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Melbourne – Still the Best City in the World?

With a relatively low population density, good infrastructure, high employment,
plenty of culture and low crime, Melbourne certainly ticks a lot of ‘livability’
boxes, on paper at least. But while its residents clearly feel the ‘Garden City’ has
plenty going for it, is it really possible to nail its appeal with such a formulaic
approach?

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According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), it is, and, in fact, Melbourne
has topped their ‘world’s most livable city’ chart for two years straight. While
the jury is still out for 2013’s entries, it’s clear they’re onto something because
the business of measuring and ranking a city’s performance is a serious one
it would seem, with a plethora of private companies offering up their own
take on the issue. Global affairs/style magazine Monocle publishes their own
influential ‘Most Livable Cities’ list and Melbourne is up there too, albeit it in
6th place (after dropping one place from the previous year). But, clearly, not all
livability lists are made equal because the Mercer’s ‘Quality of Living’ survey
places Melbourne down in 17th place. So who is closer to the truth? We decided
to take the EIU’s broader categories as a starting point in order to do a small, if
not entirely scientific, overview of our own, and conclude Melbourne might just
be the ideal city in which to live.

Stability
With a population of around 4.25 million, representing some 200 nations,
Melbourne is a city leading the nation’s population growth, with an annual rate
of around 6%, and fringe districts such as Wyndham in the west of Melbourne
experiencing the highest growth in Australia. It’s a really young city too, with
almost 50% of its population under the age of 35. Politically, Melbourne leans
to the left, with the Australian Labor Party safely holding its seat for more than
100 years, however, last year’s By-election results showed a more progressive
shift towards the green party, indicating this young population is taking
environmental issues seriously.

Economically, Melbourne has enjoyed a pretty stable rate of growth over the
last ten years, with a 2012 headline net wealth of around AUS$67,799 million,
up 2.5% on the previous year. The largest industry employers are within
the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services sectors, with Financial
and Insurance Services making up the bulk of Melbourne’s economic output.
Unemployment remains at 5.27%, slightly under the national average of 5.5%.

Healthcare
Melbourne enjoys a robust healthcare system and a host of top-notch facilities,
with the Royal Melbourne Hospital seeing the highest number of admissions
in the country. Australia’s healthcare system is well regarded, with both public
and private sectors well catered for. The public health system, Medicare, is
government funded and managed, and covers Australian and New Zealand
citizens, those with a permanent residency visa or visitors from countries with
a reciprocal healthcare agreement, such as the UK. It is recommended that those
enrolled in the system supplement with additional private insurance to cover
for those areas which are not covered by Medicare, such as dental. About half
of all Australians have extra private medical care and about 1/3 of all hospital
beds are private. Crucially, Medicare will also cover a portion of any expenses in
a private hospital. Those not covered by Medicare will need to ensure they have
adequate private insurance.

Culture and environment
Considered the cultural pearl of Australia, Melbourne’s youthful, multicultural
and tolerant population makes for a welcoming, hip, vibe that could be described
as positively bohemian in places. Known for its vibrant arts scene, café culture,
restaurants, great shopping and nightlife, Melbourne has plenty to entertain
and plays host to a packed year-round calendar of festivals and cultural events.
Famous for its changeable weather, it really is possible to experience ‘four
seasons in one day’ here, a ‘quality’ bemoaned and celebrated by residents alike.
Australian Rules Football is something of a religion around these parts, and from
March through September, it’s all about ‘footy’. Confusingly, its epicenter is the
Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).

At the city’s physical heart is the Central Business District, and Yarra River to
the south, which dissects from west to east like a main artery. There’s a pleasing
intimacy to Melbourne, partly thanks to the restrictions on building heights,
but largely due to the colorful labyrinthine Laneways and arcades, which add a
unique ambiance of their own to the city. These are the places to find everything
from olde-worlde architectural gems to tucked away ‘hole-in-the-wall’ hang outs,
from street art to chic boutiques. Melbourne excels at creating unique village-
like suburbs with distinct identities, and though there are Malls and big box
stores aplenty, it’s the plethora of independent stores and businesses that gives
Melbourne its strong cultural identity.

Architecturally, Melbourne charms in ways other major Australian cities lack:
with an exciting mix of old and new that compliments the eclectic, artsy vibe.
Although not considered much of a ‘seaside town’, and lacking the ‘wow’ factor
of Sydney’s harbor front and Bondi beach, Melbourne’s coastal location on Port
Phillip Bay remains a clear draw, with great beaches in close proximity, and the
iconic 12 Apostles soaring majestically along the coast makes for a spectacular
ocean drive. There’s plenty of green space too; from gracious, Heritage listed
parks to the much-loved Botanic Gardens, there are masses of parks, gardens
and recreational facilities aplenty.

Unsurprisingly, Melbourne is a fairly eco-conscious city. With its network of
cycle lanes, cycle sharing and car-pooling initiatives; the City has ambitious plans
to become carbon neutral by 2020. It recently became the first in Australia to
introduce the concept of retrofitting; the aim is to retrofit more than two thirds
of its commercial buildings in a bold sustainability initiative that is purported
will create 800 new ‘green’ jobs and generate AUS$1.3 billion in economic
activity. Another tree planting initiative will see the city’s canopy cover double
by 2040 in order to create a healthier and cooler landscape. It’s not all lattes
in the park, however. Melbourne is entirely dependent on rivers for its water
supply and, thanks to a combination of population growth and drought, is
suffering from an acute water shortage. The government is implementing extra
rainwater harvesting systems to tackle the issue, however, including a world-
first in-road storm water harvest scheme.

Where it falls down somewhat is the high cost of real estate, certainly within the
city of Melbourne a family home is unlikely to leave much change from a AUS$1
million. Although house prices appear to be stagnating somewhat nationally,
Melbourne is experiencing an upswing, with the inner East suburbs, being highly
popular, and often pretty expensive options. Happily, if you are happy to add a
little commute time to your journey there are plenty of affordable options in the
outer suburbs, many with great schools, shops and plenty of greenery. Check
out Datalicious and The Age’s excellent interactive map to drill down the data.
(http://www.theage.com.au/national/greater-melbourne/our-liveable-city/
map).

Education
Students make up a staggering 46% of Melbourne’s population (that includes
school age children). Each state in Australia runs a separate education system,
and until 2008 there were no nationally standardized tests for literacy and
numeracy. However, the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy
(NAPLAN) changed all that with the, somewhat controversial, introduction of
tests for all students every two years, from year groups 3 to 9. It is now possible
to assess results for all public and private schools across Australia and 2012
results show the states of Victoria, New South Wales and Canberra rank highest.
At city level, Melbourne fairs well, though predictably, selective-entry schools
rate highest, with Mac.Rob Girls’ High School, Nossal High School, Melbourne
High School and Suzanne Cory High School all scoring highest at the year 9 level,
with Glen Waverley Secondary College and Balmoral K-12 Community College
among the best performers at state level. The very best performing state schools
at primary level were Serpell, Ashburton, Donburn, Doncaster Gardens, Parktone
and Beverley Hills Primary schools. Check http://bettereducation.com.au for its
superb sortable database, which allows for comparison of various criteria.

At first glance, the statistics read well, but the government itself feels there
is still ‘room for improvement’ and, in a recently published paper; ‘Victoria’s
Plan for School Funding Reform’ they concede that while performance levels
rate amongst the highest in the country, the overall performance “has not
significantly improved over the past ten years” and “despite strong outcomes
in the Australian context, Victoria’s performance continues to fall short of the

global top tier jurisdictions (such as Korea, Finland and Hong Kong) in reading,
mathematics and scientific literacy”.

The aim is to allow schools more funding and greater autonomy and flexibility to
respond to student’s needs, particularly those who are disadvantaged. A further
key facet of the plan will be to attract, nurture and retain great teachers, while
raising educational levels overall to that of other top tier cities in the world. It’s
a good indication that the government is not resting on its laurels, and has the
potential to transform an already highly satisfactory system into a truly world
class one.

Where Melbourne appears to really excel is in its capacity as a college town.
Its Universities rank highly, not only topping national rankings, but score well
in world performance tables too. The University of Melbourne comes in top
at national level and 39th in The Times Higher Education World University
Reputation Rankings. The Atlantic Cities places it right up at number 4 on
their ‘World’s Best Cities For Students’ list. Competition for places is naturally
high, however, and entry requirements tough, requiring the highest ATAR score
of any university in Australia. Monash is also highly regarded and comes in at
5th place at a national level and just hit the top 100 on the Times University
Reputation Rankings. But the draw for many students isn’t simply about getting
a great education; it’s the buzz of the city’s culture and lifestyle opportunities.

Infrastructure
Melbourne has a well-established public transport network consisting of buses,
trains and, of course, the much loved tram network. It recently introduced a
smartcard system for flexible travel between all trains, trams and buses. The
City Circle Tram is a free hop-on, hop-off service around central Melbourne
taking passengers past some of Melbourne’s major attractions and there’s
also a ‘nightrider’ bus service, which operates at weekends. Road users will
enjoy the wide roads, simple grid system and clear signage, although the
idiosyncratic ‘hook turns’ at tram intersections may take some getting used to.
Parking can be a pain too.

Overall, it’s hard to disagree with any list that recognizes Melbourne’s cultural
charms, and with such a great location on the coast, wide choice of suburbs to
suit every lifestyle, and the tolerant, open minded attitude, it’s no surprise that
A-list Aussie actor Geoffrey Rush considers it worth any length of commute “I
guess I’ve been fortunate in having an ongoing film career while being based in
Melbourne. I’m happy to commute. A day on a plane? Come on. It’s easy”.

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