Surviving Melbourne: a brief history of the world’s most liveable city

In 2016, the Economist’s Global Liveability Index ranked Melbourne the world’s ‘Most Liveable City’ for the sixth year in a row.

That same year, I spent my first two semesters of tertiary education at Melbourne’s premier university, living in a cramped twenty-four person share-house in the inner-city. Although essentially a backpackers’ hostel, the house also provided cheap long-term accommodation to those of us who could not afford to live comfortably in the world’s most liveable city.

Over time, I discovered an abundance of similarly overcrowded share-houses littered throughout the shining new residential towers of Melbourne’s CBD and between many of the charming terrace houses of the inner-suburbs. Whether it was a twenty square-metre shoe-box apartment housing two people in rooms without windows, or a dilapidated share-house offering accommodation in an outdoor shed, such residences demanded payment for the uninhabitable.

The low-income students and workers who populated these homes did so while navigating an endless series of financial hurdles and barriers across the city’s terrain. Evidently, in a city defined by inflated rent prices and exorbitant living costs, liveability did not translate to affordability, nor to protection from the debilitating effects of housing insecurity.


Melbourne’s popular narrative of easy living nonetheless persists, obscuring the experiences of discomfort and distress of the city’s most marginalised.

This is hardly surprising, if you consider that the Economist’s Liveability Index originated as a resource for corporate professionals, and reflects their interests over the concerns of lower-income residents.

The Victorian Government has enthusiastically promoted this appraisal in an effort to market Melbourne’s investment potential. Liveability, the State Government claims, ‘is a key factor in the city’s attractiveness for investors’, and can be used to lure talented professionals into the city.

According to this understanding, liveability relates more to the healthy flow of capital than of human lives. Wealth and liveability represent forces that amplify each other to the exclusion of those outside of their reach.

Existing within that margin, the narrative of liveability quickly revealed itself to me as a mere marketing slogan which held no stock in the reality of my experiences, nor those of my peers. After all, we also lived in this city – but we lived in a way that no one seemed to be advertising.


The present myth of Melbourne’s liveability is not a historically new phenomenon, but merely the latest manifestation of decades of deliberate discursive construction. 

These efforts began with the city’s white settlement in 1835, entrenched in the lie of terra nullius and the erasure of Indigenous sovereignty. Within the new colonial order, the relationships between people and shared physical space, which culminate to form the urban environment, were radically reconfigured around the ever-present intermediary of capital.

By the 1880s, the leftover wealth of the Victorian gold rush, and the subsequent land boom fuelled by British investment, lead to the city’s urban renaissance and the emergence of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’. This popularly celebrated prosperity however not only excluded, but necessitated and perpetuated the dispossession of Indigenous peoples; the founding narrative of Melbourne’s success dependent upon their erasure.

Despite these celebrations, the young city’s early affluence did not persist into the new century. By the 1930s, extensive areas of the inner-suburbs were dominated by urban slums, home to the dire poverty of the Great Depression. Emerging from this environment was Oswald Barnett, an accountant and later activist for the abolition of Melbourne’s slums.

‘The slums are prisons’, Barnett wrote in 1934, ‘in which many of our young lives are damned from birth, with very little hope of escape’.

Barnett methodically documented the conditions of slums across suburbs such as Carlton, Fitzroy, Collingwood, and Brunswick, campaigning for the development of public housing in their place. The Housing Commission of Victoria (HCV) evolved from this work, and by the 1960s began clearing large areas of the inner-suburbs for the construction of high-rise public housing estates. Barnett, then in the final years of his life, commented on the HCV’s work despairingly, stating, ‘They’ve gone in for highrise. Our thinking was for homes.’

Housing as many people in as small a space as possible, the public housing towers arguably only contained and concentrated the city’s poverty from its previous urban sprawl. In the remaining terrace-houses of the inner-suburbs, rooms that once held entire working-class families were now occupied by middle-class youth, attracted by the area’s cheap prices and its proximity to major tertiary institutions.

The following decades saw to the rampant gentrification of the inner-suburbs – their social, economic, and cultural transformation subject to the imposition of middle-class tastes and attitudes. Alongside the rapid deindustrialisation occurring since the 1960s, demographic changes produced a local economy heavily dependent on the consumption of leisure and recreational ‘lifestyle’ services. David Nichols, Renate Howe and Graeme Davison have documented in their book Trendyville, this metamorphosis – from slum districts to café-society – silently exiled those populations who did not, or could not, subscribe to the new dominant culture of consumption.

In the 1990s, a similar process of transformation penetrated the city’s core. Combatting Melbourne’s description as a ‘doughnut city’ with a depopulated ‘dead heart’, market-driven policymakers sought to secure an expanded inner-city population that would propel the centre’s commercial growth.

Following a neoliberal agenda, development was prioritised over maintaining previous planning controls, fuelling an over-production of high-density dwellings. The chief beneficiaries of these policies were the financial investors, while the homeless and precariously housed suffered the most, having previously relied on the inner-city for cheap temporary accommodation.

The deliberate removal of these dwellings, and the rejection of those who inhabited them, made way for the creation of a consumer paradise in the city centre, untarnished by a previously visible poverty. Ultimately, Melbourne’s urban rejuvenation was only achieved by displacing its most vulnerable residents, continuing a long tradition of marginalisation which has served to build, and rebuild, the city’s narrative of success.


By the turn of the twentieth century, Marvellous Melbourne’s rebirth was finally realised.

After decades of vanishing undesirable populations, the city was perfectly poised to earn its praise as ‘the world’s most liveable city’ for the first time in 2010. It retained this title for the following seven years, while a growing housing and homelessness crisis was left majorly unaddressed.

The burial of this unpleasant truth has laid the groundwork for the present neoliberal political landscape, in which the primacy of capital dictates that the city itself sell its potential within the global marketplace. Selling Melbourne to the world has required reliance on discourses of prosperity, founded in notions of liveability for the already comfortable. On the ground, this has meant the creation of a liveable city where certain communities prosper at the expense of others’ livelihoods.

From the underside of liveability however, comes a cry for the re-imagination of our urban existences; for the pursuit of an affluence which is not the product of another’s dispossession, but the result of our collective prosperity. Until such visions materialise, grand titles of liveability remain subject to the present reality, in which almost anywhere in the world may be liveable – provided a high enough price is paid.

Elina Abou-Sleiman

Elina Abou-Sleiman is a Lebanese-Australian writer and historian currently based in Meanjin (Brisbane) on Yuggera and Turrbal country.

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