Our Liveable City

What is it?

A recently completed, 6-month study commissioned by The Age and undertaken by Tract Consultants and Deloitte Access Economics into the liveability of Melbourne’s 314 suburbs.

The term liveability is in itself difficult to define, with research into its parameters marking the start of the study. According to Adam Terrill of Tract Consultants, the definition eventually agreed upon was “the general quality of a place which makes it pleasant or agreeable for people to reside in”. 9 broad criteria were selected, inspired by qualities valued by the real-estate market, by urban planning guidelines and by international indexes like those used by the Economist Intelligence Unit (see our article on the EIU’s recently released 2011 rankings, here). Most of the criteria are unsurprising inclusions: access to public transport, parks and schools, the presence of open space and trees, the impact of traffic congestion and crime. More unusual (and criteria that perhaps reflect a quintessentially Melburnian attitude to living) are access to shops and restaurants.

In top spot is South Yarra (51), followed by East Melbourne and Armadale (49), then Toorak (48) and Hawthorn East (47) to round out the top five. Hallam (13), in the outer south-eastern fringe, receives the wooden spoon.

An article providing an overview of the study, with contextualisation of its findings and links to the full list of suburbs, is viewable here.

What do we think?

Melbourne is one of the largest and least dense cities in the world: 120km from edge to edge and only 15.9 people /hectare. To put this into perspective, this is in comparison to Melbourne’s own 1951 population density of 23.4 people /ha and Hong Kong’s current density of 64.8 people /ha.

The big problem with such a spread out city, and the problem most certainly being faced by Melbourne today, is equitable access to infrastructure. An inner-city suburb like South Yarra provides access on foot to an array of public transport options, to parks, recreation facilities, key services, shops and restaurants. Conversely, a more recently developed, fringe suburb like Hallam has been designed for the automobile, with many residences isolated from day-to-day facilities. The nearest train station may be many kilometres away and instead of corner stores, delicatessens, and local video shops, there is a single shopping centre surrounded by a sea of car-parking spaces that services multiple suburbs.

The sceptic may well ask, What’s wrong with driving to a shopping centre? It does, after all, provide every commercial facility one could need in a single location. We argue that the problems with this picture are so systemic they touch on almost every facet of our lives:

  • By driving, we consume a finite natural resource and release carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming.
  • To manage the increased number of trips, families often need to purchase a second car, taking on the additional financial strain of ownership.
  • We miss out on the opportunity to walk or cycle, reducing our fitness and mobility, and increasing long-term health issues.
  • The extra time taken to get to work or school reduces our time for work, play and recreation.
  • We congest roads that are already overwhelmed by absurd traffic volumes.
  • We subject ourselves to the bland placelessness of a shopping centre when we could instead participate in the more enriching experience of a local community or shopping village.
  • We inhabit an inhumanely-designed urban environment, built for the speed of the car where the destination is always more important than the journey.

These problems bridge both quantitative and qualitative issues. Though the latter are by nature more difficult to measure (and are thus often overlooked by the general public), improved mental wellbeing, an appreciation of history and a sense of community are, we suggest, the most important benefits of living in an inner-city suburb.

This brings us back to the Our Liveable City study and its clear conclusion that inner city suburbs are more liveable than their fringe counterparts. A single glance at the index map at top shows that by and large a suburb’s proximity to the centre of Melbourne is directly proportional to its liveability.

What should we learn?

There is the commonly held belief that the average Melburnian’s dream home is a standalone dwelling on a quarter acre block. To this end we collectively accept our ever-expanding urban growth boundary (just this month Matthew Guy approved a new 400 hectare development in Clyde North, a suburb on the south-eastern fringe not even included in the Our Liveable City study). Curiously, we point to the last century of our history for evidence of the quarter acre block dream, this despite our population density 60 years ago being almost double what it is today.

No, the quarter acre block is all well and good, but only as long as it exists in a healthy mix of other housing options that address the true diversity of Melbourne’s demography.

If we are to take away a single lesson from the Our Liveable City study, it should be that we live better the closer we are to Melbourne’s centre. Our city is more than big enough as is – it’s time for the urban growth boundary to stop growing, to even begin shrinking. It is time for the State Government, local Councils, the residential market and individuals to all start making decisions that leave the farmland at the fringe of the city alone and instead increase the living density of already established suburbs.

We can only hope that Our Liveable City acts as a catalyst for these decisions to start today.

From my sketchbook: The magic of the letterbox


When I was younger, maybe 12 or 13 years old, I would daydream about sending a letter to my future self requesting he travel back in time to show me the future. I imagined that I would ask to be collected on the exact date and at the exact time I deposited the letter into the letterbox, so that the time portal would materialise next to as the letter left my fingers.

Unlike most contemporary forms of communication, there is no direct reaction to sending a letter, no dial tone or “sent” confirmation. Instead, there is a complex process, an entirely hidden industry, that connects the letterbox to the rest of the world. The mystery of this process establishes the likelihood of magic.

The Real Thing

The Real Thing (2008) – Feathers detail

The Real Thing (2008) – In flight, in use

What is it?

A 2008 installation by Sydney artist, Jordana Maisie, that combines the traditional tube construction and fractal forms of the kaleidoscope with interactive digital technology. A large, polished tube is erected in a gallery space, with a viewing point at one end. A camera mounted to the lip of the tube captures a small segment of the viewing area, replicates and fragments the image and projects it onto the reflective inner surface of the tube. The “large-scale kaleidoscope has been created with digital technology… yet without the tangible, physical realm inhabited by the viewer’s body, it simply cannot function.”

The work is a continuation of Maisie’s “exploration of the ways in which technology is constantly shifting the relationships between physical and digital space.”

What do we think?

This is a fascinating work, both cerebral and beautiful. It exists at the intersections of craft and high technology, digital space and real place, algorithmic modelling and the physical body. From all of these contradictory, or at least mutually exclusive, pairs, The Real Thing establishes a synergetic experience that smoothly integrates them all. Starting with a viewer’s body, the artwork digitally samples its details and re-interprets it as a shifting, real-time kaleidoscopic pattern, returning the viewer to an awareness of his position and movement. By bending, twisting and flapping his arms, the viewer is “encouraged by the very nature of the work to experience a heightened awareness of his own physicality”.

The work sits comfortably within Maisie’s larger oeuvre. More recent works include the aptly named Liminal Space (2010), a low-key installation that utilises the natural friction between positively and negatively charged particles in soil to generate light, and Close Encounters (2011), an interactive UFO that encourages passers-by to engage via text-message with provocative comments displayed around its circumference.

Liminal Space, 2010

Close Encounters (2011) – Want to talk?

Each of Maisie’s works combine high technology and natural materials in engaging and thought-provoking ways. Not only do they reach out to their audiences and encourage thoughtful exploration, they do so in a way that highlights the dependence on technology that is ever-encroaching upon our previously biological lives.

We look forward to future contributions from this smart and talented artist.


What is it?

New film by Gavin O’Connor starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as mixed martial artists, Tommy and Brendan Conlon. The two are entrants into a world MMA championship, Sparta, for which the winner-takes-all purse is $5m. More importantly, the two are also brothers, estranged from one another and from their father, Paddy, played with great feeling by gravel-voiced Nick Nolte.

The relationship between the three is complex and hinges on Paddy’s success as a wrestling coach but failings as a father. We discover early in the film that Paddy coached teenaged Tommy to multiple national wrestling championships, but did not extend the same mentoring role to older brother, yet underdog, Brendan. He is also a recovering alcoholic who neglected his sons and their mother terribly. This neglect has taken heavy tolls on them both, who have each excluded him from their lives. Three years sober, Paddy is now trying clumsily to reach out to his sons and rekindle the cold embers of their relationships.

For their part, the two brothers have not spoken to one another for many years. Tommy resents Brendan almost as much as he resents their father. He is a returned marine and war hero, but he is filled by an inexhaustible supply of anger at the world, whose source remains clouded until the final stages of the film. Brendan has no love for their father either, but this is the rational decision of a husband and family man who has been burnt by a bad bet one too many times.

Brendan’s feelings for Tommy are less readily resolved: love, forgiveness and guilt are all present in varying quantities. It is love however, that most clearly defines his character: he is as filled by it as Tommy is by anger, dedicating himself to everyone in his life – his wife (a small part played with verve by Jennifer Morrison) and daughters, his high-school physics students, his trainer.

What did we think?

Warrior appears at first glance to be a film about the popular brutality of mixed martial arts, but instead reveals itself as one of great depth and emotion. It explores the difficult lives of a fractured family with painful histories both individual and shared. These histories mix with present-day motivations to create tangibly real characterisations that utilise the fighting as a backdrop rather than the central theme.

The whole cast put in exceptional performances, with Hardy, Edgerton and Nolte each contributing great subtlety to their characters. We cannot help but feel deep compassion for them all, even for Tommy, whose spiteful anger at first renders him if not unlikelable then at least inscrutable.

These performances are expressed with care and devotion by O’Connor’s direction, who drip feeds us their stories so that we are forced to rely on their interactions and nuanced expressions to understand them. The film places rewarding emphasis on the evolving relationships of its characters instead of the mindless escalation of fight scenes that typically structure lesser efforts. Yes, the fighting is a big part of this movie, but with considerable background and buildup, we are furnished with more than sufficient context to make the fights mean more than just dollars in the bank. There is no bad guy here, no nemesis to vanquish or damsel to liberate.

Indeed, when Tommy and Brendan meet each other in the grand final match of the championship, we were momentarily worried a potentially great film would be let down by a soft ending. Thankfully, this is not to be, with O’Connor delivering surely the most emotionally powerful fight scene ever to make it onto celluloid. Set to an unexpectedly sophisticated and wonderfully stirring soundtrack, the final fight delivers a much-needed release to many of the tensions that build throughout the film. So fraught with overlapping waves of hopes and fears are some of its moments we almost cried. That’s right, cried during a fight scene.

This is easily the best fighting film we have ever seen: 4.5 stars.

Hiding in the City

Hiding in the City – The Temple of Heaven, 2010

Hiding in New York – Magazine Rack, 2011

What is it?

A series of installation artworks by Chinese artist, Liu Bolin. Dubbed The Invisible Man, Bolin photographs himself in front and part of urban environments, his clothing and body painted with exacting patience to mimic his surrounds. A student of fine art and sculpture, he is both artist and muse, posing for anywhere between 4 and 10 hours while his assistants paint him into the cityscape.

Bolin’s works aim to reveal the tension that exists between the rulers and the ruled in China, whose people don’t always figure in their government’s relentless pursuit of economic growth. His art “represents the diminishing humanity in today’s society, a retrospective [appraisal] of culture, the environment and fast economic development.”

First seen on Unique Design Obsession, here.

What do we think?

Bolin’s photography is created with great precision, a number of cues revealing highly focussed and deliberate compositions.

First, his environments are carefully chosen, mostly urban settings with recognisable landmarks (the Great Wall of China, Wall Street, il Ponte di Rialto) or indicators of consumer culture (magazine racks, sawmills, supermarket aisles). These are places that refer to consumption and commerce. They are symbols of tourism, finance and industry. They immediately force us to reconcile his (non-)presence according to the cultural capital of his surrounds.

Second, he almost always places himself front and centre in his images, a decision that both highlights and subverts his importance within his surroundings. The former because he is like any tourist posing in front of the camera while on holiday, and the latter because he is in fact so perfectly camouflaged as to be almost invisible. That his camouflage is uni-directional i.e. only appropriate from a specific angle at a specific distance, further reinforces this duality of meaning.

And third, his process is in-situ, achieved using backdrops that are not fabricated but already exist in the world. The obviously painstaking preparation for a photo clashes with our understanding of the way his environments are normally used (hordes of tourists flocking along the Great Wall, investment bankers marching down Wall Street, consumers populating supermarkets).

Ponte di Rialto, 2010

Bolin’s work is layered fiction on top of non-fiction on top of fiction on top of non-fiction. He aims to question the costs to humanity of the capitalist machine, but offers far broader insight into the importance of places and their value in our lives. He creates worlds that are pristine in their emptiness, though should never be, and fills them with an absence both bizarre and sublime.

A carbon price

The 8th of November, 2011: an historic day for Australia, the day the federal Senate approved a price on pollution, 36 votes to 32.

The Labour party’s clean-energy package will be rolled out from July next year, with a carbon tax for the country’s 500 biggest polluters initially set at the (world’s highest) fixed price of $23 per tonne. From 2015, Australia will introduce a full emissions trading scheme.

The package has been criticised by the far left as unambitious and by the far right as a “betrayal of the Australian people”. We can say nothing more to the right other than we hope you don’t find your way to power in these crucial first years. To the left, we say that any project worth undertaking is not achieved with one giant leap, but with many small steps – a limited carbon tax is no giant leap, but it is an excellent first step in the right direction.

Julia Gillard, kudos.

Herman Miller vs. Matt Blatt

Who are they?

Herman Miller is a high-end furniture company that owns the production licenses for timeless pieces including the Eames Lounge Chair (above), the Eiffel Chair and the Aeron Chair. Matt Blatt is a furniture company that specialises in replica designer furniture (it lists 437 individual replica items on its website) that are generally manufactured in China and significantly cheaper than the originals. A genuine Eames Lounge Chair costs around AU$5,400, while the Matt Blatt replica costs AU$1895.

What happened?

Herman Miller recently announced it was taking legal action against Matt Blatt over copyright infringement of the Eames name. Despite Matt Blatt publicly undertaking in 2006 to “clearly identify the copies it markets of the iconic Charles and Ray Eames designed furniture as replicas”, it had failed to do so on a number of occasions. The matter was settled prior to appearing in court.

Though the terms of the settlement remain confidential, Jeremy Hocking, Vice President of Herman Miller Asia Pacific, confirmed that they are “satisfied with the radical changes to Matt Blatt’s website that were implemented immediately after legal proceedings commenced”. These changes include the following statement in bold on Matt Blatt’s homepage: “Matt Blatt’s replica products are not manufactured or approved by, or affiliated with, the original designers, manufacturers or distributors including Herman Miller, Charles or Ray Eames, Knoll, Fritz Hansen, Flos, Studio Italia, Giogali, Artemice Spa, Tolix or Xavier Pauchard“. Even with the word replica plastered all over its website, Matt Blatt does remain entitled to use the Eames name however.

What do we think?

The differences between original and replica furniture may be difficult for the casual observer to discern. A detail here, a material there are all that separates the two. It could be argued therefore that the original Eames Lounge Chair, at over 2.5 times the price of the replica, is a waste of money.

We beg to differ.

From a distance, under heavy fog or to the myopic, the differences between original and replica may be few, but for those who really care about good design, we argue that the money is merely a hurdle to surpass on the way to ownership of an original piece of designer furniture. It is likely the additional cost of an original offers the potential of increased resale value, however of more interest to us is the unquantifiable values it embodies. In buying original furniture, we are participating in the long and exciting history of design. We are purchasing an object that blossomed out of the minds of the world’s most celebrated designers. By recognising the importance of designer furniture that exists today, we are investing in the future of design and the untold number of classic pieces waiting to be created.

What should we learn?

We are lucky enough to own an original Eames Lounge Chair. It is a stunningly beautiful object, it is fantastically comfortable and it fills us with immeasurable joy knowing that it’s real, that it’s the Eames Chair. Herman Miller most likely spent a lot of money on the legal team responsible for the settlement with Matt Blatt. We’re glad they did. The originators of good design are too important to go unrecognised.

Herman Miller is a member of the Authentic Design Alliance, an organisation established to support the integrity of original, authentic design.

First seen on Australian Design Review, here.