPO in May.
According to Sedgmen, there’s a disconnect between rankings and how some people feel about a place. People who live in places that ranked poorly, for instance, often love where they live and different needs and priorities may mean they don’t care about certain things many others consider important.
Tract Consultants studied how people felt about the following characteristics of the places they liked most:
- Facilities and services
- Environment and landscape
- Place identity
- Social sustainability
These elements can help us understand what makes a place lovable. The Tract researchers asked people “What’s the best place you’ve lived and why?” to get people thinking, then asked “What’s the worst place you’ve lived and why?”
“We often live places and we feel things and we experience things, but we don’t take the time to sit down and acknowledge what it was that we liked about that place, or what we didn’t,” Sedgmen said.
In addition, the team asked people “What makes a perfect community to you?” while keeping in mind that answers will naturally vary greatly from person to person.
“These answers are different for everyone, depending on what your socioeconomic background is, what your cultural background is, what type of family environment you live in,” Sedgmen noted.
Ultimately, planners must examine data to evaluate how they’re delivering what people really want.
Regarding the concept of environment and landscape, Sedgmen said, the Tract team asked “How does your environment affect your everyday living?” and received a variety of responses.
“It’s really interesting, because you talk to the communities in different areas, and depending on nationalities and backgrounds, some people just love that there would be a lot of open space. Other people couldn’t care less. They say ‘No, concrete it all. We don’t need that,’” Sedgmen noted.
In light of those responses, the team also considered what elements of the environment and landscape should be provided by the government, and which provided by developers.
In order to investigate how people felt about place identity, Tract took people on walking tours of neighbourhoods in Parramatta.
“We got people to start looking at the things they could see, and whether they saw them as positives or negatives. So the type of development that was there, the smells, the feelings they got, the colors of things, and say, ‘That’s great’ or say ‘Hmm no, that’s not so great,’” she said.
Following up with people was crucial, she noted. People will often express an opinion – even a strong one – about certain things without explaining why, so it was crucial to get them to explain what matters to them.
Social sustainability was the last of the “unmeasurable” indicators, and was influenced by ethnicity. “How does someone’s ethnicity influence their social connectivity?” Tract wondered.
Given that Australia is a diverse country full of people from all around the world, social inclusiveness and an integrated society should be high on the list of priorities for cities. People of different age and ethnic groups, for example, value different elements in their cities, and there can be a risk of low levels of diversity in neighbourhoods as people either choose where they want to live, or simply take what they can get. Retirees, young families, and recent immigrants might naturally choose neighbourhoods that are homogenous, but that must be managed.
“Ultimately diversity creates a much more livable, lovable environment than a very segregated city,” Sedgmen said.