The 'Livability' Trap

Why it's so hard to define this simple word.

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What does it mean for a city to be one of the world's most livable—and who gets to make that decision? Choosing and weighting criteria for "livability" has turned into its own cottage industry. Generally, the word conjures up images of low crime, access to green space, tidy streets, and solid transit. The last three must have counted in Washington, D.C.'s favor when it was named the best U.S. city (and world's 14th best) by the the Economist Intelligence Unit last year.

That decision generated yet another round of rankings criticism. Opponents accused the Economist of an anti-urbanism, saying the magazine bypassed the world's most cosmopolitan or fastest-growing cities in favor of duller (if easier) locales. But being clean and quiet doesn't make a place less authentically urban per se. The real problem is that these conceptions are at once too narrow, because they exclude other valid ways of living in and interacting with cities, and too broad, because they rely on so many personal preferences that they end up being meaningless.

These rankings do have their own internal logic, of course, which is why the same few cities in Australia, Canada, and Scandinavia have come to define livability in the public mind. The Economist bases its rankings on stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, infrastructure, sprawl, green space, and pollution. So it’s easy to see a core set of city traits that livable cities share. To be precise: Winners tend to be "mid-sized conurbations in countries with low population densities."

In other words, Washington, D.C.'s high ranking didn’t come out of nowhere. But that city is also a case study in how the qualities that make someplace livable for one group of people are its undoing for others. Washington is great for those making a good salary in the city's white-collar economy. However, the basic D.C. success story over the last 20 years has been expansion and sprawl in the suburbs, combined with rapid gentrification in much of the core. The area combines a high cost of living with some of the United States' most entrenched urban poverty, and as the city gentrifies, some of its poorest residents have had to move to neighborhoods beyond the reach of public transit. The result is a city whose wealthier areas embody Economist-style livability, and whose poorer ones would leave you wondering where the "Gilded Capital" is hiding.

A similar situation exists in Melbourne, a perennial "livability" favorite whose urban sprawl and rental market demonstrate what happens when society pursues home-ownership as a cultural ideal. The Australian government has systemically pushed people into single-family homes outside the urban core thanks to generous subsidies. This has cost the city its density, even if it's given it amenities that appeal to livability gurus.  High density is not a solution to every problem, of course, but it at least provides the critical mass needed for services such as public transit and a fine-grained neighborhood fabric. Livability rankings, on the other hand, often come off as if they value cities that don't "feel" like cities. They prize tranquility and stability over vigor, dynamism, and opportunity.

The fascinating website Areavibes provides its own answers to the "livability" question down to the ZIP code, and ends up with surprising results. Let's look at three very different cities: New Orleans, Portland, and Washington, D.C. Portland, with its excellent food, access to nature, and exemplary planning, would seem to be the very image of a livable modern city. New Orleans's rich local culture, on the other hand, is offset by high crime and poverty rates, poor infrastructure, and extreme weather, so "livability" as The Economist imagines it is not its strong suit. And yet the website ranks New Orleans as the most livable of the three, with Portland in the middle and D.C. at the bottom. In this case, livability is correlated with cost of living—something that young people, for instance, might value far more than the quality of public education or the relative safety of a neighborhood.

After all, what seems like a judgment about livability might just be an aggregation of preferences. The Economist’s favored cities won’t surprise anyone who reads The Economist, but this is about more than just a single magazine. It’s about a way of looking at cities that’s geared towards people who like, want, and can afford cars, home-ownership, nice restaurants, and year-round warm weather. These are all perfectly valid preferences, of course, but they’re still just that. Millions of people think that fewer cultural opportunities and a more homogenous employment base in Washington, D.C. are worth it in order to live in a city that's more green and stately than New York. That's not an objective sign of livability—it’s a sign that people have different priorities and are willing to make tradeoffs to get them. Maintaining that diversity of options, not adhering to a single gold standard, is the best way to ensure real city livability.

About the Author

  • Jordan Fraade is a writer and editor based in New York. His work has been featured by PolicyMic, Dissent, ElevationDC, and the Roosevelt Institute, among other outlets.