livability: (livable) fit or suitable to live in or with; “livable conditions”.

“Livability” has been a buzz word in city development for some time, and for good reason, as who doesn’t want livability, outside the zombie cohort? Things get hairy, though, when “livability”—as an economic development strategy—gets unpacked, because questions arise: “Livability” for whom? “Livability” at what cost?

Making a city “livable” these days largely means appealing to a select group of folks so as to form “an attractive economic place”. This notion of “livability” really came on in the late 1980’s, and was done under the presumption that certain cities offered higher quality of life, read: better lifestyles. For instance, in 1989 geographer David Harvey wrote that cities need to “keep ahead of the game [by] engendering leap-frogging innovations in life-styles, cultural forms, products, and service mixes…if they are to survive.” This was a radical departure from previous societal efforts to make quality of life a priority (think: pollution remediation) in that “life” was swapped out for “lifestyle”.

You could argue, then, that the original sin of “livability”-driven economic development begins right there. Namely, the emphasis will not be on the people of a city, but on potential consumers, particularly high-valued consumers with means, subsequently referred to as the “creative class”. As for creative class wants? They are, according to Richard Florida, “[an] indigenous street-level culture – a teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros…” In this sense, the idea of “livability” gets precariously slimmed out.

Nonetheless, this thinking has penetrated mainstream economic development, with cities attempting to one-up each other in their want to attract a slice of the “livability” electorate. The consequences have become predictable: more comfort for some, less comfort for most.

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Perhaps the city most famous for livability-driven economic development is Portland. It is America’s amenity apex, and a recent study showed it attracts the young by the boatload due to a certain leisure-lifestyle it affords.

For example, from a recent article entitled “(P)retirement’s new frontier”, the author interviews a 36-year old who is “underemployed on purpose”, as well as a couple who quit their jobs in Austin, sold their car, and have backyard chickens, yet now feel “much richer”. Such folks are referred to by economist Joe Cortright as “lifestyle entrepreneurs”. Part of this entrepreneurial output, touched on in the article, is a website called Badass that rates Portland neighborhoods for amenities like pinball machines, food carts, and access to bike lanes. At times the article reads like Portland was dreamed up by Willy Wonka.

Here, I half kid. From a description of the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, notice the parallel themes: the Peter Pan motif, an escape from an unsatisfactory reality, and the promise of limitless sensory and savory experiences:

The Chocolate Room is designed to look like an outdoor landscape complete with trees, flowers and a waterfall, but Wonka has made the entire scene out of candy and chocolate. Charlie and the other children see some doll-sized human beings in the Chocolate Room, and Wonka explains they are Oompa-Loompas whom he saved from the dangerous country of Loompaland. The Oompa-Loompas agreed to work for Wonka and live in his factory in exchange for a safe home and an endless supply of their favorite food, cacao beans.

Courtesy of Knotworkshop

Swap out the over-educated and underemployed for the Oompa-Loompas, chocolate for lifestyle amenities, and the Chocolate Room for the concept of “Portland-as-place”, and you got yourself a sequel. But there are problems with such city building: it’s too often defined by the ephemera, or that “transitory matter not intended to be retained or preserved”. And while the ephemera aren’t building blocks to economic growth—but instead represent America’s tendency to fix hard structural deficits with the airy promises of the pleasure principle—they are nonetheless a main cog in the modern day city-making machine. From an article entitled “Placemaking Revolution: the powerful role of ephemera and the arts in our cities”:

Coletta addressed the question of how ephemeral events can have lasting impacts in cities. “I think you can do temporality with regularity. Some temporary events are so powerful that they stay in the memory for a long time, and spark the imagination.

But I would argue that now more than ever we need less fantasy in city building than we do reality—as reality can’t keep being handed off to folks who are unable to consume their way to imagining existence as anything but decidedly not livable.

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“Livability” backlashes are becoming increasingly common across the country. For instance, a piece in Crain’s Chicago questions whether Chicago’s catering to the global creative class is worth the debt it is incurring, and whether the split between the amenity-rich rich neighborhoods and the amenity-poor poor neighborhoods is worth the investment, particularly given the record levels of violence that is tearing parts of the city to pieces. And while Mayor Emanuel’s bike-pathing of the City moves forward because “he wants all of [Seattle’s] bikers”, libraries are closing, red light cameras are ubiquitous, taxes are rising, and the city has a police manpower shortage of 1,000 that can’t be plugged because there’s no money. In fact things are so desperate that the City recently turned to Twitter to fight crime.

Stop-The-Violence Campaign in Chicago. Courtesy of Metropolis Coffee

In New York, the President of NYU is under a vote of no confidence for his plans to extend the creative classification of the campus into Greenwich Village. And while this has been ongoing—for instance, one commenter in the bookWhile We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York” states “There are days when I feel like I’m stranded in some upscale mall in Pasadena”—the recent city-sanctioned plan to bulldoze and “mix use” a residential neighborhood for “livability” purposes in order to “attract ambitious students and faculty to sustain the region’s economic base and quality of life” has pushed faculty and the community over the edge.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the plan—and fight for it—comes at a time with Richard Florida joining NYU as a Global Research Professor, with the President commenting on the unison this way:

There is a certain symmetry here: Richard Florida is joining NYU…at a moment when the University has begun responding to the forces that give rise to his most trenchant insights.

Even in Portland, the “livability” backlash is present. A September 2012 article entitled “Portland’s livability conflicts: Contradictions of affluence and affliction” states:

With its tree-lined streets, bike paths and transit options, Portland is beautiful and very safe. But behind that facade, Portland is also a city of contradictions.

These contradictions, according to the author, involve the discordance brewing between the poverty and “alarmingly large number of hypodermic needle” situation on one hand, and the topographical layering of that “everything is fine” sheen that remains intact for many coming to seek it.

Others in the community are questioning the theory of livability-driven economic development in its own right. For instance, in a piece entitled “The Portland Question: Livability or Job Growth?”, the author notes the growing worries in the region as to the path Portland is on:

Last year, Portland’s own catalyst for economic change, the Portland Development Commission, warned that the city’s traditional focus on livability projects such as streetcars and housing had not delivered the job growth needed to stay competitive. That’s a strong statement considering that livability has become what largely defines Portland’s character.

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Taken together, perhaps it’s time for city leaders and citizens alike to take stock in how cities are being made, and for whom the making is focused. In fact maybe it’s time to drop the “livability” gimmicks that define Willy Wonka urbanism–or to squeeze “the style” out of “lifestyle” so as to expose the highest priority, the highest necessity: which is life.

So, you wanna make your city “hot”? Then cook the irons of affordable housing, mobility, education, and solid jobs.

Or, you know: livability.

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