Most Americans conduct their lives within fairly well-defined geographical communities—the territories within which they live, work, and socialize. In each of these communities, decision makers strive to balance competing demands and provide the highest quality of life, or livability, for residents. These decision makers include state and local officials citizens groups, professional planners, and individual citizens.
Transportation agencies too frequently make decisions about transportation investments that give little consideration to the impacts of these investments on the livability of the communities in which they are situated, whether the community is a municipality or a large metropolitan region. Planners, engineers, and decision makers can be so deeply involved in maximizing the transportation-related performance criteria of investments, that trade-offs of that performance goal are not considered, even when these trade-offs are highly relevant to social well-being, as is the reduction of environmental impacts or improved access to services for disadvantaged groups. A broader perspective—supported by appropriate data and decision-support tools—is needed in order to have livability given serious consideration in planning and to have it viewed as a legitimate part of the set of goals to be served by transportation decision making. This effort is hampered by several factors:
Addressing the complex issue of livability requires access to a wider variety of information than is traditionally used by the various planning organizations.
Communities need to be able to measure whether their actions are improving livability, but they often lack necessary data and face challenges in developing sound methodologies.
Organizations and stakeholders often do not have consistent or comparable data, making the analysis of options and decisions more difficult.
The information needed to make good decisions may not be available in usable forms.
Better data for transportation planning and decision making will allow consideration of the broad range of real consequences of transportation investments on communities and their members. In addition to considering more narrowly defined transportation consequences—for example, better transit access to major attractions, enhanced goods movement, shorter travel times—improved data will foster more insightful consideration of socioeconomic, land use, and environmental factors that help shape a community’s livability. Such factors include mobility and equity consequences across locations within a region and across stakeholder groups; impacts on land use and development patterns, and the consequences of those development patterns; the interaction of transportation operations with the natural and built environments and their impacts on sustainability, distribution of economic benefits and costs both spatially and demographically; and consequences for community cohesiveness.
Technological developments including geographic information systems (GISs) and the Internet have revolutionized the way decision-making data can be collected, analyzed, disseminated, and displayed. Current initiatives on the part of federal, state, and local governments, as well as private and nonprofit groups, to provide such data and to include the broader public in decisions have roots in the social indicators research of the 1930s and 1970s (e.g., Duncan, 1969, 1984; Rossi and Gilmartin, 1980). For example, attempts in the 1960s to understand the roots of poverty reflected the evolution of social views of the root causes and tenacity of poverty. These earlier efforts considered sets of such indicators as socioeconomic status, gender and race, education level, psychological factors, physical characteristics of living conditions, and descriptors of health status (Duncan, 1969). The decade of the 1960s and the early 1970s saw a spike in interest in the federal government for identifying indicators of social well-being and progress (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1969; OMB, 1973) as part of an effort to understand the relationships between economics and other social sciences (e.g., Olson, 1969).
Previous generations have wrestled with the some of the same questions addressed in this report, for example—the appropriate scale of the
indicators, the advantages and limitations of narrow versus crosscutting indicators, and measures of place characteristics versus measures of individual well-being and satisfaction (Land and Spilerman, 1975; Land, 1983). Other research has focused on increasing our understanding of the geographic nature of the relationships that result in quality of life (Cutter, 1985) and has attempted to incorporate environmental variables into livability analyses. More recent efforts have examined quality of life in a national context (e.g., Miringoff, 1999).
However, the current effort differs from past efforts in several respects. First, it focuses on the links between major physical transportation infrastructure and services and the social and economic well-being of communities. Second, it has been prompted by new technologies and data that allow deeper insight into the interactions and causal relationships between public investments in transportation and their effects on individuals, communities, and livability. Third, it grows out of several decades of improvement in transportation planning and decision-making processes that have resulted from legislation and regulation, citizen activism, and pressure for public accountability from transportation agencies and from the application of multidisciplinary skills to consideration of the benefits, costs, and impacts of transportation decisions.
The current effort also grows from a strong interest within public administration and budgeting to develop and use performance indicators and benchmarks. In public sector transportation agencies, such efforts gained momentum in the 1980s and 1990s via implementation of strategic planning and total quality management processes, with their emphasis on measuring performance; responding to customer expectations; and benchmarking, tracking, and reporting results in meeting agency performance goals.
Although the availability of new tools and technologies has changed the way information can be derived and presented, the decision-making process is no less complex. Tools for manipulating disparate types of information, such as GISs, are widely available, but many planners, particularly at the local level, have not yet adopted this capability. Those that have done so may find that their GIS tools are incompatible with the GIS and other analytical tools used by sister planning organizations, which make it difficult to combine data or examine the trade-offs of different planning scenarios.
Finally, planning decisions are made by myriad agencies and organizations, ranging from school boards and state departments of transportation to federal agencies (see Box 1). While this report is aimed at identifying the data that communities need to participate in place-based planning, especially involving transportation decisions, government at all levels from the local to the national plays an essential role in providing support
BOX 1 Government Roles in Transportation Planning
“The federal role in transportation planning is to provide funds, standards, and planning for state and local decision. The states, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), and transit operators make project decisions. There are other State, regional, and local rules and requirements affecting transportation decisions . . .” (FHWA, p. 5).
SOURCE: FWHA (no date).
ive context for data collection and dissemination and for citizen participation in the decision process. The influence of state departments of transportation, as well as the U.S. Department of Transportation and federal policy such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), is felt at the community level. Yet these authorities are at times far removed from the specific concerns of a community, and few are sufficiently coordinated to permit cross-organization decision making.
SCOPE OF THE REPORT
Improving the livability of American communities requires the development of strategies to identify and assemble the information and tools necessary for making complex decisions. Such decisions require data on nearly every aspect of society and of the built and natural environments. This report focuses on the need for data from the social, environmental, and economic sectors that are mutually compatible and uses transportation decision making as the focus for identifying data needed for place-based planning of livable communities. A focus on transportation decision making lays the groundwork for the incorporation of other planning issues, such as regional cooperation, police and emergency response, parks and recreation planning, and health, education, and welfare.
The relationships among places at different scales, such as communities and regions or neighborhoods and the cities of which they are part, are central to place-based planning as it is discussed in this report. These relationships and dependences among the phenomena and processes that occur at various scales give rise to what we call “places.” Place-based studies are the systematic analysis of social, economic, political, and environmental processes operating in a place that provides an integrated understanding of its distinctiveness or character (NRC, 1999). Such systematic analyses applied to many different places provide an understanding of geographic variability. The geographic units chosen in such analyses—for example, whether data are analyzed at the level of the census block group or the school district—strongly influences the results of the analysis. A full analysis of geographic variability takes into account those processes that cross the boundaries of places, linking them to one another, and also attends to questions of scale. The decisions that people make as individuals and the aggregate pattern of decision making of many people contribute to the definition of spaces and places. The concepts of place, space and scale, human decision making, and decision-support systems (such as GISs that provide spatial representations of information) are central to this report.
CONTENT OF THE REPORT
In addressing the issues described in the scope of the report, the committee focused specifically on the following:
The concept of livability and livability indicators
The importance of place and connectedness
Appropriate measurement and analysis of livability
Data and analysis tools for decision support
Place-based analyses are central to livability planning, especially transportation-related aspects of livability, despite the fact that connections between people and places are complex and difficult to measure. The following are concepts that guided the committee’s work and that help frame conclusions and recommendations that the report offers for integrated place-based planning.
Definition of Place. Places are both physical locations with particular environmental features and socially constructed settings in which people interact with each other and with nature.
Place and Scale. Places exist at multiple scales ranging from the micro (the home as a place) to the macro (the nation-state). Activities and decisions taken at various spatial scales (nation, metropolitan region, neighborhood) coalesce to shape particular places at any one scale. At the same time, relations among places that are similar in scale also shape an individual place—for example, a town or city. As such, a place like a city is linked through flows of people and goods to other cities.
Spatial Dependence. Because places are shaped by their horizontal and vertical connections in space (to places of similar scale [e.g., city to city], as well as higher or lower scales [e.g., city to state or city to school district]), places are spatially dependent. Thus, decisions about consumption, production, and distribution in a particular place may have impacts on neighboring places at various scales. They also impinge on “distant elsewheres”—or places that tend to be out of sight and mind of residents but nonetheless may be supplying resources or labor to a place and assimilating wastes produced by that place. This means that the livability of a place here is connected to the livability of places there.
Role of the Natural Environment. The natural environments of a place— topography, flora and fauna, minerals and timber, natural hazards—constitute a powerful force in shaping the character of places (especially their economic base), how people perceive and interact with these environments, and the way places change over time. The natural environment of places evolves over time, because of ecosystem dynamics and extreme
geophysical events (such as earthquakes) and anthropogenic changes to the environment (e.g., pavement, river channelization, vegetation removal).
Role of Structure, Institutions, and Agency. Large-scale economic, social, and political structures influence economic activities and flows of goods and populations to and from particular places. Institutions in this sense might be large, multilocational firms; national, state, or local governments; or labor unions. Structures similarly vary in scale and include political, economic, and social systems that influence the character of places and life in those places. Public, private, and nonprofit institutions that mediate between social structures and individual people living in a particular place strongly influence allocation, distribution, and resource extraction decisions—decisions that can transform places. In turn, specific place-based agents—civic leaders, industrialists, street-level bureaucrats— influence institutional performance, policy, and direction and ultimately can affect larger-scale structures (such as economic organization or social services).
Role of History. Discrete historical events, as well as the historical evolution of cultural norms and values, economic organization, and technological change, can shape places. For example, the construction of railroads fundamentally altered the character and economic role of places dependent on canal-based transportation. The emergence of long-haul trucking and industrial agriculture irrevocably altered many railroad-oriented towns built to serve family farmsteads. The rise of the single-family suburban ideal and the advent of the affordable helped to devalue older, more traditional urban neighborhoods.
Pace of Place Change. Place making typically involves major alteration of the natural environment and the construction of fixed durable capital (in the form of the built environment). This means that some characteristics of places change relatively slowly and their course of change may be path dependent. Path dependence refers to the influence of past development decisions on present possibilities. A particular pattern is in place resulting from a combination of market processes, public investments, and public policies, and this pattern makes it prohibitively costly to switch to some other alternative. An example is that a pattern of roads and zoning may result in a density of development so low that public transportation is extremely costly.
Places and Boundaries. Places are often characterized by territorial boundaries of various kinds (administrative, political, environmental). Such boundaries may or may not be coincidental with resident perceptions of
their local place. Yet they may shape a place-based sense of identity none-theless—for example, the idea that one’s community is part of a political district charged with making meaningful decisions about resource allocation and distribution or that it is part of a bioregion and its watershed.
Simultaneous Occupancy of Places at Different Scales. People simultaneously inhabit a variety of places at different scales. One can be resident of a neighborhood, a city, a region—all are places in which the resident interacts with others and with the natural environment.
Time-Geography and Place-Scale Definition. A useful way to visualize the hierarchy of places is to consider individual activity spaces or time-space prisms. For most people, there exists a limited number of everyday interactions with other people or features of the natural environment that occur in specific settings or nodes. Several sorts of constraints—coupling (travel destination and time of day), capacity (velocity and flexibility of transport), and capability (ability to navigate through the place)—typically delimit the spatial distribution of these nodes, thereby constituting the outer envelope of an individual’s place-based community. Most people, however, have less frequent but more distant nodes in their social networks, and these may define their larger-scale places (such as region or state).
Sense of Place. Over time, places develop a “sense of place” for residents (as well as visitors) that stems from history, geography, and contemporary place in the larger world. This sense of place shapes residents’ personal identities and degree of “rootedness” in that particular place.
Reading and Using Places. People use the physical features of a place to “read” or understand its design and to navigate the place effectively. Basic physical features include nodes, paths, edges, districts, and landmarks. Such elements can be features of the natural environment (e.g., a hill as a landmark) or the built environment (e.g., a shopping mall as a node). Often such features acquire their role in place legibility slowly over time and as a function of utilization patterns.
Place and Community. Place is not the same as community, since a community (of interest, of shared identity) can exist without propinquity, or nearness, among its members. A modern example might be a group of researchers or enthusiasts who communicate via the Internet. Commu
nity is a fundamental element of the sense of place, however, and indeed forms a critical part of the “social capital” of most places.
Moving Through Places. People move into and out of places. Such moves are related to generational and life course changes in the population (e.g., elderly people moving into a nursing home; young families moving into the community). In addition, over time the attraction of any place shifts for particular individuals either as they experience change in personal circumstances or as larger economic, social, or political dynamics remake the place and its opportunities. Therefore, the population composition of any place changes over time, and even if the demographic profile of a place remains stable, the actual individuals who inhabit the place may change over time. Thus, the welfare of places is distinct from that of the people who at some point in time lived or worked there.
Places and Livability
Livability at Multiple Scales. Dimensions of livability operate at multiple interconnected spatial scales and time frames. Livability is a perceived experience by people who live, work, or recreate in particular places; yet decisions about how to live influence the livability of larger regions and even distant places and people. Moreover, our current decisions about a single place at one point in time—about life-styles, transportation choices, and environmental amenities—affect the livability of multiple places over different scales (e.g., region, nation, globe) and times.
Measuring Livability. Data on both individual cohorts of people and the aggregate characteristics of people in particular places are fundamental for assessing livability. People and place are two sides of livability, but livability indicators typically refer only to place and the average profile of residents at one point in time, rather than to individuals as they change and move over time. Neither type of indicator captures the full livability picture. For example, tracking aggregate community income over time in a place might show rising economic well-being and growing retail potential, but this could be only because gentrification has displaced lower-income people who have been thrust into more congested affordable housing markets. It is possible to improve a place and prevent large-scale dislocation of people. Thus, both people- and place-based indicators are fundamental to an understanding and measurement of livability.
Structure of the Report
Chapter 1 discusses the application of the concept of livability or social well-being to planning efforts and the selection and use of livability indicators, and highlights the importance of indicators that crosscut traditional domains of economy, society, and environment. Chapter 2 describes the importance of place and the sense of connectedness that defines communities in the minds of the people who inhabit them. It stresses interconnections between places and among scales, particularly between the regional and the local. Chapter 3 discusses the spatial and temporal issues involved in choosing accurate means of measuring and analyzing livability. Chapter 4 examines the decision process and decision-support systems; and Chapter 5 identifies the data and tools that are required to support sound decision making, that is, to support decisions both that are technically sound and that engage the people impacted by them. Detailed summaries are found at the conclusion of Chapters 3, 4, and 5.
This report is addressed to multiple audiences. Among these are decision makers, from local to national levels, including citizens and citizen groups. Since this report discusses data needs for place-based decision making, another audience includes the federal agencies that provide these data to the public. One strategy for assisting communities in making complex decisions begins with a survey of what data and tools currently exist and where these key data reside. Information relevant to transportation, land-use planning, and economic development can be found in dozens of agencies and organizations, each of which uses different planning aids, ranging from a simple map to state-of-the-art GIS tools. Some of these tools are more effective than others in addressing a specific planning problem, and strategies must include an analysis of how well the various tools perform. Sometimes, it is essential to identify which data and tools for improving decision making are needed but do not exist. For example, rarely do decision-support systems provide adequate means for assessing trade-offs and determining the consequences of a decision. With the right attributes, such systems have the potential for improving decision making and consequently the livability of geographic communities.
Appendix A provides information on the data provision programs and plans of federal agencies and interagency groups, and identifies data sources and decision-support tools available to decision makers and planners. Appendix B summarizes a workshop held as part of the information-gathering phase of the committee’s work. Appendix C lists participants in a sub-committee meeting about provision of data by federal agencies. References are made in the text to sources of information on various related topics.
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