Livability to the Rescue

The Partners for Livable Communities organized a forum in Washington, D.C. to explore how federal and local governments are applying strategies that enhance livability in order to rebuild communities. Paris Glendening, former Governor of Maryland and one of the first major proponents of smart growth and livable communities, kicked off the meeting by saying for the first time an administration is focused on “place-based outcomes” for its policies. He added that terms like smart growth and eco-communities and tools like LEED-ND are no longer odd concepts for local policymakers. “All these concepts are out front now.” 

Also, in comparison with other countries developing livable communities strategies, the U.S. still has an advantage due to a “secret weapon”: non-governmental partnerships. “Businesses, philanthropies, foundations, civic groups and government” all work together to create great places.

Building Livability into Federal Policy

James Lopez, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Beth Osborne, Department of Transportation (DOT), outlined the approach taken by the new DOT-HUD-E.P.A. federal partnership for sustainable communities (see earlier post). Lopez said the three departments are slowly integrating their work, creating interdependencies between the different agencies and the new governmental “infrastructure for livability.” He said a key part of this has been defining high-level indicators of success, which have been crucial to developing agency-level visioning, principles, and action plans.

Osborne said for DOT “livability can be defined as transportation choice, housing choice, and multiple options close to home.” She added that the current transportation system is “broke” and livable communities can save both local governments and people money.

Communities investing in expanding transportation options where infrastructure already exists can leverage efficiencies. “Salt Lake City saved $4.5 billion by creating more transit options.” As for people, the average American is spending 55 percent of their income on housing and transportation, but 45 percent is the threshhold for an affordable lifestyle that enables saving. Market demand for livable communities still outstrips supply so one key goal of the partnership is to make more of these communities available for people who want to live there. Osborne said “around 30 percent of the market is looking for affordable, livable communities” but currently the market only meets two percent of overall demand.

Leslie Shephard from the General Services Administration (GSA), the landowner of the U.S. government, said his employer is responsible for 350 million-square-feet in 8,000 buildings in 2,000 communities. GSA has received $5.5 billion in recovery funds, $4 billion of which has been spent to modernize old buildings and make them more sustainable.

GSA just announced its partnering with Metropolis magazine on this year’s next-generation design competition. The competition for 2011 will focus on turning a clunker of an 1960’s office building in L.A. into a net-zero building. The idea is to then expand the workable concept to more of GSA’s buildings.

The organization is also rolling out a sustainable location policy in an attempt to avoid dropping huge “big box” buildings into the middle of communities, majorly disrupting them in the process. GSA is now focusing on integrating buildings into communities through master planning efforts. Also, there’s a new strategy for turning government building plazas into spaces that enable livability — farmers’ markets are now allowed in many plazas on weekends. Lastly, GSA is spending $5 million per year on public art.

Rachel Goslins, Executive Director of The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities said arts groups look at communities through the “lens of livability.” She made a strong case for community libraries, museums, theatres and galleries, arguing that “they add local character and places are no place without them. Communities with strong personalities are ones we want to visit.” Furthermore, community cultural institutions “connect” the people that already live there and “tell us about where we live.” She cited recent research from the University of Pennsylvania that demonstrates that “art-rich neighborhoods also have lower crime activity,” which reinforces the value of arts and culture in livability.

Using Livability to Rebuild Local Communities

Joe Cartright, President of Impressa, discussed a report he did for CEO for Cities (see earlier post), which outlined how cities must invest in talent, innovation, distinctiveness, and places in order to be sustainable and livable over the long-term. Talent is about attracting smart people to live in your community. Innovation relates to a range of factors, but patents are a good indicator of levels of innovation (and future expected economic growth). Distinctiveness is about “harvesting the distinctiveness of place,” which could include distinctive behaviors. As an example, he cited Portland’s 1960’s running culture, which led to the development of sneakers and then Nike, a local firm that has become the leader in the global sneaker industry. Lastly, place matters because cities provide connections that facilitate economic and cultural activity.

Citing CEO for Cities’ report, he said being sited in walkable neighborhoods adds between $10,000 and 30,000 to a home’s value. Furthermore, people who live in these neighborhoods spend less on transportation, freeing up money that can be spent in the community. “Livability is not a thrill.”

Rob Mosher, Legislative Director for Representative Doris Matsui, added that livability is not just for young people, but “older Americans also deserve to live in communities where they can safely walk and interact with their neighbors.” Citing the integral role seniors play in community development, he said Rep. Matsui sponsored the Complete Streets Act, which aims to provide safe all for all users on all roads.

Vin Cipolla, President of the Municipal Arts Society (MAS) of New York outlined the case for New York City as one of the greenest and most livable places in the U.S., largely citing arguments made by Jane Jacobs and The New Yorker writer David Owen, author of “Green Metropolis” (see an interview). He added that NYC still has its problems though, including the influx of big box stores, crumbling mass transit stations, and crappy sidewalks.

To deal with the loss of jobs from the city center, which Cipolla sees happening with the gradual decline of the Garment District as a functioning work area, MAS is sponsoring a livability summit in the Penn District. Cipolla said this is a livability issue because garment industry jobs used to be close to the homes of workers. Now, jobs are moving out of the city or overseas. He said “livability is about creating a sense of place, and sense of neighborhood and connecting with other people.”

All panelists also pointed to the value of Web-based tools like and “see these as the first of many apps.” MAS is also working with NYU on a set of Web-based tools that will enable the development of a “planning democratization platform” for New York City.

Innovative Mayors Applying Livability Strategies

Jay Williams, the Mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, said once his city was listed as one of Forbes magazine’s “fastest dying cities,” he decided to form a coalition with the other nine post-industrial, economically-devastated, and largely-Mid Western cities, called the “Living Cities Group.” In addition, he created the Youngstown 2010 Initiative which includes a set of local livability initiatives. “You have to start with the local community and build up. We had previously done nothing, feeling like someone owed us something.” William’s ultimate goal is to transform Youngstown into a “place of choice,” meaning that people will chose to live there instead of feeling as if they are stuck there.

Chattanooga, Tennessee Mayor Ron Littlefield has seen livability go from a “radical concept” to best practice. He guided the formation of the Chattanooga Venture, a multi-stakeholder partnership that launched a set of public meetings that brought in thousands of people throughout the city to talk about how the city could be improved. “We produced a workbook, not a plan, small and concise.” The city’s workbook featured small and large projects, but one-by-one the city went about implementing.

He said the investments in livability have paid off because Chattanooga has beaten out a number of other high-profile cities in luring major European firms to set up research and manufacturing plants in the city. Volkswagen U.S.A. was drawn in because of the city’s riverwalk, which was expanded to meet their new plant ten miles out of the city. “VW said the economic incentives offered by all cities were basically the same. Intangibles made all the difference and became tangible.” Now, the city is making the livable city lists.

Peter Harkness, editor of Governing magazine and moderator, lauded the increasingly popular livable community approach, but also asked: What happens when the economy bounces back? Will we return to carbon-copy developments on cheap land that contribute to more sprawl? Can the new federal partnership on sustainable communities actually stop this from happening?

Image credit: Chattanooga Riverwalk / Be magazine

2 thoughts on “Livability to the Rescue

  1. Leni Schwendinger 10/03/2010 / 9:51 pm

    Thanks for a continued finessing of the term “livability”. Great news that a number of agencies and non-profits are sharing ideas and initiatives.

    Throughout the article, one thinks about the city during daylight hours – but what about the after-dark urban experience?

    To consider the night, please read my report on the ASLA Annual Meeting LightWalk and other initiatives to bring attention to cities at night;

  2. Mark Johnson 02/16/2011 / 4:53 pm

    All good. But, for livability in a broader (biodiversity) context; check out Douglas Tallamy’s book on “Bringing Home Nature”. Nice amenities for humans do not necessarily provide for other life forms that are important to us.

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