What makes a city liveable?What makes a city liveable?
Chris Ling, Jim Hamilton and Kathy Thomas
Published December 19, 2006
Many aspects of urban design and new approaches to city form are based on the concept of liveability. These approaches recognise that design and structure can be very influential in the life of a town or city and indeed to the building of community in and of itself. They also create novel contexts for a community to develop in a more sustainable way. This case study looks at two communities of very different size, the Town of Okotoks and the City of Vancouver, both of which, for a number of years, have been attempting to implement development based on quality of life and sustainable development. The case study considers the different challenges faced by implementing liveability in these two contexts, and the degree to which a liveability agenda has contributed to sustainable development in the two communities.
The Town of Okotoks considers the sustainable development of the community to be about liveablity.
"The subtle shift in mindset that has taken place in recent years is that today, there is less concern about attracting growth and more concern about managing growth toward a positive and proactive vision we have for the community - an end state that preserves the enviable lifestyle we have come to expect in Okotoks."
Over time, the City of Vancouver has moved from liveability issues towards sustainable development in response to grassroots pressure and changing global concerns. In both contexts, market forces, in particular development interests and typical planning design paradigms, have made it difficult to fully implement the ideals of liveability, but in both cases, grassroots community support has made the challenges easier. Also, in both cases the adoption of a liveability agendaarose from the recognition of limits to growth. In Vancouver, it was a result of transportation limits, and in Okotoks, it was a result of limits to the ecological capacity of the watershed.
Sustainable development is the prime human imperative of the 21st Century (Dale, 2001). In the Town of Okotoks, sustainable development has been embraced, both politically and throughout the community. Liveability came first in the City of Vancouver, however, and there is some degree to which the city needs another shift in thinking to fully integrate the two agendas.
Sustainable Development Characteristics
Liveability is critical to the establishment of a sustainable community, if for no other reason than if it is not present people will not stay in the community. But 'liveability' as a term is exceedingly difficult to define. For some, it is intrinsically tied to physical amenities such as parks and green space; for others to cultural offerings, career opportunities, economic dynamism, or some degree of reasonable safety within which to raise a family. Where liveability is linked to sustainability and infrastructure issues it is normally as an alternative development model to the expansion of sprawling suburbs with low densities of both population and services and where infrastructure provision is costly to ecological, economic, and social capital (Kunstler, 1993): see for example the Federal Transportation Livability Initiative in the US (Fischer, 2000).
The definition of liveability appears without limit; yet, somehow it forms part of the sustainability equation. In Canada, the liveability agenda cannot be considered without reference to the City of Vancouver, which is frequently described as one of the most liveable cities in the world (see for example the Economist Intelligence Unit’s livable cities survey reported by CNN.) In 1976, the city developed a liveability agenda when quality of life and environmental concerns won out over a city model based on a highway network. The city recognized the need to compete against expanding suburbs to maintain a vibrant downtown, to avoid the decay of the urban core seen in many North American cities. Although its policy has clearly been successful in many respects the liveability of the city, even the downtown core is not without its critics particularly with reference to service provisions for families that wish to live in the downtown core and the residents who cannot afford to live there. (Where’s liveability without schools? Vancouver Sun, July 6th 2006). The Downtown Eastside community highlights that not everyone has the access or the opportunity for liveability, and homelessness continues to be a major policy issue. This case study examines the degree to which to the City of Vancouver has the capacity to tackle 21st Century concerns and wider issues of sustainable development.
In its key sustainability document the Okotoks Municipal Development Plan: The Legacy Plan, the Town of Okotoks addresses liveability through the use of overall themes in establishing planning priorities: demographics (integrating generations), leisure (giving individuals and groups recreational opportunities), and cocooning (to redefine and strengthen the sense of community). In 1997 and 1998, community-wide surveys assisted in the preparation of the 20-year legacy plan, a relatively long term in the context of municipal planning in Canada. The surveys defined a set of desirable futures for Okotoks that went well beyond just issues of physical sustainability. Proposed futures included improved life-long learning opportunities, provision of active and passive recreational and cultural activities, a holistic approach to community well-being, and a place where spiritual, artistic and aesthetic values are respected and encouraged. Of course, the degree to which the legacy plan has been successfully implemented is open to discussion, and the town reviewed its progress after five years and identified areas of concern.
A complementary case study of the importance of using transit-oriented sustainable development principles as exemplified by the town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire (just south of Montreal) and the development of Village de la Gare's concept of liveability not dissimilar to that of Okotoks is considered in more depth as a stand alone case study for this project.
The wider theme of what constitutes liveability remains undefined. A team of researchers at Queen’s University joined a multi-university group to address this. The team will focus on three themes that, while not directly related to sustainability, seem to significantly impact liveability within communities. These themes are:
- social space;
- talent attraction and retention as well as economic dynamism; and,
- the overall amenability of local governments to the development of a progressive economy.
The components of liveability as seen in the City of Vancouver are:
- protection of the environment;
- maintenance of a diverse economy;
- provision of accessibility through land use;
- delivery of services for residents and businesses;
- housing choices;
- balanced city budget; and,
- the involvement of citizens in planning and delivery.
There are certainly frequent parallels between the liveability agenda and the agendas of choice and New Urbanism approaches to development, often linked to the development of sustainable community. It has to be said that the aims of a liveability policy on communities are focused on quality of life, rather than implicitly on sustainable development, but there are inevitable improvements for sustainable development through reduced car transportation, increases in greenspace and opportunities for social capital and participative planning regimes.
Critical Success Factors
Critical success factors in the identification and implementation of liveability as an integral part of sustainable communities are:
the value of liveability as an overall theme, among others, in the development of a community’s sustainability plan;
the overarching role of public engagement in the articulation of what is meant by liveability;
an acceptance that liveability may differ significantly from community to community;
a recognition that liveability extends to economic dynamism and career opportunities as well as recreational, aesthetic, cross-generational and cultural activities;
the ability to embed liveability concerns into the culture of the municipality rather than politically motivated short-term initiatives; and,
the recognition that the provision of a diverse residential community with a full complement of services, means that a system approach to both the city region and the individual neighbourhood is required. This will ensure that individual neighbourhoods do not become liveability ghettos, but have a real and vibrant place within the whole city region context.
Community Contact Information
Manager, Sustainability Group
City of Vancouver
1800 Spyglass Place
Matters of liveability need to be addressed early within planning processes so as to reconcile the imperatives of sustainable development. These imperatives can obtain legitimacy if they are explored and integrated within the participatory planning process.
Community involvement and support, combined with a willingness of municipal officials to accept and work with the grassroots means the question of liveability in the local community is better understood, and the concept is more integrated into policy, planning and political will.
Ensuring that, in large residential developments, developers are required to incorporate sufficient service provisions for the people living there. This means that there is concrete provision of services for communities within walking distance – a key component of liveability. Mixed use buildings and development is encouraged as the development of residential capacity is intrinsically linked with the development of commercial capacity.
The key elements of the planning process are leadership at multiple levels with political, bureaucratic and community leaders developing strategic alliances between the grassroots, community leaders and bureaucratic leaders. This needs to be supported by policy diffusion, education and training within municipal authorities, and a system perspective that looks at relationships between municipalities.
What Didn’t Work?
Although early in their study, researchers at Queen’s University suspect that liveability within communities will suffer if they do not:
offer sufficient social space so that effective innovative-based networks develop that support the overall themes of the community e.g. the research networks found within the Silicon Valley or the sport training networks resulting from the extensive Olympic and other training facilities at Canmore, Alberta;
provide an economic dynamism with a critical mass of entrepreneurs, diversity and creativity, sufficient to attract and retain talented people;
encourage a culture within local governments to support innovation both in economic and cultural matters; and,
recognize that if a city is focused around a particular large institution or industry sector, e.g. a university, resource extraction then sufficient consideration needs to be made for service and employment provisions for spouses and family members of those employed by the institution.
In short, liveable communities have to provide meaning to people’s lives beyond just being a point of residence.
In Vancouver, the liveability agenda is at risk of becoming stale. The questions and issues, which created the movement are now largely answered and resolved. There are new issues and questions now for which planning is needed planning. There is a risk that the city will rest on its reputation and fail to act in a timely and innovative manner. This is a form of inertia, normally seen in less progressive environments, but is nevertheless a growing concern in the city.
The Greater Vancouver Regional District is also a significant player in the liveability agenda, but through political changes in the region as a whole, its contribution has become recently muted – stressing the importance of embedding liveability and sustainable development principles within the operation of the municipal structure and to some extent removed from political change in the short term.
The challenge is that liveable communities become concentrated in the downtown and wealthier areas of a city, with fringe areas and less affluent suburbs left with lowest cost development leading to highest long-term costs to the triple bottom line, despite it being easiest to implement liveability into new development. Retrofitting liveability, if this is at all possible, is much harder based on the design of existing infrastructure and the use of mixed use planning regimes – building this into an existing car-focused infrastructure and mono-functional planning zones is problematic. Why, therefore, does liveability in Canada seems to be largely integrated into downtowns and infill developments, and not in expanding suburbs?
Financial Costs and Funding Sources
The choice regarding the costs of infrastructure is twofold:
increasing costs to provide services and infrastructure to increasingly sprawling and lower density suburban residential communities with both market forces and zoning policies restricting the degree to which services can be located near people, or
increasing density and multi-use zoning to allow for a more efficient use of resources and the provision of services near the people that access them.
A liveable community is also an efficient community, and will cost less to maintain in the long term. For example, green building programs in Vancouver from the 1990s have shown that there are real economic and sustainability benefits to such design. Unfortunately, residential developers are behind in adopting such technologies (www.e-dialogues.ca).
Although both the concepts of liveability and sustainable development can be difficult to define, both are crucial to the well-being of communities, that is, their resilience, their stability, and their future. These concepts, therefore, need to be defined, and continually refined, by each community and embedded in a dynamic planning process. There is clearly an accepted general conceptual definition in the planning and academic milieu, but it is not a straightforward concept to communicate. Everybody would agree that ‘liveability’ is a good thing, but are unlikely to agree to what that means. For some it would be choice, for others new urbanism style development, for others perhaps urban forms that would be the antithesis of sustainable development – large house, large lots, large cars. Similar problems are faced with other, certainly positive, but nebulous concepts such as quality of life. For the delivery of sustainable infrastructure, it is the components of liveable communities that support sustainable development that should be encouraged, other components of ‘liveability’ such as those espoused by the City Vancouver and the Town of Okotoks, will develop as the result of public participation in the planning process. Tthis means that liveability should be seen as a policy of participation and inclusive planning rather than any preset physical infrastructure goals.
If this policy is implemented on a neighbourhood scale, it will also ensure a development of local distinctiveness, a sense of place and community identity. These are important components of sustainable communities (de Figueiredo, 1998).
Many case studies, including this one, show that real success in delivering liveability and sustainable development requires both grassroots activism and political leadership. What then should be proposed for those communities where neither or only one of these is present? Perhaps liveability is a suitably all encompassing term that can win the necessary support for a more progressive urban policy?
Detailed Background Case Description
Town of Okotoks
Okotoks is facing a period of growth, which for many communities would mean the growth of car-orientated suburbs and a steady decline in the vibrancy and vitality of the downtown core. This would lead to a lower quality of life or a decline in liveability, for the town as a whole. The challenge for the municipality is to put in place an urban growth policy that allows for controlled development of the town, expansion of the population, and economic opportunity without reducing the social and natural capital that gives the town its competitive edge and character.
In 1998, in its Municipal Development Plan the community set limits to growth of:
“a Sustainable Community of no more than 30,000 citizens.” (Okotoks Municipal Development Plan: The Legacy Plan, 1998)
This is based not on economic or social limits, but on the carrying capacity of the watershed. Thus, its future development uses a framework or principles of ecological limits to growth.
Combined with this has been a long standing realisation that the key to a successful and liveable town is the downtown core:
“The business districts of our towns and cities, with their shops, services, civic functions, and cultural opportunities, historically have been the magnetic centres of towns, places where people are drawn to do business, shop, visit, spend money, wine and dine themselves, and just watch other people. Main Street is the core of a community, a place that sets the tone, creates the identity and personality that makes the community memorable. We can perceive its roots in the style of buildings and the layout of the streets and public spaces. We can see the current level of community interest and pride reflected in the development of amenities to attract people, and in the care shown for everyday upkeep” (Downtown Idea Exchange, 1993 cited in Okotoks Municipal Development Plan: The Legacy Plan, 1998)
The focus of the community, therefore, has been the development of good quality of life over unlimited economic growth, based on ecological limits and principles of quality urban design. As the plan states:
“Neglect of the downtown core would be like creating a heart without a soul.” (Okotoks Municipal Development Plan: The Legacy Plan, 1998)
The Town of Okotoks displays the characteristics of full community engagement in the planning process found in many examples of sustainable infrastructure development and sustainable communities detailed in the various cases studies on this website. This strong linkage between the community and the municipality delivers an urban form that agrees with many of the concepts detailed in such planning and design philosophies as Smart Growth and New Urbanism. These types of communities are what people want, and that is what makes for a liveable community. The challenge is providing a mechanism that delivers this type of development without stifling the ability of the private sector to work in partnership with the community to create a diverse economic base upon which the community will depend. This has been a concern in Okotoks:
“In the past, revitalization efforts have largely failed due to lack of grass roots and resident business community support and initiation of revitalization ventures.” (Okotoks Municipal Development Plan: The Legacy Plan, 1998)
In 2003, Okotoks' development plan was reviewed to assess the progress against the plan. Overall, the plan delivered an improvement in liveability and the degree to which Okotoks was becoming a sustainable community whilst incorporating growth within the ecological limits of the watershed. There were, however, some shortcomings in implementation (Okotoks MDP Review 1998-2003, 2005).
Industrial assessment growth is lagging behind residential and commercial assessment growth and must increase to meet the MDP target of 22% commercial-industrial assessment by build-out.
There remains considerable work to be done within the river valley and escarpment areas to restore disturbed natural areas.
There has been virtually no mixed-use development outside of the downtown.
The improvement of 32nd Street, including the critical link across the Sheep River, is absolutely vital to ensure the development and viability of existing and planned industrial areas.
The majority of local roads continue to be developed with mono-sidewalks rather than the separated sidewalks suggested in the MDP.
There is almost no development-ready industrial land in Okotoks.
Architectural regulations have not yet been developed and implemented for the Downtown.
A gateway features for Downtown has not yet been developed.
Public art in the Downtown is encouraged, but few examples exist to date.
A site for a community Transit Hub (preferably in the core of the community) has not been established.
Of these shortcomings, possibly the most crucial for sustainable development would be the lack of economic diversity represented by points 1 and 6, and problems with transport represented by points 4, 5 and 10, as well as the lack of delivery in ecological improvements in degraded areas, point 2. They all represent ways in which the town could become more liveable. Many of these issues reflect the difficulty of getting the local business community on board with the sustainable development agenda. Businesses, particularly industrial ones, find it challenging to shift thinking to a more long-term, holistic approach where economic activity is intrinsically linked to liveable and sustainable communities.
City of Vancouver
In the 1970s, the city's planning process was strongly influenced by the City of Vancouver's response to vocal opposition to the routing of a freeway through the city. This led to a generation of planners focused on liveability and secondarily sustainability. This has strengthened over the last few years as the popularity of greening and sustainable development has grown in the community at large, nationally and globally.
The highway proposal in the 1970s was designed to keep people in the suburbs coming into the downtown in order to maintain the thriving commercial and economic core of the city. Suburban development in the surrounding municipalities led to the need to attract people into the downtown otherwise the centre of the city would die. The city did this by promoting and implementing self sufficiency – in effect saying to suburban municipalities that they should provide for themselves, while at the same time providing new opportunities for living in the downtown – rather than accepting that people will move to the suburbs necessitating providing transport for them to get to the downtown, a model adopted in many other North American cities. Instead, Vancouver started building residential development in the downtown core to ensure the vibrancy was maintained, partly triggerd by the need to revialtalise the downtown core to complement the development taking place for Expo 1986 at the edge of the downtown core.
In many ways, now the liveability agenda is actually holding back sustainable urban development. It is the new inertia and to some extent the city is coasting on its successes of the past, and not addressing the newly identified issues of the near future. The frame of reference has not adapted or evolved to respond to new challenges and changing contexts.
As a concept, sustainable development has been entrenched deeply within the senior management levels within the city and, to date, has little transformational impact. It has been left at the level of urban form and design and often limited to the downtown core. Inertia is deeply ingrained as a result of the past self-sufficient approach taken to counteract the expansion of the suburbs. As an extreme example, the municipality even has its own asphalt plant developed to insulate the city from cost shocks. Development like this creates a huge capital inertia to overcome, the existing infrastructure choices shape future decisions.
The question, therefore, is how does the city shift from the current generation focused on liveability, which is limited in its impact and not necessarily sustainable to a position focused on sustainable development and making real advances in infrastructure and sustainable communities?
Fundamentally, there must be a move to multifunctional / interdisciplinary approaches within the municipality and a shift in functional alignment. What this means is to recast engineering services as ecosystem services. For example, back lanes are currently used for garage access and emergency access and garbage collection. It could be argued that these represent municipal subsidies for motorists wishing to store their vehicles off the road. Should the municipality subsidise single occupancy vehicles? Should the municipality be, in fact, utilising these spaces multifunctionality and bringing ecological, and social uses into these spaces in the form of urban agriculture, composting and community gardens? For other considerations, see the Downtown Eastside case study on this website.
Pressures to change are again coming from the very motivated and activist grassroots of the city. This, in turn, is reaching the attention of politicians, who see the rewards of pursuing such an agenda at council. This is a similar cycle of change that was observed in the 1970s and as such is a positive sign for future development, and supports evidence from many of the case studies considered in this project that grassroots and community initiatives, combined with senior city-level champions are frequently the driving force behind the development of sustainable community.
Meeting regional concerns is also a challenge for the City of Vancouver city council. Translink, the regional transit provider, is looking at the regional perspective for infrastructure development. The city has lobbied for increases in Translink's services to keep up with in-city demand, while Translink is focused on the wider region. The region as a whole recognises that road building is not the answer although there is pressure from the provincial level to further develop the highway system. In the past, the regional partnership within the Greater Vancouver Regional District was very proactive in driving a liveability and sustainable development agenda, but the GVRD is constrained by its mandate and the municipal politics of the region. In the 1990s, the GVRD had good ideas supporting planning for sustainable development, but new elections changed the board and the GVRD focused less on sustainable development, and the sustainable regional plan lacked any real application. In reality, low density suburban development is still the norm in almost all new subdivisions across the region. Suburban sprawl is starting to be addressed, but it is a slow process.
Signs of change and progress is the city instituting a framework based, in part, on the Natural Step (primarily for internal communication as it is rather overly technical for use in community engagement.) and partly on See-It, a software framework tool developed by Visible Strategies to link all aspects of the policy for which the City of Vancouver has influence to the Triple Bottom Line. These approaches all consider the importance of a long-term integrated perspective to planning and management, and can help to create a common framework for moving forward. Then, a consensus or consent needs to be built around these sustainable development principles – all conflicts can then be referred back to these principles. This process in Vancouver can be built on existing strong foundations already in place from decades of progressive urban policy provided the inertia of existing policy can be overcome.
The danger is that liveable communities become concentrated in downtowns and wealthier areas of a city, with fringe areas and less affluent suburbs being left with lowest cost development leading to highest long term costs to the triple bottom line. This is despite it being easiest to implement liveability into new development. Retrofitting liveability, if this is at all possible, is much harder as it is so based on the design of existing infrastructure and the use of mixed use planning regimes – building this into existing car-focused infrastructure and mono-functional planning zones is problematic. Why, therefore, does liveability in Canada seems to be largely integrated into downtowns and infill developments, and not in expanding suburbs?
How can plans and planners for that matter, avoid becoming static and realize the dynamic nature of the planning process, that is, adapt and evolve over time as the community itself evolves and yet, shape that course sustainably?
One question that evolves from is case study is a question of spatial scale. Is there a threshold of community size that is too big to create a sustainable downtown at the expense of other regional centres? Okotoks, a relatively small community is based around a sustainable downtown. Vancouver, a large city-region, has tried to develop liveability around a sustainable downtown, yet the city has serious transport problems and could certainly not be described as sustainable in its current form.
To what extent can planning impact the development of a sustainable community? In both Okotoks and Vancouver, there are many ideals in the planning documents and urban policies affecting the communities, yet delivery seems problematic.
Resources and References
Dale, A. 2001. At the edge: sustainable development in the 21st century. Vancouver: UBC Press.
de Figueiredo, P. 1998. Local Distinctiveness Strategies to promote economic competitiveness, in Context, Vol. 60, on-line edition.
Fischer, E. 2000. 'Building Livable Communities for the 21st Century.' Public Roads. May/June, pp 30-34.
Kunstler, J.H. 1993. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. New York: Simon & Schuster.