50 years of gentrification: will all our cities turn into ‘deathly’ Canberra?

The drive to make cities more ‘liveable’ means parks, plazas and happy pedestrians. But the reality is ever more sterile, identikit cities where public space isn’t public at all

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50 years of gentrification: will all our cities turn into 'deathly' Canberra?
Canberra in the fog: Australia’s capital has for the second year running topped the OECD’s list of most liveable cities / © Auscape/UIG/Getty Images
50 years of gentrification: will all our cities turn into 'deathly' Canberra?
Canberra in the fog: Australia’s capital has for the second year running topped the OECD’s list of most liveable cities / © Auscape/UIG/Getty Images

What makes a liveable city? Having lots of nice parks, you might think, a decent public transport system, good schools and hospitals, great architecture, exciting nightlife, easy access to the countryside. These are just some of the factors used by organisations who draw up annual lists of “the most liveable cities in the world”. And yet somehow, they end up with Canberra.

This year, for the second year running, Australia’s political capital was named the best city in the world by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), a result that made northern hemisphere observers wonder if, down under, they were looking at the rankings upside down.

Canberra is a deathly place. It is a city conceived as a monument to the roundabout and the retail park, a bleak and relentless landscape of axial boulevards and manicured verges, dotted with puffed-up state buildings and gigantic shopping sheds. It is what a city looks like when it is left to politicians to plan.

So what other cities make it on to the rankings? The Economist Intelligence Unit puts Melbourne in first place, followed by Vienna, Vancouver, Toronto, Adelaide and Calgary. There is never any mention, on any list, of London or New York, Paris or Hong Kong. There are no liveable cities where you might actually want to live. It makes you wonder if their chief parameter is finding a place where you won’t be disturbed from reading the Economist on a windswept plaza, surrounded by the soulless wipe-clean charm of an identikit downtown. Liveability, it seems, is defined by a total absence of risk or chance, pleasure or surprise. It is an index of comfort, a guide to places where you can go safe in the knowledge you’ll never be far from a Starbucks.

The one thing many of these cities have in common is that they are places where Jan Gehl has worked his magic. The Danish guru of streets and public spaces has made a career out of travelling the world to whisper sweet nothings about pedestrianisation and pavement cafes into the ears of enrapt mayors. He has become the patron saint of liveability. ….

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