Liveable or Valuable Cities?

Istanbul (via Garton on flickr)
Istanbul (via Garton on flickr)

“Liveability” is a bit of a darling word for governments, municipalities, planners and the like – particularly those who see investment in public transport as the silver bullet for increasingly strained urban systems. The Obama administration (Dept. of Transportation) recently defined ‘liveability’ as,

…being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get in your car.

Sounds like a small town, or a city with amazing public transport infrastructure. Probably a fine place to live, but is ‘liveability’ really defined by the proximity of retail? Good public transport? Lower petrol bills? One commenter on this post from Citiwire went as far as to equate ‘liveability’ with ‘walkability.’ I’m not sure I understand the analogy – unless he means that walking has demonstrable health benefits, and therefore a liveable city is a place where there is lower risk of death.

Vincent Valk on Next American City agrees that ‘liveability’ means ‘a place where you don’t die. It is also probably a place where you can find a job, make friends and pursue activities you enjoy.’ Of course, activities enjoyed will be different for different people, and as Valk points out – ‘if your favourite hobbies are gardening and car maintenance, you might actually be happier in suburbia.’

Melbourne laneway (
Melbourne laneway (

The article reinforces the view that ‘liveability’ is basically now consultant-speak, a concept appropriated by transit advocates and other ‘urbanists’ to project their clean-energy, public transport dreams onto.

A more fatalistic view is that of Kunstler among the New Urbanists, who sees a tripartite global crisis in capital, energy, and global ecology that will determine how our cities must evolve or face extinction. The argument is for a radical shift towards ‘localisation’ – of food, production, human movement, and everything else. Our obsession in the US, Australia and other similar societies with the myth of suburban utopia is now facing it’s final death knell.

Reading the above post and it’s responses, you can virtually feel the anxiety growing in urban America around this theme. Check out some of the quotes:

“It’s a crazy world when you have to drive two miles in a 5,000 pound car for a loaf of bread.”

“I don’t now where to go or what to do. I might just take my lawn chair to the roof and watch the asteroid approach, so to speak.”

“The 20th century “non-negotiable way of life” has been one great delusion, it will be good riddance when the Peak Oil is upon us.”

“There’s probably some nation behind us that knows how to do this civilization thing a lot better.”

What is a really ‘liveable’ city, if we can only come up with transport and the lack of heart attacks as definitions?

Could we redefine and understand our urban spaces by the measure of value? A liveable city – a ‘valuable’ city – is not only about infrastructure and convenience, but is a place that is both infused with value by the people who live there, and in turn creates value for them. It has economic value – a place of production, progress, and returns. Social value in the places for dialogue, interaction, cultural expression. Strategic value in the connectivity with national and foreign markets, an accommodating local climate in the years to come, and a safe and hospitable place for future generations. A valuable city is, as Kunstler would describe, a city ‘worth caring about’, in many more ways than one.

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