The Livability Trope

December 10, 2013 at 4:00 am CST

A recent article in the Atlantic Cities discussed the “livability trap” although perhaps it would be better headlined the livability trope . The author, Jordan Fraade, says, “[livability rankings are] about a way of looking at cities that’s geared towards people who like, want and can afford cars, home-ownership, nice restaurants, and year-round warm weather. These are all perfectly valid preferences, of course, but they’re still just that.”

Indeed, they are perfectly valid preferences because they are shared by a majority of Americans, except maybe the year-round warmth part. We have now released two lists Best Places to Live (one Top 100 and one geared toward retirement cities ) that are based partially on a national survey conducted exclusively for by Ipsos Public Affairs. In it, we asked a representative sample of 2,000 Americans about their the key drivers of livability. We asked both about places they live currently and places they would consider relocating to. Fraade is mostly talking about a global ranking from T he Economist , but if you look at the cities we selected and the preferences of the Americans who took our survey, I think you see that their list and ours present a very valid view of livability today .

First, economics are paramount for most every group – in terms of access to housing that meets a family’s needs and cost of living topped the survey for most every demographic. Next, came variables related to health and well-being, access to quality health care and a low crime rate. The second tier was comprised of climate, jobs, and proximity to friends and family – also extremely important to a majority of survey takers, but clearly less so than economics and well-being. We didn’t ask about car ownership directly, but we did ask about public transportation, which didn’t rank very well at all, and walkability, which fared a little better than that.

Had we run this survey 10 or 15 years ago, I suspect the results would have been different. I suspect there would have been even more agreement about this definition. I talked with the Atlantic Cities about the history of livability and wrote about it further here in our blog. Some of these ideals have remained constant for generations.

In my book, Buyographics , I write about changing perceptions of car ownership. And while it’s clearly trending downward, there are still a whole lot of people who own cars. Likewise, while home ownership rates have slipped, there are still a whole lot of people who own homes, and more who aspire to do so. So even if livability lists are weighted toward home- and car-owners, that’s not necessarily an inaccurate picture today.

That said, the ideas and ideals of ‘livability’ are always evolving. We don’t feel trapped by that at all. That’s what keeps us coming to work each day. As preferences change in measurable ways, so will these rankings. It’s a dynamic subject matter, and finding ways to study and measure it can lead to changes that are both descriptive and predictive. Hopefully, that will lead us to plan, build and inhabit cities that foster a livable atmosphere for as many groups as possible.

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