Urbanie & Urbanus

Issue 2020 Nov

The Liveable City

Editor’s Note


The idea of the ‘liveable city’ emerged in the 1950s, as cities grew and multiplied and the processes of modernisation and urbanisation began to influence urban character (Kaal, 2011). The significant effects of the surrounding environment on residents health and well-being began to be seen not simply as the consequence and sacrifice of city living, but as something that could, and should, be managed and controlled (Detwyler and Marcus, 1972 & Michelson, 1973).‘Liveability’ is defined by the person-environment relationship and in the context of a city is influenced by both the tangible, physical elements and intangible, socio-cultural factors.

The physical factors can be measured and evaluated as a set of numerical/performance-based criteria. For these, theorists (Namazi-Rad, Perez, Berryman and Lamy, 2012) have identified five fundamental aspects liveable cities: robust and complete neighbourhoods, accessibility and sustainabity of mobility, a diverse and resilient local economy, vibrant public spaces, and affordability.

The socio-cultural factors are more subjective, based on the perspective of each citizen, with a looser framework that emphasises the experiences of people who are living in the community. It has been defined as “how well the city works for us, as well as how comfortable and enjoyable our neighbourhood and city are” (Southworth , 2003), and “The idea of a liveable city is to bring the community together for healthy living, enhance their interaction among themselves and surrounding environment and sustainably promote their productivity and wellbeing” (Maheshwari, Singh, & Thoradeniya, 2016). 

Each city has its own challenges and opportunities when seeking to strike the balance between economic vitality and quality of life and considering these tangible and intangible factors. In the case of the compact city of Hong Kong, a key physical factor is certainly density. As Peter Cookson Smith (2020) notes ‘a central issue is the already high development density. Our population density over the entire territory averages 6,700 persons per sq km. If only built areas which account for 24 percent of land are taken into account, the density averages 27,330 persons per sq km and that in itself represents one of our essential problems when it comes to liveability’.

This density bring’s with it a host of challenges, including high pollution levels, as highlighted by Huang et al in our last issue (U+U Issue 3, 2019, pg 37), an increased usage of private cars and a higher risk of the spread of airborne virus as we continue to witness with Covid 19. Hong Kong’s geo-political position has also resulted in an increase in civil unrest in recent years, which can be discussed in many ways but if we focus on the issue of liveability there has certainly been an impact.

As we become by necessity more focused on the environment and the importance of sustainable solutions, this also influences what “liveability’ means. It requires that we focus on sustainable approaches to urban energy efficiency, urban mobility, urban climate control and urban smart technology. This should include cutting edge approaches to new and long-standing issues, such as the pioneering work the MIT Senseable Lab is doing to counter solar gain and the heat island effect in dense cities such as Hong Kong. Such findings can inform a more holistic approach towards urban development.

It will be intriguing to see how are cities evolve and react to these challenges over the next 10 years. As urban designers we should be at the top table of key actors and decision makers in forging a path towards a better quality and more sustainable urban environment, with great streets and sustainable communities, where walking and cycling can be the preferred options for most trips, where public spaces are beautiful, well-designed, and well-maintained, and where housing is more plentiful and more affordable.

According to CNN in 2019, Vienna topped the Global Liveability Index of the 140 cities surveyed, followed by Melbourne, Sydney, Osaka and Calgary. make up the top five on the annual Global Liveability Index of 140 cities around the world. Hong Kong is currently ranked 38, with Singapore close behind at 40, and Dubai at 70. As urban designers we can use both our professional knowledge and our imaginations in design strategies for Liveable Cities that can shift these indices by offering improvements in land use, open space, and environmental policy, running programs, and supporting grassroots initiatives to make our cities more walkable, healthier and safer. In this way urban residents can feel a greater sense of ownership, belonging and pride in a public life that they have participated in making more pleasant for all.

In this issue, 7 professionals tackle this topic from a range of perspectives that are both theoretical and practicefocused. I see these perspectives as a series of pieces in the jigsaw that makes up the city with self-esteem and selfefficacy.