Who Says What’s Livable?

A look at the ambiguity of the term “livable” and its use – and misuse – by urbanists and officials.

Is this livability? pugetsoundphotowalks

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

Per Infrastructurist, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says that livability means “being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get in your car.” DOT’s recently-released livable communities strategic goal lists four desired “outcomes,” all of which jive pretty well with that quote:

1. Increased access to convenient and affordable transportation choices
2. Improved public transit experience
3. Improved networks that accommodate pedestrians and bicycles
4. Improved access to transportation for special needs populations and individuals with disabilities

All worthy goals, those. And it’s been damn refreshing to hear DOT prioritize them. But what, precisely, makes them “livable?”

Undertaking some rigorous academic inquiry, I Googled “livability.” The first result brings up a site called livability.com, which lists (shockingly) America’s most livable places. So what’s America’s most livable place? That depends on what you want: as a twentysomething, I decided to check out the best places for recent grads. I’d guess I should have relocated to Castle Rock, Colorado, because it has the highest median income for individuals aged 25 to 40.

The site is focused almost entirely on small cities and suburbs. With one or two exceptions, these are not places one generally associates with any kind of “public transit experience.”

Next result: The Livability Project, a non-profit consulting firm. Indeed, nowhere in the first five pages is there anything that amounts to a definition of livability.

So, I tried livable – which has a definition! It is, according to Merriam-Webster: suitable for living in, on, or with. Nothing about public transportation, walking or bicycles.

What is a place that is suitable for living in, on, or with? Most obviously, its place where you don’t die. Its also probably a place where you can find a job, make friends, and pursue activities you enjoy. It goes without saying that all of this is different for different people, which is the source of the word’s vagueness. If your favorite hobbies are gardening and car maintenance, you might actually be happier in suburbia.

Indeed, the appropriation of the word “livable” by transit advocates and urbanists has two main problems, which are related: Firstly, as evidenced by the the second Google result for “livability” being a consulting firm, “livable community” is consultant-speak. It sounds nice, no one can disagree with it, and, like Barack Obama in February 2007, we can all happily project our dreams onto it.

So – and here’s the second reason – urbanists and transit advocates are happily projecting their dreams onto it. I happen to share many of those dreams. But some people don’t. To these people, Secretary LaHood’s “livable community” may not be very livable at all. While it’s true that there’s an unmet demand for urban, or at least mid-density, living in this country, there are actually some people who like living in the suburbs. Sure, even they’d probably like to be able to buy a quart of milk without driving fifteen minutes. But they’re happy with the trade-offs they’ve made. And when someone comes along telling them that the community they are perfectly happy in is not “livable,” whatever that means, it should come as no surprise that they think its really a cover for the federal government writing all zoning rules and uprooting their carefully-manicured lawn.

Urbanists and transit advocates have very worthy goals, goals that should be explained properly. Let’s start here: DOT’s strategic goal can be for “walkable communities.”

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Tags: urban planningwashington dctransportation spendinggovernancedenvergoogleray lahood

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 1111 other sustainers such as:

  • Brian at $60/Year
  • Paul at $120/Year
  • Anonymous at $10/Month

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $20 or $5/Month

    20th Anniversary Solutions of the Year magazine

has donated ! Thank you 🎉