Livability is a big, important concept in both planning and housing. But what does it mean? As it turns out, the concept of livability gets articulated in lots of different ways, and there’s not a great deal of agreement. In no small part, this is because people are different and want different things out of life, creating a definitional conundrum. But livability is also a really important concept. Livability sits at the heart of articulations of human rights, including the right to housing. It’s used to rank cities and set them competing with one another. It’s a key concept in planning, and embedded within a wide range of hyper-local by-laws determining how people can live.
I was recently asked to write a book chapter discussing the concept of livability, and it was actually pretty fun. Here I just want to make public my basic takeaways (spoiler alert*).
I explored conceptualizations and metrics of livability across different scales and agencies, moving from the United Nations articulation of housing as a human right (with origins in the Habitat ’76 conference right here in Vancouver!) through the various international rankings of livability (Economist, Mercer, Numbeo) that often rank Vancouver near the top (except Numbeo), through the nation-state of Canada (that relies upon Core Housing Need as its key measure of livability as it applies to housing) to Metro Vancouver and its Livable Region strategy (again back to the 70s!) to the City of Vancouver and its by-laws specifying livability as it pertains to housing via minimum dwelling standards (applied to the whole city) and even more hyper-local zoning standards (applied lot by lot). I compared all the ways livability gets conceptualized, articulated, and put to use, as well as all the different dimensions captured by each conceptualization. Like I said, fun! Here’s the big takeaway table:
Don’t stare too long or you’ll hurt your eyes (though you should be able to click for a bigger version). But there are some interesting points from this comparison that reflect the fundamental tension at the heart of defining a singular concept of livability across the differences that make us human and speak to issues if scale.
At the international level, the differences between people and their living situations are all too plain. The only way to really harness livability to a common, culturally and socially inclusive definition of human rights is to keep definitions ambiguous and aspirational. As we move over into different uses for livability (e.g. commercial uses) and down in scale, we tend to get clearer articulations of livability that speak to more specific standards. Correspondingly, we start to lose some of the cultural openness to difference. We also start to see real closure emerge, with Metro Vancouver using livability as a control upon growth and the City of Vancouver’s by-laws outright excluding versions of livability deemed unacceptable. Ultimately, as livability becomes more carefully defined, it also becomes increasingly exclusionary. Put differently, the standardization of living overwhelms acceptance and inclusion for different lifestyles.
What’s that you say? Put it into an animated .gif?
So be careful in working with livability as a concept. Think hard about both the inclusionary and the exclusionary aspects of relevant definitions. At the international and national levels, livability often works toward shoring up a right to housing, which is super-important.** I’m a firm believer that housing should be a right! But it’s not at all clear how you move toward defining precisely what that right entails on the ground. And in practice, the closer we get to local specifics, the more we see the articulation of livability twisted away from inclusion and toward exclusion.
*- for the seven people that might actually read my book chapter besides the very patient editor!
**- Notionally, that’s the work that Core Housing Needs should be doing within Canada, though it mostly just directs funding priorities. I’ve elsewhere written about both the promise and some of the problems of the Core Housing Needs measure.