Livability: Urban amenity


Although Australian cities, as they function currently, demonstrate environmental footprints that are not sustainable, they generally rank high on measures of livability. A range of elements contribute to the livability of a built environment: urban amenity; housing; transport; air and water quality; access to the natural environment; and heritage, social and aesthetic aspects.

Urban amenity

Amenity generally means access to shops and other services required for daily living. This includes access to employment, health care, educational services, transport, cultural and leisure services, and green spaces.

Access to commercial and community services

In addition to proximity to employment opportunities, access to commercial areas and services—such as schools and other educational facilities, health services and transport—is a key aspect of urban amenity that contributes to high levels of livability within the built environment. Established residential areas are typically serviced by a wider range (but, in the short term, a fixed number) of community services than are available on urban fringes. Greenfield developments and master-planned communities include provisions for services and infrastructure; however, this typically occurs at an earlier stage of development than many of the high-value services that are only delivered when the community reaches a critical mass (HIA 2015).

Figures BLT17, BLT18, BLT19 show the overall proportion of capital cities’ populations with different levels of accessibility to shopping infrastructure, health infrastructure and education infrastructure, respectively. The Metropolitan Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (Metro ARIA), developed by the Hugo Centre for Migration and Population Research, and sponsored by the Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network, provides a nationally consistent and comparable dataset that quantifies geographic accessibility within the metropolitan area. Metro ARIA is the first national metropolitan accessibility index of its kind, covering all Australian capital-city urban centres. The index reflects the ease or difficulty people face in accessing basic services within metropolitan areas, derived from the measurement of road distances that people travel to reach different services.

Generally, capital-city residents have good accessibility to shopping and education infrastructure, with less than 20 per cent of residents having limited or low access to these services. Exceptions are Darwin, with nearly one-third of residents in these categories for accessibility to shopping, and Brisbane, where 40 per cent of the population had limited or low accessibility to education infrastructure.

Accessibility to health infrastructure is more variable, with Hobart, Darwin, Canberra and Brisbane all recording more than one-third of their populations with limited or low accessibility.

Accessibility to various amenities will, however, differ across location within a city. An increasing number of people are living further away from central business districts and employment hubs. Developments on the urban fringe are characterised by lower housing and employment density, limited (if any) mixed-use development, and poor access to public transport. This increases distances between where people live and where they need to travel for work, recreation and other services (Armstrong et al. 2015). Figures BLT20 and BLT21 show that some outer regions of capital cities have limited accessibility to education and health services.

Access to green space

Access to green or open space is also an important aspect of amenity and livability (see also Boxes BLT3, BLT4 and BLT17). The provision of this amenity is linked to recreation enjoyment, health benefits (with residents also likely to be undertaking physical activities in parks), and other cultural services, including the preservation of ecosystems and species (Townsend et al. 2015).

Preliminary findings from an extensive review of the current research and evidence on the connection between nature and health by Parks Victoria, and the School of Health and Social Development of Deakin University (Townsend et al. 2015) found that:

  • people living more than 1 kilometre away from a green space have 1.42 higher odds of experiencing stress than those living less than 300 metres from a green space
  • residents in neighbourhoods containing more than 20 per cent green space were significantly more likely both to walk and to participate in moderate to vigorous physical activities at least weekly.

An analysis of Melbourne’s metropolitan parks in 2013, included in Parks Victoria’s Valuing Victoria’s parks (Parks Victoria 2015) showed a 5–7 per cent increase in home value for immediate urban and peri-urban park neighbours, with the amenity value for residents immediately surrounding Melbourne’s urban and peri-urban parks being $326–438 million or $21–28 million per year. Further work is required to improve the quality of data for amenity value of Melbourne-based parks and extend the assessment of amenity value to other parks within Victorian regional centres. Similar data were found for Perth (McIntosh et al. 2014).

National data on green space, and built and urban environments are of variable quality; however, the Australian Bureau of Statistics used green space data supplied by PSMA Australia and 2011 Census population data to determine the proportion of the population living within 400 metres (a commonly used definition of walking distance) of public green space in Australia’s capital cities (Figure BLT23). Green space per person for each capital city was also calculated. This provides an indication of how the amounts of green space and access to it vary between cities, but should be interpreted with caution because of the variable quality of the data.

Canberra had the highest levels of green space per person, followed by Perth, then Hobart. Sydney and Adelaide had the lowest amount of green space per person.

Melbourne and Perth had the highest proportion of people living more than 400 metres from green space, with 1 in 5 residents in these cities not within 400 metres of green space. Residents of Canberra–Queanbeyan and Adelaide were most likely to be within 400 metres of green space (98 per cent and 95 per cent, respectively).

Work by Astell-Burt et al. (2014) found that there were inequities in access to green space by area‐level disadvantage across Australia’s 5 most populous cities: those who are living in the most disadvantaged areas are less likely to have access to green space. The magnitude of inequity differs between cities, with Melbourne having the most equitable distribution of green spaces of all the cities, potentially reflecting the public open space proximity standard of the Victorian Planning Provisions.

Box BLT3 Benefits of contact with nature and green space

Contact with nature and engaging with public open spaces are important for human health and wellbeing—they promote physical activity and mental health, thus reducing blood pressure, body mass index and stress levels (Badland et al. 2015). The importance of provision of public open space has received much attention in the built environment and public health field (Beatley 2011).

In 2011–12, community engagement with nature conservation was surveyed across Australia to measure Australians’ engagement with the natural environment and participation in nature conservation activities (ABS 2013c).

Most Australians enjoy the benefits of the natural environment. In 2011–12, nearly three-quarters of Australian adults (73 per cent) took part in some activity that involved contact with nature in the previous 12 months. The most popular of these activities was visiting a national park or botanic garden (52 per cent), followed by a nature walk or bushwalk (42 per cent)

Of those people who participated in activities involving contact with nature, 93 per cent did so for enjoyment, followed by social reasons (59 per cent) and exercise (49 per cent). Environmental reasons such as support for local environment and nature conservation were less common reasons for participation in natural environment–related activities (15 and 10 per cent, respectively).

A substantial body of evidence demonstrates the positive effect of green space on wellbeing. Healthy parks, healthy people: the state of the evidence 2015 (Townsend et al. 2015) draws on more than 600 published articles, finding that:

  • youth engaging in parks find nature to be therapeutic and rewarding, which facilitates their health, wellbeing and spiritual growth
  • children involved in unstructured play in nature are calmer; will engage in richer imaginative play, increased physical activity and more focused play; and have positive social interactions
  • structured activity in local parks is a motivator for older adults to visit, and share with their peers
  • adolescents who spend time in nature have a greater sense of calm and focus during study, increased health and wellbeing, and a greater environmental awareness
  • students with learning disabilities and/or behavioural conditions benefit the most from school-based learning that incorporates the outdoors
  • restoration of attention and general sense of wellbeing increases after sitting in a park for 15 minutes
  • time spent outdoors is linked with increased work productivity and creativity, and decreased levels of stress and anxiety
  • exercising in parks benefits adults’ relaxation and stress management, improving their capacity to disconnect from the rigours of their busy lives
  • spending time in nature provides rehabilitative and recuperative benefits to those suffering serious physical and mental illnesses.

Ambrey & Fleming (2013) found a positive relationship between the percentage of public green space in a resident’s local area and their self-reported life satisfaction. Additional results suggest that the relationship between public green space and life satisfaction is nonlinear; the value of green space increases with population density; and single parents, people with lower levels of education and those living in high-rise dwellings benefit more from public green space than the general population.

Coleman S (2016). Built environment: Livability: Urban amenity. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65a5037ed8