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“Livability” — Wimpy Term But Big Stakes For Us All

Neal Peirce / Jun 05 2010

For Release Sunday, June 06, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWASHINGTON — Is the Obama administration’s “livability” initiative just a way for intrusive federal bureaucrats to choke off Americans’ prized “automobility” — four wheels to commute from ever-distant suburbs, or just to pick up a quart of milk?

That’s the way some commentators would have it. Disregarding the administration’s clear language about respecting local character and values, they pounced on words of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — that livability is “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.”

LaHood, a former Republican member of Congress known for his moderate views, got labeled “the Secretary of Behavior Modification” by columnist George Will. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) worried publicly about “federal decision-makers in Washington (telling) communities how they should grow.”

And transportation analyst Ken Orski recently concluded that “the administration’s desire to impose its own vision of how Americans should live and travel represents a misguided and in the end futile gesture.”


There’s no question the word “livability” is wimpish and terribly imprecise (if anyone has a better synonym, please speak up). Yet the intent is as American as apple pie.

“Livability is a shorthand way of saying we’re going to spend $1 to solve $4 worth of challenges,” says District of Columbia planning director Harriet Tregoning. “It’s about getting multiple outcomes that communities want with a single investment. It’s an approach any conservative should love.”

Examples: As combined housing and transportation costs begin to eat up as much as 60 percent of working families’ incomes, livability means encouraging energy-efficient housing at locations close to work sites with public transit options, enhancing Americans’ real incomes.

As the nation’s prospective future oil supplies dwindle in the face of BP-Gulf-type disasters, plus price escalation and/or cutoffs by hostile foreign regimes, livability means tilting government’s regulatory and incentive tools toward more compact, close-in, less petroleum-demanding communities — undergirding national security in the process.

As health costs from escalating obesity threaten a tsunami of diabetes, heart and cancer conditions undermining Americans’ life expectancy, reducing personal incomes and ravaging government budgets, a planning “tilt” encouraging less sedentary time in cars, more exercise and walking, makes huge sense. That’s “livability” too.

As America’s existing infrastructure of roads and waterworks and sewage facilities crumbles, running up a cumulative bill in the trillions, the idea of “fix it first” of existing systems, of restoring older communities, should easily trump public funds going to finance infrastructure for disconnected enclaves of new family homes, office structures and strip malls.
What about those Americans who prefer living in suburban communities they consider safe, with the privacy of their own backyards and, in Orksi’s words, “the freedom, comfort, convenience and flexibility of personal transportation”? Isn’t that what most Americans would consider livability?

The answer is surely “yes” for millions. And it’s likely the suburbia they know and love (pending a cataclysmic energy crisis) will endure for decades to come.

But past needn’t be prelude. The “American century” of cheap energy and road-heavy development costs is over. And we can see the first wave of change in high numbers of today’s most creative American professionals (and youth) opting for the excitement of city life or seeking out more walkable suburban town centers.

As 100 million more Americans join us by 2040 (according to Census projections), we need far more creative, money-saving, energy-conscious, walkable, multi-service communities.

Can — or should — the federal government mandate all local governments make those choices? No. But it can encourage them, rejigger funding and planning incentives for saner choices, publicize new models, hold competitions for best new practices.

In fact, a clear-headed national government owes us no less. Because its job is to protect the national security, set strict environmental safety rules, and encourage our competitiveness on the world economic stage.

If you like weak and ineffectual governance from Washington, just apply the operating rules of the U.S. Minerals Management Service that failed to avert the truly appalling Gulf of Mexico crisis, or the financial regulators who failed to protect us against the excesses that triggered the Great Recession.

A federal finger on the scale in favor of compact, economical, resource-conserving development doesn’t need to be as heavy as safety regulation. Key words in the administration’s initiative are affordability, access, choices, connection, character of place, collaboration — hardly some kind of ruthless dictation. But we do need federal leadership — no apologies — in the tradition of the bold nation-building initiatives of our history, from the canals and first railways to today’s interstate system.
And if this means a reprise of the more compact, “know your neighbor” town and city patterns that served America so well up to World War II, we’ll be well served.

Note: For a full rundown on the school lunch issue, check Janet Poppendieck’s new book, Free For All: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press).

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp.,, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375,


  1. Posted June 6, 2010 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    This is a good article. Understanding the vagaries of the term Livability, sometimes the abstract is necessary for rhetorical purposes where people can then assign their own meaning to it (which really, is what livability is about). Meaning we have to balance the playing field and limit the subsidies towards the anti-urban or suburban bankrupting the country in order to accommodate the needs and wants of all rather than the few who desire suburbia and cramming the rest of us into that tent.

    As for defining it, I try to answer what it means in my blog post here:

    Walkable DFW – Livability and Losing the Creative Class

    “Livability, what people are looking for and where they are moving to are places where CHOICE is in abundance; where people can live the way they want without fear of persecution; where people can find quality housing of the size and type suitable to their needs in neighborhoods of the character matching their desires. Multiple modes of transportation are available allowing for the universal access of all to their destinations. Then there are other kinds of access such as, to education for personal advancement and the CHOICE of careers and to healthcare and justice for well-being of body, mind, and soul.”

    Of course, current discourse could also use a good dose of complexity, but let’s just get the term into the common lexicon first.

  2. Christa Clark Jones
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Great article.
    How about the term ‘Lovable City’?

  3. Posted June 6, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Or – we could limit legal immigration to the 1965 level of 250,000 – thus cutting our problems by nearly 100 million.
    To live closer to our jobs, we need to end our disastrous drug prohibition which causes people NOT to live in the city they work.
    Since the feds are 13 trillion in debt and the Interstate Highway system is complete, we should stop sending dollars to DC and then have them comeback in the form of expensive, boondoggle Ear Marks. Let the federal hwy tax expire! Starve the beast.

    Great article which just needed my ideas. LOL

  4. Ethan Seltzer
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Neal… Nice story. One comment: fix it first is kind of like eating at Subway to lose weight. Lots of that stuff needing fixing is the reason why so many American cities are less livable than as described by Secretary LaHood. Fixing it solves no problems, and in fact, keeps us locked in to a world we can’t sustain if we’re at all serious about issues like sustainability and climate change. What’s really missing in all this is a coherent, articulate vision for the future and for the “American dream,” for what our next generations of investment are trying to serve in, well, a concrete (and steel) sense. As long as we put off that discussion, we’ll simply be arguing about whether the Feds are trying to micromanage the localities, or whether local growth proponents are simply self-serving plunderers. Needed: new voices staking out challenging perspectives that give LaHood’s very reasonable voice more cover.

  5. James Hencke
    Posted June 7, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget the term “active transportation” (walk, bike, or skate) as a key strategy to combat the obesity epidemic and re-balance priorities within our public rights-of-way.

  6. Effie S
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    First, Go Neal! Having worked on the “livability” issue at the Federal Transit Administration since the early 90’s, I can tell you that although the meaning of “livability” is debatable, it is a term that folks can relate to as they envision how their communities should grow and develop in the future. What we should remember is that every community, every neighborhood, wants a place that nurtures the many rich aspects of day-to-day life. A truly livable community is a place where residents have choices on how they meet and reach their daily needs – be it by foot, bike, transit or auto. Although transportation is only one aspect of a livable community, planners and decisionmakers should concentrate more on how to better link these modes in order to “provide for all” instead of pitting one form against the other.

  7. Art Weber
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    To effectively deal with vital transportation issues would it help if we could identify which of our various travel options might be considered natural or fundamental rights (like our right to life) and which are not? Nature still does a remarkable job of equipping human beings with a pair of legs, but not with fins, flippers, wings or wheels. A peek into the foreseeable future indicates nothing that might be considered a trend away from past practice.

    From time to time somebody will take a state Department of Motor Vehicles to court, claiming that denial or revocation of a drivers license constitutes a violation of one’s constitutional right to travel. In two cases (Anacker v. Sillas [1976] 65 CA3d 416, McGue v. Sillas [1978] 82CA3d 799) California courts turned the plaintiffs down, ruling that a drivers license is not the equivalent of one’s fundamental right to travel. In a third case (MILLER v REED 9717006) the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the State court’s denial for the same reason.

    Streets, roads, and the Interstate Highway system are all public works projects intended to benefit all the public. In the case of citizens who don’t drive, should that benefit be limited to the trickle-down effect of enhanced economic activity or should it be of a more transportation-related nature? Growth patterns after World War II and completion of the Interstate highway system forced many to rely on motor vehicles in order to access new development that for-profit public transit firms could no longer afford to provide, Forcing us to depend on automobiles does not seem like an appropriate alternative benefit of public works road projects for those who don’t drive. It seems more like a violation of our right to life to be forced to rely on a mode of transportation so dangerous that we’re required by law to have an insurance policy.

    Why do we continue promoting smart growth with incentives, tax breaks and other stimulants and subsidies? It seems a lot simpler to just prohibit all development that is not at least as accessible and functional for those who don’t drive as it is for those who do.

  8. Posted June 9, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Define “liveable” as “walkable”. A transportation guy that starts with the basics is the kind of person you can trust.

    From that point on, the opportunity to be concrete becomes possible with questions such as, “Walkable to what or where?” and if the gaining access to that stuff or place is suffficient to maintain health and well-being. If not why not?

  9. Marcotico Anderson
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    One thing that bothered me about Ken Orski’s e-newsletter that was referenced in this article is the notion that “livability” is an undefinable subjective term, and that the FDOT push was all about process and not outcomes. However I disagree. Planning is a way of systematizing subjective terms. We have methodologies for defining affordable, historic, and sustainable. As planners we are also in the process of defining and systematizing livable. The FDOT has defined 6 criteria of livability and academics and practitioners are filling in the blanks with processes for measuring against those criteria.

    I read something recently that bears repeating: Level of Service, the sacred cow of automobile oriented transportation planning, is nothing more than a systematizing of a subjective feeling. ITE is now applying level of service metrics to pedestrian environments, and transportation modelers are factoring pedestrian and bike activity into the micro simulations. So there you have it, livability becomes a viable objective.

    The problem is as Neal points out semantic. Nobody wants to be told their preferred urban form is un- or less livable.

  10. "Lovable Curmudgeon" (Apparently "Gerrick Busi")
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    “Livability” is just a euphemism for “sustainability,” which is shorthand for “sustainable development,” the plan to control where and how you live devised by Maurice Strong and UN Agenda 21. Sustainable development is best understood by knowing what its advocates believe is NOT sustainable: “…current lifestyles and consumption patterns of the affluent middle class — involving high meat intake, use of fossil fuels, appliances, home and work air conditioning, and suburban housing ARE NOT SUSTAINABLE.” (Maurice Strong, in the speech opening the Rio Earth Conference in 1992, at which UN Agenda 21 was developed)

    In other words, the way of life of the majority of Americans is not sustainable! Bottom line the “livability” standard is all about getting you and me and our friends and families out of our single family homes, our automobiles, and into center-city, multifamily housing and public transportation! Agenda 21 is “a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally, and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which humans impact on the environment.” There you have it, the concern is about the environment, UN Agenda 21, Sustainable Development and “Livability” are more concerned with protecting dirt and critters than protecting human life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    The ultimate goal of Maurice Strong and all the proponents of Sustainable Development/Livability is destruction of American sovereignty in favor of Global Governance, One World Government. “Livability” is a Trojan Horse that will kill our liberty and freedom and make us slaves of the United Nations. The economic reality of “Livability” is taking from the “haves” to give to the “have nots,” it is a program of wealth redistribution to take from the prosperous “First World” countries to give to the “Third World” countries – global communism!

    Americans need to stand together and stop this before we lose what I and others have fought to preserve. The blood of our Patriots cries out, “NO, no Agenda 21, no Sustainable Development, no Smart Growth, no Livability that is a disguise for Globalism!”

  11. Mark Hornell
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    The use of the term livability, at least here in southwest British Columbia, precedes sustainability by a generation. It first came into currency in these parts with Greater Vancouver’s first regional plan put together by Harry Lasch and his team in the early 1960’s, when the concept “Islands in a sea of green” was put forth as a guiding metaphor for how the region should grow in a livable way. Ray Spaxman working with the reform councils in the 1970’s brought it into common discourse in the City of Vancouver. The term may be vague but it encompasses the entire spectrum of human need, from the biological systems that sustain life itself, to the highest levels of individual self actualization and cultural achievement. For a “Wimpy” concept it has proven to be a remarkably powerful instigator of urban transformation in Vancouver. The transformation of False Creek and the downtown peninsula should be understood as a 40 year process of urban experimentation in trying to articulate what livability means in a post-industrial city, the physical expression of which has added millions of square feet of new development to the heart of the city, including new parks and public open space, public markets, transit, and doubled the population of the city core. That’s the kind of thing an imprecise, yet powerful metaphor can galvanize if it captures the imagination of citizen and a city’s public and private sector leadership. Vancouver’s more recent embrace of sustainability is an organic outgrowth of this tradition, in part fueled by the recognition that a city could be livable yet ultimately unsustainable. Ecodensity and the Greenest City initiative are simply the latest expression of an ongoing effort to imagine and build “the livable city”.

  12. Posted June 10, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Livability is learning from the past and looking into the future.

  13. Posted June 11, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Neal’s quote from my NewsBrief, “U.S. DOT’s Strategic Plan Stirs Controversy With Its Emphasis on ‘Livability’ ” (May 19, 20019) makes full sense when read with the sentence that follows. The complete quote reads as follows:
    “The Administration’s desire to impose its own vision of how Americans should live and travel representes a misguided and in the end futile gesture. The gesture is futile for, as generations of political appointees before them have discovered, policies that do not resonate with the majority of Americans are quickly forgotten once their authors have left office.”
    I can testify to the truth of that assertion from my own experience as a former federal official.

    Ken Orski

  14. Posted June 14, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Sustainablility is about resources; livability is about people and life. I have always taken “liveable” places to be those where people enjoy living and where their way of living supports the larger life of the planet. A place must meet both criteria to be considered truly liveable. Perhaps “life-enhancing” would be a better term, although that has unfortunate woo-woo overtones.

  15. Mark M
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Howard J. Wooldridge: “Since the feds are $13 trillion in debt and the Interstate Highway system is complete, we should stop sending dollars to DC and then have them come back in the form of expensive, boondoggle Earmarks. Let the federal highway tax expire! Starve the beast.”

    The last time I checked, the interstate highway system only has a life span of 40-50 years, so we essentially have to build a “new” interstate highway system every 40-50 years, it is NEVER complete! This is why we should focus on only rebuilding what we have (it costs far, far more to rebuild today than it did 50 yeas ago) and avoid building new highways. The tax that we have for highways right now may not even be enough (we are already spending general revenue funds and massive amounts of ARRA funds in addition to the highway taxes), but if we are careful about how we rebuild we may be ok… though that can only work if we are willing to give other forms of transportation proper treatment and we are willing to rethink the way we design our cities/suburbs.