What is a livable community, anyway?

A great article from Better Cities & Towns follows.  It asks the important question that I've had for years, namely, "where is my jet-pack?" 

Parks, an intelligent approach to economic development, and conscious urban planning are all aimed at improving quality of life through enhancements of the physical environment - hence the plethora of planning and economic develop posts of late.  

Robert Steuteville, Better Cities & Towns

A walkable community is the most common term to describe the alternative to drive-only suburbia. Walkability is easy to explain but uninspiring. Walking is so basic to human life that we often take it for granted. Perhaps a better term is livability.

Former US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defined livability as "a community where you can take kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, go to the grocery store, have dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get into a car.”

A walkable community is a livable community, says the plainspoken LaHood, a Republican who worked in the Obama administration. Walkability is implied—but access, connection, diversity of experience, and closeness are also qualities of a livable place, LaHood suggests.

The concept is a profound one for a transportation secretary: Life changes depending on whether a community is built around walking or driving.
A livable community, and how it differs from a place designed around driving, means the following:

Freedom of mobility. A walkable community is drivable as well. But the reverse is not true. Once a place is built around driving, walking is impractical for most purposes. The need to get around by car for every errand is not really freedom. The car is your master. How hard do you have to work to pay the $9,000 average cost to own a car? When it breaks down, you are stuck.

The livable city is the freedom to own a car—but drive it less. If you drive 5,000 miles a year, instead of 15,000 or 20,000, you can keep it three times longer and save about $5,000 a year. So, a livable community means the freedom to save money. You can give up the hassles of car ownership entirely and save even more.

A livable city offers transit, bicycling, car-share, bike-share, and other transportation options. A livable community is choice.

A public realm. Streets belong to the people in a livable community. Well-designed public spaces attract people as if by magic. Enrique Penalosa, the dynamic former mayor of Bogota, Columbia, notes, “Great public space is a kind of magical good. It never ceases to yield happiness. It is almost happiness itself.”

Streets for cars are places to move through quickly: They offer little to enjoy or appeal to the senses once you step out of the vehicle. In a drive-only community, the best public square may be a Walmart parking lot.

The enjoyment of public art and architecture. Towns and cities themselves are art. You can’t see it at 50 mph or very clearly at 30 mph—you must walk, bike, or drive slowly. The art of community building brings us together. When a town is built at a drivable scale, the art of creating a community is squandered and eventually forgotten.

Diversity and proximity. The livable community mixes the elements of a community together in a rich gumbo of culture. The livable city is not an endless, monotonous monoculture of single-family detached houses, connected to arterial roads. It is not boring. The livable city invites you to walk to the café, to parks, to the museums and restaurants.

The livable city is the five or 10-minute stumble from the tavern where you’ve had a few drinks (and maybe a few too many) with close friends. DUI is not a fear in the livable city.

Livable communities are improved by diversity and proximity.

A festive place. A community with public spaces designed for events offers more opportunity to celebrate with your neighbors. These public spaces are active 365 days a year—not just during special occasions—because they are surrounded by active buildings and neighborhoods.

A healthy place. The livable town puts exercise into you daily life, making you and your family healthier without a membership to a gym. The livable city allows children to walk to school, getting the arms and legs moving at the beginning and end of the school day. A livable town has parks and playgrounds that people of all ages can walk to. In a livable community the children play—at least sometimes—without the parents setting up a “play date.” A livable community has access to locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables—usually offered at an outdoor farmer’s market.

A place for chance encounters. A livable community is one where you see the doctor, school teacher, or plumber at the park, grocery store, or a community event. They know who you are and greet you. People get to know one another in many ways. This quality may seem less important in the era of Facebook and Twitter, but it is more important than many of us realize. Nothing will ever replace real-world encounters.

Value. The art of mixing uses in proximity creates value, promotes commerce, and meets a growing market demand.

Livable communities are closer, physically, to the neighborhoods where your grandparents were raised than to the isolated techno-utopia of the Jetsons (where is my jet-pack, by the way?). Livable communities look more like what a child would create if you asked them to build a village, neighborhood, or main street from blocks. Livable communities are hard-wired into the human race.

Livable communities are real communities.

In this modern era, generations after policymakers abandoned walking as transportation, the idea of livable communities may be less real to many people than Santa Claus. Yet as long as love, courage, and excellence are real, so are livable communities.

Robert Steuteville is editor and executive director of BetterCities & Towns.


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