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Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making (2002)

Chapter: 1 Concept of Livability and Indicators

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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Town Square, Woodstock, Ill., 1941. Photograph by John Vachon.

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

1
Concept of Livability and Indicators

WHY LIVABILITY MATTERS

Concept of Livability

“Livability” is a broad term with no precise or universally agreed-upon definition. The concept embraces cognate notions such as sustainability, quality of life, the “character” of place, and the health of communities. Livability is an “ensemble concept” (Myers, 1988; Andrews, 2001) whose factors include many complex characteristics and states. Like the Bruntland Commission’s definition of sustainability, the idea of livability includes the ability of a community to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 23). Sustainability underscores the demand for intergenerational equity and recognizes the limits set by ecological conditions such as the finite nature of certain natural resources like fossil fuels.

Livability encompasses broad human needs ranging from food and basic security to beauty, cultural expression, and a sense of belonging to a community or a place. “Quality of life” emerged as a concept within the Social Indicators Movement of the 1960s and questioned basic assumptions about the relationship between economic and social well-being and the complex nature of individual and social material and immaterial well-being. Quality of life might refer to a citizen’s satisfaction with residential environments, traffic, crime rate, employment opportunities, or the

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

amount of open space (Myers, 1988). Alternatively, the phrase might refer to less tangible qualities such as freedom of expression and social justice (Land, 1996). Character of place considers some of these same attributes as bundles of features linked to particular places (e.g., how a community’s health is affected by air quality or access to health services).

Together, the concepts of sustainability and livability help us to consider the quality of life for all members of a community or residents of a place, and how the activities and choices of these individuals will impact on the lives of future generations. A sustainable community would not be built on consumptive practices that cannot be maintained over two generations; one livable community cannot be maintained at the expense of its neighbors (a socially costly example of environmental injustice is the siting of waste facilities in economically disadvantaged areas). Using livability or sustainability as a key word, many good sources of information and examples of community-derived indicators of livability can be found on the Internet. Many communities post their choice of indicators, and these can serve as examples for other communities. (Information-rich sites include Sustainable Measures [http://sustainablemeasures.com] and the Smart Growth Network [http://smartgrowth.org].)

The idea of livability bridges many of the other concepts discussed in this section. It refers to the extent to which the attributes of a particular place can, as they interact with one another and with activities in other places, satisfy residents by meeting their economic, social, and cultural needs, promoting their health and well-being, and protecting natural resources and ecosystem functions. As a crosscutting concept, livability contributes to the assessment of the cumulative impacts of public and private actions and failures to act, and helps capture some of the externalities ignored or inaccurately valued by market mechanisms. These mechanisms include lending and investment policies, risk/reward assessments, and consumer, business, and government purchasing decisions.

As the interest in livability continues to grow, there is increasing concern about the influence of transportation systems on the environment, economic health, and social well-being at geographic scales ranging from the local to the national. The Internet has changed the way data are developed, packaged, integrated, and used in decision making. During the past decade, Americans have witnessed a proliferation of local, state, and even national livability plans and agendas. Examples at these scales include Miami-Dade, Florida’s, 79th Street Corridor revitalization; California’s Smart Investment plan; and the Clinton-Gore administration’s Livable Communities Initiative (U.S. White House Task Force on Livable Communities, 2000). Moreover, innovative public policy initiatives such as location-efficient mortgages, taxation schemes to constrain urban sprawl, and pollution credit trading rely on livability concepts and mea

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

sures. In addition, many private firms are using livability information in their decisions about facility siting, employment creation, insurance, and marketing.

Why has the concept of livability, especially for America’s cities and suburbs, suddenly become so important? This is a complex question. Part of the push toward more livable communities is related to concerns for social well-being, another composite concept (Smith, 1973).

Often, levels of social well-being are a function of the distribution, rather than the allocation, of economic resources. Thus, even if aggregate indicators of economic growth are strong, the qualitative dimensions of the economy are crucial in shaping quality of life and making cities more livable. Dimensions of employment include hours worked (full-time, part-time, etc.), wage rate, health insurance and retirement benefits, proximity to affordable transit and child care options, and work safety provisions. These aspects of employment contribute to (or detract from) social well-being. In turn, working conditions shape individuals’ and families’ ability to secure decent housing and pay taxes to support adequate urban services and infrastructure, which translate into variations in community livability.

As disparities in livability grow, those who are able to move out of the worst places and secure better residential environments do so, with much of the dispersal facilitated by regional transportation system investments, including highways and public transportation. This fuels a downward spiral of poverty and reduced livability in the communities they leave behind. At a more philosophical level, the social contract, and the norms for social equity and fairness that it implies, are central to one’s subjective, collective sense of well-being. Thus, large disparities in the livability of cities and suburbs generate deep dissatisfaction, underlie episodes of social unrest and dysfunction, and reduce the quality of life for all.

Part of this dynamic is clearly rooted in the economy. During recessions, concerns for livability arise as cities, suburbs, and towns compete for a larger share of a shrinking economic pie, by making themselves attractive to prospective employers and workers. They also seek to retain existing firms and residents. As the economy rebounds (as it did during the late 1990s), rapid growth typically generates additional traffic congestion, housing price escalation, rising consumption of goods and services (and attendant waste), and the loss of farmland and natural areas to suburban and exurban expansion. The resulting threats to the quality of everyday residential environments lead to political pressure to contain or at least shape growth in ways that promote the continued livability of the community.

At another level of economic concern, livability has become vital as cities and regions are increasingly expected to compete for economic

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

activity with other nations and metropolitan regions throughout the world (Scott, 1998). Economic globalization and the increasing mobility of both populations and capital have eroded the autonomy of nation-states and their ability to direct growth and have also left major concentrations of economic activity—city-regions, or what Pierce and colleagues (1993) term “citistates”—to fend for themselves in a global marketplace. Globalization may create a host of livability challenges for localities as it drives demographic change, economic restructuring, and provision of urban services (see NRC, 1999). In this marketplace, employers, tourists, business travelers, and (to a lesser extent) workers themselves enjoy an enormous range of choice. It only stands to reason that the places that are more livable and have distinctive identities will have a competitive edge. Hence, one local response is to push for greater livability to facilitate the “selling” of places (Kearns and Philo, 1993).

Finally, and importantly, concerns for livability are also rooted in an increasing recognition that current patterns of urban life and consumption habits are neither healthy nor sustainable over the longer term and that our environment has a finite supply of resources with which to support the world’s population. New biomedical research reveals an ever-growing prevalence of pollution-linked health problems, along with the recognition that urban regions are often hotspots for water, air, and soil pollution resulting from their long histories of unregulated heavy industrialization and reliance on the automobile (see NRC, 1988). In addition, major cities of the developed world consume a disproportionate share of ecosystem resources such as water, forest, and aquatic ecosystem resources, as well as waste assimilation capacity.

Central for many urban residents, especially communities made up of minorities, is a measure of environmental justice to ensure that no one segment of the population either suffers from disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards or is denied access to environmental amenities such as urban open space. For many, increasing livability is closely linked to reducing what Wackernagel and Rees (1996) term our ecological “footprint,” and to efforts to prevent pollution and reduce waste, conserve natural resources and wildlife habitat, and protect endangered species (see Box 1.1).

In sum, livability is complex multifaceted concept. It is also a highly relative term: what would be considered a livable community in one part of the world might be deemed highly unsatisfactory in another. This might be due to cultural differences or to different standards of living that alter expectations for urban design, transportation, other infrastructure, and service provision. Nevertheless, the idea of livability remains a powerful one. In fact, it is the very generality of the term that allows diverse groups of stakeholders to come together and make livability a public policy goal.

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

BOX 1.1 Ecological Footprint

A good example of a complex crosscutting measure is the ecological footprint, a measure of the amount of biologically productive land and water required to produce the resources consumed and to assimilate the wastes generated by an individual, company, community, or country. This measure can be used at various spatial scales, and by analyzing consumption patterns (including an accounting of where goods consumed come from, how much it costs in natural resource terms to import them, where waste is deposited, etc.) it can illustrate how a particular place appropriates resources both from its own hinterlands and from “distant elsewheres” around the globe—a feature increasingly vital under conditions of rapid globalization that are progressively detaching the impacts of consumption decisions from the location of consumption.

SOURCE: Wackernagel and Rees (1996).

Indicators of Livability

At the local level, communities are working to develop more attractive and functional shopping and business centers, build affordable housing, promote transit utilization and transit-supportive land use, and protect open space. In some cases, these efforts focus on a specific facility and amenity; in other instances, the agenda is broader. In each of these cases, livability must be defined in some way that allows components or indicators of livability for that particular community to be identified and assessed.

Some cities (e.g., Santa Monica, California) have launched “sustainable cities” programs, designed to promote the creation of high-quality jobs, affordable housing units, and environmental quality, while reducing energy use and toxic emissions. Often these plans represent a cooperative effort on the part of the public and private sectors to reach shared goals. In Moline, Illinois, for example, a public-private partnership, Renew Moline, was created to attract business to the decaying downtown river-front and to develop a major new waterfront “commons” to draw jobs and visitors downtown. In Tucson, Arizona, the city and its private and public sector partners built a large-scale, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use development whose homes use half the energy consumed by the typical Tucson area house (U.S. White House Task Force on Livable Communities, 2000).

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

Larger regions are also launching programs to improve livability; in the Salt Lake City metropolitan area, Envision Utah mounted a large-scale participatory effort to plan for future livability (see Box 1.2; http://www.envisionutah.org), while Sustainable Seattle has created a set of indicators designed to track the region’s performance on a variety of livability dimensions (http://www.scn.org/sustainable/susthome.html). States are also promoting such efforts; for example, Maryland is directing state infrastructure investments to already developed urban areas in order to increase well-being in disadvantaged neighborhoods and to conserve farmland and wild areas (U.S. White House Task Force on Livable Communities, 2000).

BOX 1.2 Case Study on Envision Utah

The urbanized area of northern Utah is experiencing tremendous growth. The Greater Wasatch Area (GWA), including the region from Nephi to Brigham City and from Kamas to Grantsville, consists of 88 cities and towns, and spans 10 counties. The GWA has 1.7 million residents, which is expected to increase to 2.7 million by 2020 and 5 million by 2050. The region’s developable private land is surrounded by mountains, lakes, and public lands, which create a natural growth boundary. Dramatic increases in population and land consumption will impact the quality of life and costs of living in this area. Air quality will suffer, new water sources will have to be developed, and crowding and congestion will increase. Housing costs will increase as land becomes scarcer, crime will increase, business and personal costs will increase, and government spending on infrastructure will increase.

Envision Utah was formed in January of 1997 to address these concerns. Envision Utah is a public-private community partnership dedicated to studying the effects of long-term growth in the Greater Wasatch Area. The Envision Utah partnership includes state and local government officials, business leaders, developers, conservationists, landowners, academicians, church and community groups, and general citizens. Sponsored by the Coalition for Utah’s Future, Envision Utah and its partners, together with the public, have developed a publicly supported growth strategy that will preserve Utah’s high quality of life, natural environment, and economic vitality during the next 50 years. Envision Utah was established to develop a broadly supported growth strategy, a common vision for the future to guide residents, businesses, and government bodies of Utah well into the twenty-first century. Envision Utah is a unique and dynamic partnership, bringing together citizens, business leaders, and policy makers from public and private circles throughout the state.

This unique and diverse coalition is working to implement a common vision for the Greater Wasatch Area. This group did not seek to limit growth, but rather to create a vision of how the citizens of GWA want the area to grow. Envision Utah incorporated substantial input from the public. Meetings, surveys, and open work

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

shops have been held throughout the region and will continue to occur as Envision Utah works toward implementation of the Quality Growth Strategy. This effort has involved over 175 public meetings, with more than 6,000 participants, the distribution of 800,000 questionnaires across the region, more than 70,000 work hours dedicated to technical modeling, and scores of meetings with key decision makers—all designed to help chart the course for future development. The ideas and opinions contributed to this process will be key to successful implementation.

The first phase of the Envision Utah process included an in-depth study conducted to determine Utahans’ values and to find out what they most want to preserve or change as Utah continues to grow. Following the study, a baseline model was generated with extensive computer analysis (Quality Growth Efficiency Tools, QGET) by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, to project the effects of growth during the next 20 to 50 years based on current trends. A series of public workshops were held to gather public opinion and data from GWA citizens, which included extensive work on regional maps and exploration of important topics such as land use, transportation, and open space preservation. The public input was valuable and key in the development of alternative growth scenarios.

Four alternative growth scenarios were developed to show possible patterns that could result from various growth strategies implemented during the next 20 to 50 years. The alternatives ranged from a very auto-oriented, spread-out development, to significant increases in densities and extensive transit systems. An analysis of these alternative scenarios was conducted to determine the relative costs and impacts of each strategy on population, infrastructure costs, air quality, water, open space and recreation preservation, traffic congestion, affordable housing, business patterns, and other significant variables. A widespread campaign was launched to encourage area residents to express their preferences for future development and to increase understanding of the options and challenges inherent in growth. A public survey was conducted and workshops were held to garner citizens’ input regarding the specific growth scenario they wanted to pursue. A compilation and analysis of this input was used to determine the primary goals for the draft Quality Growth Strategy. In addition, a housing analysis to the year 2020 was conducted to help gauge the housing needs and wants of current and future GWA residents.

The Quality Growth Strategy identified six primary goals including (1) enhancing air quality; (2) increasing mobility and transportation choices; (3) preserving critical lands; (4) conserving and maintaining availability of water resources; (5) providing housing opportunities for a range of family and income types; and (6) maximizing efficiency in public infrastructure investments to promote the other goals. These goals are supported by 32 key strategies, some of which are listed below. These strategies were developed by working with key stakeholders and the residents of the community to provide realistic ideas for the Greater Wasatch Area to implement the goals developed in the Quality Growth Strategy. The strategies utilized market-based approaches such as state and local incentives and sought to effect change through education and promotion, rather than regulatory means. The strategies that they employed included the following:

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×
  • promoting walkable development by encouraging new and existing developments to include a mix of uses with pedestrian-friendly design;

  • promoting the development of a region-wide transit system that could utilize buses, bus ways, light rail, lower-cost self-powered rail technology, commuter rail, and small buses to make transit more effective and convenient;

  • promoting the development of a network of bikeways and trails for recreation and commuting;

  • fostering transit-oriented development such as housing and commercial developments that incorporate and encourage various forms of public transportation;

  • preserving open lands by encouraging developments that include open areas and providing incentives for the reuse of currently developed lands;

  • restructuring water bills to encourage water conservation;

  • fostering mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable neighborhoods to provide a greater array of housing choices.

Envision Utah’s objective was to analyze and disseminate information on the costs and benefits associated with these strategies and to work with local and state governments, citizens, developers, conservationists, civic groups, and others. With the Quality Growth Strategy in hand, Envision Utah must now work to ensure that it is the guiding tool for future development in the Greater Wasatch Area.

Over the past year, Envision Utah has developed Utah-specific urban planning tools to help decision makers implement the Quality Growth Strategy. Envision Utah has trained more than 1,000 local officials, planners, developers, realtors, and other key stakeholders to help them use these tools in the most effective manner. In addition, Quality Growth Demonstration Projects are currently under way in three subregions to develop regional plans for each area that will help facilitate substantial change in local policies to help implement quality growth principles. Envision Utah’s strategies have provided community leaders with the information to broaden the choices available and to facilitate more informed decision making.

Envision Utah will continue to educate decision makers concerning quality growth strategies at all appropriate levels of government, to help maintain and build support for action. Intergovernmental and interlocal agreements, local zoning and planning decision making, state incentives for communities implementing the Quality Growth Strategy, and legislative action to promote quality growth are the ultimate goals of Envision Utah.

SOURCES:

Envision Utah, Envision Utah Quality Growth Strategy, (November 1999);

Envision Utah web site, Coalition for Utah’s Future, http://www.envisionutah.org/ Accessed July 1, 2001;

Quality Growth Efficiency Tools Technical Committee, Baseline Scenario, February 1998;

Quality Growth Efficiency Tools Technical Committee, Scenario Analysis, March 1999;

Quality Growth Efficiency Tools Technical Committee, Strategy Analysis, May 2000.

Envision Utah Toolbox, Urban Planning Tools for Quality Growth; First edition and 2002 supplement.

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

A problem closely related to loss of wildlands and open space is species endangerment. In the United States, urbanization poses a greater threat to species than any other single phenomenon. Transportation supports urbanization, agricultural development, and other industrial activities that are strongly associated with habitat loss and species endangerment. There are nearly 4 million miles of roadway in the United States, and this system is accompanied by railroad track, pipeline, and other infrastructure and facilities that occupy large amounts of land, modify the local environment, and create ecological effects over broad geographic areas (NRC, 1997). Of the 877 U.S. species listed as threatened or endangered in 1994, 94 were endangered directly by road presence, construction, and maintenance (Czech et al., 2000).

When the geographical distribution of species endangerment is analyzed, in all sectors, “hotspots” are identified (Dobson et al., 1997) that coincide with areas of economic growth. For example, these hotspots appear in southern Florida, California, and east-central Texas. In their supporting role for economic development in all sectors, transportation decisions significantly impact the natural environment. Transportation decisions have a far reaching impact on systems such as CO2 and NOx levels in the atmosphere as a result of emissions, water flow in watersheds, and impediments to the physical movement of species including feeding, breeding, and dispersal patterns (NRC, 1997).

Whereas in the United States, livability- and sustainability-oriented plans often tend to be grassroots-initiated efforts mounted in response to local and regional problems (Farrell and Hart, 1998), other regions of the world have placed more emphasis on national or even larger-scale efforts. Local Agenda 21, for example, which grew out of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, launched many such efforts, especially in Europe and the developing world, many of which address livability issues. For example, as of the late 1990s, more that 1,000 European localities had undertaken some form of Local Agenda 21 projects, many of them involving livability/ sustainability indicators (Beatley, 2000, pp. 22, 422). Localities in Asia had 300 such efforts by 1998 (ICLEI, 1999). In the United States, communities that initiated local Agenda 21 programs tended to be in areas experiencing rapid economic growth where severe strains were imposed on environmental and cultural resources (Lake, 2000).

Increasingly, nonprofit organizations, whether working alone or in partnership with government agencies, have used such indicators to develop local, national, and regional campaigns. Leicester, U.K., for instance, designed a set of 14 measures in the mid-1990s to track sustainability and provide a way for the city to measure how well or poorly it is doing, as well as indicators for advocacy around key environmental problems. Other cities, including Amsterdam and Den Haag, in The Netherlands;

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

Freiburg, Germany; and Leicester, U.K., collaborated to create the European Sustainability Index Project, creating 26 different indicators (Lake, 2000, p. 328).

Hart (1999) provides a comprehensive overview of sustainable community indicators. Genres of local indicators include transportation (infrastructure, commuting, public transit, and vehicles, in addition to the number of pedestrian-friendly streets, ratio of bike paths to streets, percentage of street miles designated bike route miles); ecosystem integrity (biodiversity, fish, land use, soil, surface water, and wetlands); community involvement (volunteerism and connectedness, [e.g., number of community gardens, and distances between residences of extended family members]); and equity (diversity, employment types, income, children, finance). Attention to the interrelationships among these types of indicators is key.

KEY DIMENSIONS OF LIVABILITY

Livability depends upon three key, interdependent spheres of social life: the economy, social well-being, and the environment. The economy, which supplies jobs and income, is fundamental to residents’ health (e.g., their ability to obtain food, clothing, and shelter), as well as higher-order needs such as education, health care, and recreation. At the same time, the economy should efficiently utilize raw materials drawn from the environment, so as to ensure sufficient resources for current and future generations. Social well-being relies, in large part, on justice: a social and spatial distribution of economic and environmental resources that is fair, as well as systems of governance that are inclusive of all residents. Individual freedom and opportunity are also important components and precursors of social well-being.

The environment is the critical infrastructure that provides natural resources, the capacity for waste assimilation, and links between people and the natural world. If adequate functioning ceases within any of these three spheres, human settlements can quickly deteriorate, resulting in population loss, poverty, social conflict, and elevated levels of environmental health problems. This fundamental “golden triad” of livability is often portrayed by one of four schematics displayed in Figures 1.1 through 1.4.

The “golden triad” embraces widely shared goals—economic efficiency, social justice, and environmental protection. As discussed in more detail below, such goals are often treated independently and are entirely separable (Figure 1.1). Alternatively, they are viewed as equally important and capable of being balanced without undue conflict (Figure 1.2) in order to achieve health, justice, and efficient communities. This is, per

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

FIGURE 1.1 Community as three separate spheres. SOURCE: Hart (1999).

FIGURE 1.2 Community as three interconnected spheres. SOURCE: Hart (1999).

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

haps, the most common approach to livability dimensions, with the interactions more explicitly spelled out and the central goal—livability—occupying center stage.

Both perspectives gloss over conflicts among goals associated with the three spheres, and neither suggests the complexity of interactions among spheres. Only Figure 1.3 recognizes the fact that the environment is, inescapably, the critical infrastructure without which neither an economy nor a society can survive. Only Figure 1.4, while representing the three basic spheres, emphasizes the web-like nature of relations between the economy, environment, and society.

Despite various conceptual underpinnings, ideas and indicators of livability do influence decision making on a variety of important fronts. There are numerous examples, ranging from transit-oriented urban developments, to local “smart growth” and sustainability plans, to state programs that redirect investment to neglected urban areas, all the way to the federal government’s Livable Communities Initiative, a package of policy initiatives and partnerships developed by the U.S. White House Task Force on Livable Communities (2000).

LIVABILITY AND INDICATORS

How, exactly, are broad ideas about livability translated into a set of practical guidelines for policy making? In general, the key dimensions of livability tend to be converted to a much more specific set of indicators that can be used for evaluation. Indicators have long been used by planners, policy makers, and public managers to profile populations and com

FIGURE 1.3 Community as three integrated spheres. SOURCE: Hart (1999).

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

FIGURE 1.4 Community as a web of relations among spheres. SOURCE: Hart (1999).

munities and to track economic, social, and environmental changes (Knox, 1975). They also have been harnessed to measure and track livability. Sometimes, available sets of livability indicators, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Natural Amenities” index for counties (which measures topography, climate, and other physical features of places), are of questionable value for planning because chosen indicators are not susceptible to policy-induced change. There are also commercially oriented ratings of urban places that have been produced for some time, based on a limited number of key place-specific variables (for instance, the popular “Places Rated” series and Money magazine’s ratings). However, most of these are of questionable value for analysis and planning purposes (Henderson, 1997).

The fundamental spheres of livability are typically reflected by specific indices, much as our national economy is tracked through the use of measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At the urban level, for example, traditional indices include those listed in Table 1.1.

Increasingly, however, new indicators that reflect the web-like interactions portrayed in Figure 1.4, are being utilized. These indicators emphasize the interconnectedness of people and places, rather than traditional “silo” or stovepipe-type thinking about the economy, society, and

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

TABLE 1.1 Traditional Place-Based Indicators

Economic

Social

Environmental

Median income

Percentage of registered voters

Ambient air quality

Unemployment rate

High school graduation rate

Water quality

Job growth rate

Poverty rate

Open space per capita

Gross regional product

Infant mortality rate

Incidence of pollution-related illness

environment. An example of such new indicators, adapted from Hart (1999), appears in Table 1.2.

In addition, very different types of indicators have been developed that are even more challenging to traditional ways of thinking about livability and progress. Concepts such as “natural capital” and “nature’s services,” as well as ideas about “cultural resources,” have been used to propose alternatives to traditional types of indicators. Some are becoming familiar, for instance, the Genuine Progress Indicator proposed as a substitute for GDP, which considers not only factors such as job creation, but also nontraditional factors—for example, the amount of workers’ discretionary time—or a more complex measure, such as the proportion of job growth that is linked to remediation of problems created by the economy (environmental cleanup, health care issues, or the employment impacts of a major natural disaster) versus job expansion that reflects positive development in economic capacity. Other indicators are more speculative but gaining some acceptance; for example, ideas of natural capital that translate into measures of economic activity consider the extent to which certain forms of industrial activity deplete key stores of natural resources, rather than considering only the creation of jobs or financial wealth. The ecological footprint described in Box 1.1 represents such a crosscutting measure. These indicators are expressed in units such as “miles of salmon run degraded per kilowatt of hydroelectrical energy produced and consumed per new job created by the aluminum sector.” Similarly, the recognition that cultural or social capital is vital to the proper functioning and livability of communities translates into indicators such as “voluntary associates per capita” or “per capita hours of participation in community-based activities.” Other emerging types of indicators are linked to notions of nature or ecosystem services—namely, the real work that the air, water, and soil do to keep the ambient environment clean and functioning as our

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

TABLE 1.2 New-Generation Livability Indicators

Economic

Social

Environmental

Hours of paid work at the living wage

Students trained for local jobs

Use of toxic materials in economy

Diversity of job base

Voting rate

Vehicle-miles traveled

Wages paid and spent locally

Percentage covered by health insurance

Percentage of recyclable products used

Percentage of local economy based on renewable resources

Welfare-to-workers above poverty

Ratio of renewable to nonrenewable energy

environmental support system. These indicators lead away from standard measures, such as “road miles per capita” toward measures such as “loss of stormwater absorption capacity per road mile constructed.”

In transportation planning, traditional system indicators, such as pedestrian volume or mean commute time, have been used more often than livability indicators. Traditional transportation measures focus on the performance of the transportation system, rather than on the economic, social, and environmental impacts of such systems on aspects of places and everyday life. Traditional indicators tend to ignore the conditions imposed on communities through which the transportation system passes and the impacts of transportation decisions on energy consumption. They may also, for example, incorrectly equate mobility with access, when in fact access is a more complex issue that is related to equity and availability of resources (Knox, 1982). Indeed, there is no definitive or commonly accepted set of livability indicators related to transportation, suggesting that indicator research and development for transportation-livability planning could be a useful and rewarding endeavor. An example of a transportation-livability program included in Box 1.3 demonstrates the economic value of compact communities with access to public transportation.

How might a relatively traditional set of transportation planning-based indicators compare to one premised on notions of livability? The ideas behind these approaches are distinct. Traditional measures emphasize the economic role of transportation systems, given their importance to goods movement, consumer access, and worker mobility, and the economic costs of inefficient transport services (due to delays, injury, etc.). Livability-based measures are concerned not only with how efficient the

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
×

BOX 1.3 Fannie Mae Location Efficient Mortgage

In 1998, Fannie Mae agreed to a $100 million demonstration of the Location Efficient Mortgage (LEM) in several major cities, including Chicago. This initiative is an example of a private effort that promotes and fosters livable communities. This loan is designed to help people buy homes in neighborhoods where they can “live locally,” that is, rely on public transportation to work, shop, attend school, and carry out other activities of daily life. Research conducted by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Surface Transportation Policy Project showed that in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, residents located in compact neighborhoods or traditional suburban areas with excellent public transportation services traveled less than half the average vehicle-miles than those who lived in sprawling suburban or exurban areas.

A carefully researched computer model was built that can predict how many miles are driven and how many cars would be owned by an average household in each part of a metropolitan area, based on location. The difference between urban and suburban car ownership and use was clear. Location efficiency is used to describe some of the urban households that devote substantially less of their income to meet their day-to-day transportation needs. LEM borrowers must prefer to live in a compact urban neighborhood; make many trips by foot, bicycle, or public transportation; and rely on locally available shopping. Approximately one-fourth of the total number of trips taken each month is job related. The majority of travel includes visits to friends and relatives, going to school or recreational facilities, running errands, shopping, or visiting a place of worship. Therefore, many aspects of the homeowner’s life must be conducive to the location efficient lifestyle.

People seeking homes in urban neighborhoods can now obtain a LEM to redirect a significant portion of their budgets from transportation to homeownership. The LEM borrower could be expected to manage a mortgage that is $15,000 to $50,000 more than other mortgage products. The benefits of LEM include the following:

  • increasing the buying power of low- to mid-income homeowners,

  • increasing the home purchases in a variety of urban communities,

  • increasing public transit ridership,

  • supporting local consumer services and cultural amenities,

  • reducing energy consumption,

  • improving local and regional air quality, and

  • promoting the development and maintenance of livable communities.

SOURCE: Fannie Mae (1999).

transportation system is, but also with the impact of all modes of transportation on the everyday life and health of residents and with the implications of transportation for the environment, especially land use, energy and materials consumption, and pollution. Such measures are increas

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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ingly being used; crosscutting measures in Table 1.2 are drawn from community livability, sustainability, or healthy city plans created by federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, state planning agencies, city governments, community councils, county health departments, and nonprofit organizations from both the United States and Canada.

An example of such a transportation-related livability measure is Pedestrian Friendly Streets (Hart, 1998a) used by the City of Richmond in British Columbia as well as by Sustainable Seattle. This indicator measured the length and proportion of major streets that met the city’s minimum standard: a sidewalk on one or both sides of the street. In addition, it measured streets that met a higher standard where the street and sidewalk were separated by a tree-lined median or parking row to cut noise and increase safety for pedestrians.

When the City of Richmond began tracking this indicator in 1990, many of its streets did not meet the official minimum standard, and none met the higher standard. However, by the late 1990s, after the indicator had called attention to this issue, a majority of streets had been improved to meet the minimum standard, and one-fifth of the streets actually met the higher standard. This sort of indicator, which addresses the extent to which the city’s transportation infrastructure encourages walking, speaks simultaneously to economic, social, and environmental concerns: more pedestrian traffic on major commercial streets stimulates retail activity, encourages social interaction and exercise, reduces risk of traffic accidents, and can reduce automobile use and thus air pollution emissions. This indicator could also be usefully elaborated by considering the extent to which pedestrian-friendly streets actually link neighborhoods to commercial districts.

This example serves to illustrate the importance of indicator selection. The choice of indicators is critical to enabling community members, planners, and decision makers to focus on the desired outcomes of transportation, land use, and economic development decisions and then to measure the attributes of livability that result from their actions.

At a broader regional scale, in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson Sustainability Council has created a set of livability indicators for the Thomas Jefferson District Planning Council, the region’s council of government (Box 1.4). Part of a broader indicators program, their transportation indicators are linked to critical goals and to a series of innovative indicators similar to those in Table 1.2. All of these indicators reflect livability concerns.

Given a goal of facilitating the circulation of people, goods, services and information through integrated systems that minimize adverse im

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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BOX 1.4 Thomas Jefferson Area Eastern Planning Initiative

The Thomas Jefferson Planning district near Charlottesville, Virginia, established the Eastern Planning Initiative (EPI) and set the following goals that it wanted to address in an integrated manner:

  • to develop an interactive land use / transportation computer model (ComPlan);

  • to create a 50-year vision and implementation strategy for the area; and

  • to develop a handbook and a model for other communities.

EPI’s plan included identifying existing community elements, creating ideal community elements, and launching a demonstration computer model so that stakeholders could envision alternative futures. It wanted to develop land use/transportation scenarios that allowed the public to evaluate alternatives and select the most desirable scenarios.

The project team included an advisory committee, the Planning District Commission, Virginia Department of Transportation, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, local planners, the University of Virginia School of Architecture and Design Center at the Institute for Sustainable Design, and the Renaissance Team.

The first step was to create a 50-year vision. This included establishing a regional plan, community elements, and an implementation plan. The regional plan considered distribution and density of people and jobs. In an effort to determine where people would live, the project team established a regional framework that integrated environmental features and infrastructure and included several alternative futures and visions. Three questions were identified: What types of communities should be considered? Where are the different communities located? How are these communities connected?

To address these questions, the team considered a variety of community variables (elements). Data that were to define the existing community elements included evaluations of open space, building proximity, building scale, street scale, street character, internal paths, external connectivity, parking, and other types of activity in the area. Urban land use elements included residential, mixed use, university/institution, and parks/recreation. Suburban elements included residential, mixed use, retail, office, institutional, industrial, parks/recreation, and conservation areas. Rural land usage included small town, village, residential, mixed use, industrial, parks/recreation, agricultural/forestal, and conservation areas.

The definition of mixed use varied with development densities. In an urban area, mixed use is typically a densely developed or densely populated area or a community within a metropolitan context containing more than one of the following land uses: residential, retail, office, civic, institutional, or industrial. Suburban mixed use refers to an edge community, suburban neighborhood or community, or suburban power center that contains one or more of the following land uses: residential, retail, office, industrial, or institutional. Rural mixed-use areas are sparsely developed or sparsely populated areas with a community that contains more than one of the fol

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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(A) Photograph of urban mixed use on East Market Street, Charlottesville, Virginia. SOURCE: Kenneth Schwartz, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

(B) Photograph of suburban mixed use, Forest Lakes planned community in Albemarle County, Virginia. SOURCE: Kenneth Schwartz, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

(C) Photograph of rural mixed use, Zion Crossroads, Virginia. SOURCE: Kenneth Schwartz, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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lowing land uses: residential, retail, office, industrial, institutional, and agricultural/ forest. The major element distinctions in the different development density areas include open space, different activities, internal path connectivity, building proximity, and parking.

In recognizing these distinctions, EPI planned on enhancing different types of land use for the different types of communities. The vision promoted development of university and institution space in urban areas, suburban mixed-use, retail, office and residential development, and rural residential development. EPI built community consensus through meetings, community workshops, focus groups, newsletters / fact sheets, and a web site. The CorPlan Model was then established to link land use plans and transportation choices. The first step in developing this model was establishing an open space inventory on a GIS base map. Development-prohibited land was marked. Open spaces were categorized as environmentally sensitive, historically significant, agriculture / forest view-sheds, or possible greenway linking systems. (See the community element diagrams in Plates 1 and 2.)

These maps were used to evaluate a variety of future scenarios based on alternate mapping of dispersed, nodal, and urban core development. Next, social factors were included in the analysis. EPI compared different communities by population and employment. Goals were developed by considering personal, community, and regional perspectives and scenario evaluations on these issues. The sustainability council considered quality-of-life goals such as health, urban/suburban relationships, optimal population size, distribution of biological diversity, and water quality and quantity. This effort sought to strike a balance between built areas and open space. Other goals included human-scale development, healthy farms and forests, transportation choices, energy conservation, access to education, access to employment, active citizen participation and a sense of community, and historic preservation.

SOURCE: Bowerman et al. (1996).

pacts on natural systems and communities, some of the key objectives and indicators can be viewed in Table 1.3.

In sum, a wide variety of indicators have been proposed and used to assess the livability of places, at varying geographic scales. Traditional transportation indicators are clearly most useful for relatively narrow transportation system investment, improvement, and management decisions; transportation-related livability indicators, in contrast, have more general applicability to the quality of life in a place as it relates to transportation infrastructure and utilization patterns (Box 1.5). Increasingly, such indicators are being incorporated into livability studies by localities, metropolitan regions, and state-level planning efforts.

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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TABLE 1.3 List of Community Objectives and Associated Indicators

Objective

Indicator

Construct a network of bicycle and pedestrian facilities within urban areas in accordance with the localities’ bicycle plans

Linear miles of facilities constructed especially for pedestrian and bicycle use

Connect urban areas of the cities and counties with bikeways and walkways

Linear miles of facilities constructed especially for pedestrian and bicycle use

Reduce automobile and truck traffic volume and speed in residential areas for the safety of children bicycling and playing in these places

Linear miles of traffic-calmed roads

Measure costs of traffic congestion to initiate planning for transit systems

Automobile travel time for series of key automobile transportation system segments

Indicators in Practice

Before livability indicators can begin to play a more significant role in transportation and other areas of decision making, it is necessary to understand basic issues surrounding indicators and their use. In reviewing the history of indicator use, analysts increasingly recognize that the use of indicators is often problematic (Cobb and Rixford, 1998). Neither standard livability indicator sets nor the more elaborate places-rated approaches that include many variables are adequate to capture the many critical dimensions of urban livability (Landis and Sawicki, 1998). Major problems of standard indicators are listed in Table 1.4, and several of these problems are discussed below. Although some are inescapable, regardless of the type or formulation of the indicator used (such as scale), many can be addressed through the use of a new generation of indicators that, for example, explicitly attempt to span dimensions of livability. Also, using indicators in a more sophisticated fashion, and acknowledging their ambiguity and political ramifications, rather than assuming that seemingly simple indicators unambiguously measure major aspects of livability, can skirt pitfalls of indicator use. (For further discussion see Bauer, 1966; U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, 1969; OMB, 1973; Andrews and Withey, c. 1976; Campbell et al., c. 1976.)

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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BOX 1.5 Livability Versus Transportation Indicators

Traditional Measures

  • Patterns of transportation investments by mode

  • Flows of people, information, goods, and services

  • Capacity of transportation facilities

  • Pedestrian volumes

  • Percentage of population within 50 miles of air passenger service

  • Number of transfers on transit

  • Reliability of transit

  • Auto-commute and rail accidents

  • Mean commute time

  • Average road speed

  • Waiting time at major intersections

  • Road congestion and travel times

Crosscutting Measures

  • New housing units or businesses within 5 minutes of public transit

  • Percentage of population able to walk or bike to work, school, and shopping

  • Percentage of streets with pedestrian and bicycle facilities

  • Percentage of commuters using public transit

  • Percentage of workers within 30 minutes of work

  • Transportation system-related noise levels

  • Auto emissions per capita

  • Ratio of fuel-efficient to inefficient vehicles

  • Ratio of renewably fueled to non-renewably fueled vehicles

  • Ratio of highway to transit expenditures

  • Percentage of land allocated to automobile use and storage

  • Change in total and per-person vehicle-miles traveled

SOURCE: Hart (1998b, 1999).

Appropriate Scale of Analysis

At what scale should livability be measured? Can or should it be considered at the individual, household, or population group scale or only with reference to places? We can improve livability for people, for example, by augmenting their disposable income and thereby allowing them to leave a deteriorating neighborhood. Conversely, it is possible to increase a community’s livability without helping any of its original residents who may in fact be displaced as the neighborhood improves and

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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TABLE 1.4 Lessons of History About Indicator Selection for Practitioners Today

Lessons of History for Practitioners Today

1.

Having a number does not necessarily mean that you have a good indicator

Indicators are quantities to infer qualities. Many believe that if an official agency has measured something, an indicator based on that measure is likely to be valuable. However, quality is elusive, and trying to measure it with a single number often gives misleading results.

2.

Effective indicators require a clear conceptual basis

To create a good indicator, you need to clarify exactly what you are trying to measure. Taking time to develop conceptual clarity before gathering data is necessary so that the numbers generated can be deciphered. Careless definitions can lead to inaccurate statistics or bad policies.

3.

There is no such thing as a value-free indicator

The act of deciding what to count and not to count requires value judgments. Indicators carry implicit messages. There are complex methods to deal with bias in survey questions, but some matters are too sensitive.

4.

Comprehensiveness may be the enemy of effectiveness

Historically, the most powerful indicator studies have focused on a single issue. It is most effective to find a few insightful and compelling indicators to represent a complex whole.

5.

The symbolic value of an indicator may outweigh its value as a literal measure

Numbers can act as metaphors, which is especially true of index numbers. For example, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI)is not a literal measure of well-being, but rather a metaphor for progress.

6.

Don’t conflate indicators with reality

Every indicator is a flawed representation of a complex set of events and, at best, a fractional measurement of reality. Researchers should strive to develop multiple indicators for the same phenomenon so that the resulting numbers do not become a barrier to the truth.

7.

A democratic indicators program requires more than good public participation processes

Widespread participation may not be the best “indicator” of whether an indicator project is really democratic. Procedural justice will not automatically bring about substantive justice. Social reports often have a political edge when not striving for consensus.

8.

Measurement does not necessarily induce appropriate action

New information contained in indicators may change perceptions, but the connections to actions are not automatic. In addition,action sometimes precedes the development of indicators.

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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9.

Better information may lead to better decisions and improved outcomes, but not as easily as it might seem

The policy-making function of indicators is indirect. Better statistics will not always lead to better decisions. The information has to affect motives or perceptions of how the world works.

10.

Challenging prevailing wisdom about what causes a problem is often the first step to fixing it

Drawing attention to a previously ignored condition, finding a new connection between two factors, or showing that a widely shared idea is wrong can lead to convincing analysis of why a problem exists, so that a new solution can be adopted.

11.

To take action, look for indicators that reveal causes, not symptoms

In order to alter a symptom,it is necessary to have a theory about what is causing it.

12.

You are more likely to move from indicators to outcomes if you have control over resources

The purpose of an indicator is to alert the public and policy makers to problems so that they can be solved. This can occur only when researchers have a connection with those in power. Otherwise, the indicators may not influence outcomes.

 

SOURCE: Cobb and Rixford (1998).

becomes more attractive to higher-income households. The need to focus on both people and places when planning for livable communities is discussed again in Chapter 2.

Even if a place-based approach is adopted, the question of scale still arises. Indicators of neighborhood livability, for example, cannot always be scaled up to a regional or state level, in the same way that large-scale indicators are not necessarily relevant at the community level. Even if scaling up or down is possible, it might not make sense from a policy perspective. For example, although health indicators such as infant mortality are meaningful at both local and global scales, many transportation or mobility indicators have little relevance at the global scale. A case in point is “walkability,” which can be measured only at a local scale and has relevance only up to a regional scale. Similarly, we might be able to take neighborhood air quality measurements crucial for local efforts to remediate a nearby pollution hotspot, but such measures cannot be aggregated to the regional scale where regulatory compliance indicators are crucial for policy making (see NRC, 1999).

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Statistical Measurement Errors

What statistical measures best capture a particular livability dimension? Typically, standard measures of central tendency, such as means and medians, are utilized. Thus, for example, indicators that purport to measure public service quality, such as “mean emergency service vehicle response time” are commonly employed. However, in this instance like many others, what is important is not only (or even mostly) the average response time, but also the distribution of response times. If the average time is 5 minutes but the range of response times is very large (extending, perhaps, up to 25 minutes), we might draw very different conclusions about service quality. Thus, often it is imperative to use more than one measure of a given livability dimension or a nonstandard measure that better captures it.

Single Sphere Versus Crosscutting Measures

Should indicators that relate to one of the basic spheres of livability— economic, social, environmental—be used singly or in combination? If crosscutting measures are more meaningful, how should they be constructed? Most livability indicator projects draw on the idea that livability is rooted in economic, social, and environmental spheres and that a balance between them is required to promote greater livability. Indicators are then supplied that capture dimensions of each single sphere. Yet as Farrell and Hart (1998, p. 6) suggest, simply providing indicators related to the economic, social, and environmental aspects of a place, without also including indicators that link them (for example, additional air pollution output per new job created), “encourage[s] the same fragmented view of the world that has historically led to some of our most serious problems.” Linking indicators through the creation of crosscutting measures reveals that the preferred direction of indicator change is not always clear. Although in some cases the desired direction of indicator change may seem obvious (e.g., infant mortality should go down rather than up), in other cases, even the desired directionality of change is not obvious due to linkage effects with other spheres. For example, economic expansion is typically seen as positive, but it is also associated with more automobile use, more resource consumption, and more waste and pollution— clearly not desired outcomes if one considers the environmental as well as the economic sphere (Olson, 1969). Desired directionality may also vary as a function of the level of aggregation at which livability is being considered. Visits to the hospital may indicate improvements in health care access and delivery or deterioration in the health of the community. For example, is it a sign of greater livability if the share of housing units in

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Phoenix that has air conditioners rises? Until recently, assumptions about unlimited energy supplies might have made this an unambiguous positive at the city or regional level, but growth in air conditioners does not portend positively for any efforts aimed at regional energy conservation or minimizing urban heat island effects.

Data Availability and Reliability Constraints

In practice, only the more readily obtainable, publicly accessible data are typically utilized (e.g., variables from the U.S. Census). Although they are reliable and often available at multiple geographic scales, such sets of indicators are predictably characterized by important gaps. There is no one standard source that measures all relevant features of a place’s economy, society, or environment over time. Increasingly, proprietary data (from private sources) on livability have emerged to fill these gaps, but although such sources can provide a host of useful data, they come with attendant problems of cost and access, especially reliability and ensured availability over time. Government administrative data, such as those derived from program caseload information or unemployment insurance information collected by states, are rarely used. Although these data could be extraordinarily useful especially when linked to other place-based data, they have often been collected at the level of the individual; confidentiality restrictions require these data to be aggregated appropriately, necessitating considerable time and effort. This means that these useful data are often bypassed in efforts to develop indicators.

Reliance on standardized public data sources leads to several unsatisfactory outcomes. One is the dependence on partial sets of indicators that fail to capture important aspects of livability. Another is the use of weak proxies: the use of crime statistics, for example, to measure a very broad feature of social life such as the degree of social disorganization. Third, standard sources typically include measurements of various aspects of livability, but seldom refer to perceptions of livability—which may be equally or even more important. Lastly, the use of locally specific data in combination with readily available indicators associated with standardized measures means that indicators will necessarily vary from place to place, precluding comparisons and hindering policies designed to help lagging areas. A related weakness of publicly available data is the infrequency with which they are collected.

Indicator Interpretation

Can indicators be interpreted in the same way and are they similarly relevant over varied times, places, and scales (Franke, 2000)? Hart (1999)

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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provides an answer in the following example. GDP is a traditional economic indicator that measures the amount of money being spent in a country. It is generally regarded as a reflection of economic well-being; that is, the more money that is spent, the better overall well-being is supposed to be. Yet GDP goes up when a car accident occurs and medical and repair costs are incurred. Environmental accidents such as oil spills require remediation of damage to natural habitats and wildlife, which costs money and raises GDP. Most people would agree that car accidents and oil spills do not increase the livability of an area, but like other traditional measures, GDP disregards the links among social, environmental, and economic aspects of livability in that it measures economic increases at the expense of society and the environment (see Figure 1.5).

FIGURE 1.5 Social, economic, and environmental indicators.

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Similarly, because of the dynamic nature of populations and people, an apparently negative trend may reflect quite a different reality. For instance, educational attainment levels may trend downward in a particular locality—not because students are failing to finish high school or attend college, but because they are leaving the neighborhood as they become more educated, leaving older, less well-educated residents behind (Andrews, 2001). Indicators that matter in one place will be irrelevant in others; for example, in the Pacific Northwest, measuring the quantity and quality of salmon runs is considered important to conceptions of livability, while in other areas of the country the number of days that the air quality is “good,” or the distance to medical facilities may be more salient indicators.

Weighting Indicators

Even if all participants in a livability indicators program agree on specific measures, the way such measures are weighted is critical. Are all livability indices of equivalent importance? Typically not—wider sidewalks with plenty of trees make streets more attractive and lively (and even healthier, given the environmental benefits provided by trees)—but is a “quality-of-streets” measure of livability as critical in determining the overall quality of a place as, for example, infant mortality? Thus, weightings are needed, but guidance on how to weight livability indices is uncommon since weights have to reflect the choices and preferences of different demographic and socioeconomic groups (Knox and MacLaran, 1978). The usual response is either to ignore the weighting issue or to allow the immediate politics of project stakeholders to determine weightings.

Just as problematic is that in practice, indicators are rarely linked to any idea of how much change can be expected—or created—through policy action. By what magnitude, over what period of time, should indicators change? Localities in a coastal region might agree that stormwater pollution indicators should be tracked, for instance, but they might have very different ideas concerning benchmarks or targets—exactly how much of this sort of pollution should be eliminated over a specific period of time. This has led to a movement to create not only appropriate indicators, but also benchmarks that ought to go along with them. Moreover, it logically leads to the conclusion that livability indicators and benchmark programs themselves must be assessed. Such assessment is challenging but conceivably could be accomplished in terms of an assessment of a broad set of fundamental measures that reflect human and environmental well-being. Such measures could include health status, security (income, health care, housing, etc.), extent and fairness of taxation, and level and

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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distribution of various forms of wealth (i.e., social, natural, or financial capital); measures of ecosystem functioning, such as species richness and protection and habitat protection or augmentation, might serve in an assessment of environmental well-being associated with a livability program.

Politics of Use

Both indicator selection and, especially, benchmarking are profoundly political activities. Indicators themselves can become politicized since their interpretation is often open to question and some have the potential to cast less favorable light than others on specific elements of the community. Thus, selection of a set of livability indicators related to the economy that, for example, focuses on quantitative aspects of economic activity (i.e., rates of job creation and retention, average wages, etc.) may tell a very different story than a set of indicators that includes measures of qualitative growth. Stakeholders are likely to advocate for those indicators that are the most favorable to their interests—either showing them in a positive light or underscoring the need for public investments from which they are likely to benefit.

Because of the politically contentious nature of policy and planning, the launch of a public indicators project may signal political stalemate rather than movement toward the programmatic changes required to make places more livable. The very act of embarking on an indicators effort may reflect the desire among powerful stakeholders to deflect any (potentially undesirable) change in public policy, the expectation being that any large-scale data collection and analysis effort will result in “paralysis by analysis” rather than decisive public action. Livability exercises can become excuses for taking no action and can drag on indefinitely. More cynically, such exercises also may be seen as a “feel-good” way to encourage public involvement and make it seem to occupy center stage, while in fact it is only a means to legitimize decisions being made by key political stakeholders backstage. Such experiences can result in a backlash among resident-participants. Projects initiated by nonprofit organizations, in contrast, may be designed more for advocacy purposes than for use in policy making per se; yet if decision makers systematically ignore group efforts, disillusionment and feelings of disenfranchisement can also result. For all of these reasons, indicators projects can take on a life of their own, effectively divorced from policy and fueled in part by a veritable “indicators industry” consisting of private data vendors, GIS companies, and indicators consultants.

Attempts to set benchmarks are even more likely to produce political conflict than simple indicator-based planning. Since benchmarks, by defi

Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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nition, set targets for local actors—both institutional and individual— they can force the question of how to produce changes in livability and at what cost. The degree of conflict around benchmarks will vary and typically revolves around any enforcement mechanisms (such as sanctions, fines, or rewards) put in place. For example, if there is a 20 percent reduction benchmark for municipal electricity use over a five-year period, someone—agencies, private households, businesses—must determine how to attain this reduction. If there is no consequence for failing to meet the benchmark, then there may be minimal conflict around the 20 percent figure; however, if there are fines or other remedies to compel at least good-faith effort toward meeting the benchmark, then such targets become lightning rods for conflict around livability plans.

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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Concept of Livability and Indicators." National Research Council. 2002. Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10262.
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“Quality of life” . . . “livability” . . . “sense of place.” Communities across America are striving to define these terms and to bring them to life, as they make decisions about transportation systems and other aspects of planning and development.

Community and Quality of Life discusses important concepts that undergird community life and offers recommendations for collaborative planning across space and time. The book explores:

  • Livability as an ensemble concept, embracing notions such as quality of place and sustainability. It discusses how to measure the “three legs” of livability (social, economic, ecological) while accounting for politics and personal values. And the book examines how to translate broad ideas about livability into guidelines for policymaking
  • Place as more than location, including the natural, human-built, and social environments. The book discusses the impact of population changes over time, the links between regional and local identity, and other issues
  • Tools for decision making in transportation and community planning. It reviews a variety of decision models and tools such as geographic information systems (GIS)—as well as public and private sources of relevant data.

Including several case examples, this book will be important to planners, planning decision makers, planning educators and students, social scientists, community activists, and interested individuals.

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