What are livable communities?

by Susan
(Washington state)

Reviewed: June 13, 2024

Visitor question: I'm new to the planning commission. One member keeps talking about making our community more livable, and I'm embarrassed to say I don't know what he means. Can you help?

Editors' Reply:
Yes. Livable communities has become a standard part of the planning jargon and community dialogue within the last few years.

The term has the connotation of a community being friendly to alternative means of transportation, other than the personal automobile. This could mean the development of place-appropriate transit systems and that infrastructure takes into account the potential for bicycle transportation and for walking.

It also may mean a good quality physical environment, relatively free of air and water pollution. Toxic waste sites and brownfields are being remediated (cleaned up), and urban sprawl is contained either because the center or centers are attracting workers and residents, or by regulation.

Livable communities have enough of the right type of jobs to fit their workforce, and there's no substantial mismatch between the skills of the workforce and the needs of employers.

The industries that are the largest employers are robust industries and sound companies, committed to staying and growing in the community.

There's also some general balance between the parts of a metropolitan area where certain jobs are available, and where people qualified for those jobs live.

Speaking of housing, the housing stock (meaning the collection of housing that you have in your community or a specific neighborhood) is adequately maintained and not functionally obsolete so that it can continue to attract buyers.

The housing isn’t so far away from destinations that travel distances are impractical and unnecessarily polluting. It’s been kept in good repair so that slums surrounding the urban core don’t develop. It’s large enough to meet the needs of the modern household that tends to have a lot of stuff. It’s affordable on the wages that the community provides. And you have a combination of rental housing and owner-occupant housing that meets the financial capabilities and the desires of the community.

Lastly, there may be a connotation that community is moving toward a sustainable energy policy. This of course is intertwined with the transportation system and how energy-intensive it is for people to travel, but also with environmentally friendly energy generation possibilities and with energy conservation through tough-minded and pervasive incentives for business and households to adopt the latest innovations in cost-efficient conservation techniques.

So as you can see, it's quite a policy hodge-podge.

A Federal Definition of Livable Community. One of your fellow planning commission members may have heard of the U.S. federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which is important only because it's strongly influencing the way the term is used in the U.S. right now. We just thought you should hear a broader perspective.

To get you tuned into the Partnership, though, and its six livability principles, understand that the Partnership was formed in 2009 and consists of the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They are promoting six livability principles:

  • transportation choices

  • equitable, affordable housing

  • economic competitiveness

  • existing communities (we think it's code for anti-sprawl)

  • coordinated federal policy and leveraged investment (oh, good goal!)

  • healthy, safe, walkable neighborhoods for rural, urban, and suburban communities

A Livable Community or Not? Really? One of us thinks livable community is really a very amusing term, since obviously all our communities are livable, or we'd be dead. It's a term that makes it sound as if only human needs are being discussed, but obviously from this large compendium of issues that may be in a particular user's mind, human wants are at stake here too.

So our real advice is as a new planning commissioner, when people talk about livability, simply nod and smile, as it's hard to disagree with. Then immediately begin to probe what livability means to the person who just used the word.

The operant questions are: What would you like to see happen? What's keeping that from happening? How can we as a community reach consensus on that issue, and if we have consensus, how can we move to implementation?

Then it doesn't really matter whether people talk about livable communities, just good planning, or some other buzzword of the day.

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