can we define “livable and lovable” cities?

That's the nice slogan from a new Phillips Corporation initiative praised today in the Atlantic by NRDC's Kaid Benfield.  The Phillips think tank suggests that we can gather all the qualities of a "livable and lovable" city into three virtues: 

  • Resilience, which replaces the more bureaucratic and depressing word sustainability, but means roughly the same thing.  Some great work has already been done on the concept of resilience.  There's already a Resilient Cities movement, and an excellent book on Resilience Thinking
  • Inclusiveness, which is about "social integration and cohesion," demonstrated for example in the lack of discrimination or social exclusion based on race, religion, age, and all the other usual categories.
  • Authenticity, which means "the ability to maintain the local character of the city," including "heritage, culture, and environment." 

Below is their graphic summary.  (The PDF [Download] is much sharper!)  Below that is a bit of affectionate heckling from me.


Personally, I have some practical discomfort with the framing of the Inclusiveness category because it is easily exaggerated into visions of a socialist paradise in which we have abolished competition.  When Philips says that "inhabitants should have equal opportunities to participate in the activities of the city," does that mean that when our city's team in the playoffs, we'll give out tickets by lottery rather than selling them, in order to avoid discriminating against the poor?  If we're talking only about nondiscrimination by extraneous demographic categories, fine.  But when you imply that you can neutralize the impact of differences in wealth, you lose so much of the politicial audience — at least in North America, Australia, and the UK — that you've probably lost the game.  This issue comes up often in transit, of course, notably whenever anyone suggests that in a capitalist economy, it's foolish not to use pricing to help citizens understand the intrinsic cost of things that they take for granted.  It's a tough one.

Note, also, the lingering contradictory message in their framing of resilience.  On the one hand, the train station signifies that resilient cities acknowledge their "interdependence" with other cities.  On the other hand, the emphasis on local farms and local energy generation suggests the opposite, that resilient cities aspire to greater and greater self-reliance.  This is philosophically interesting, especially because high volumes of international trade — including in food, which is the opposite of local self-reliance — are the most reliable mechanism that human society has found to prevent large-scale wars. 

I make both of these comments in the spirit of meditation.  I am not claiming to know how better to define inclusiveness or resilience.  Rather, I'm just marvelling at how difficult it is. 


27 Responses to can we define “livable and lovable” cities?

  1. Danny April 23, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

    Just another Utopiaville. This concept will be winning praises today, and will have progressive advocates of the future advocating its demolition tomorrow.

  2. Alon Levy April 23, 2011 at 6:36 pm #

    What Danny said. Those concepts are completely airy. Resilience, I don’t even know what it means except that I should be for it; they’re not saying anything that can be defended or attacked, say “sacrifice short-term growth for lower vulnerability to outside shocks,” which is what Jane Jacobs advocated. Inclusiveness is in principle a precise concept of nondiscrimination, but in practice you need to tell me what policies it involves, and which controversial case studies (as this issue invariably is) I should be inspired by. These questions are contentious and to treat them as bubbly kumbaya concepts is to try to make them irrelevant, which they are not.

  3. Alan Robinson April 23, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    Looks like a promotion for SimCity 5.

  4. Jeff Wegerson April 23, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

    It’s a Rorschach ink plot. I had trouble seeing what you saw, Jarrett. I looked hard for the “socialist” aspect you saw. Actually I did find it and was surprised that you had wrapped it into the phrase “all the other usual categories” of inclusiveness. When I read your synopsis of inclusiveness I immediately noticed the absence of “economic status.” But that turned out to be your own blind spot not theirs. If anything should be attached to the concept of “socialist” it is the concept of the dysfunctions of extreme differences in economic status.
    Most current socialist thinking recognizes that so-called capitalist free markets can only continue to exist within a meta-economic “socialist” framework. That is to say that capitalism is inherently unstable unless it is “regulated” within a socialist context. Something like that, I am no political economist.
    What I am is very suspicious of anything that comes out of a corporation. Corporations are economic entities first and civic citizens later. Normal real persons tend to be just the opposite. Most corporations are tools used by powerful (wealthy) entities to maintain their power. But hey, them’s my biases. I get that.
    So I guess I agree with the previous comments: utopian bubbly kumbaya pablum.
    But hey, I sure do hope we can get cities that are like the ones envisioned above.

  5. Anon256 April 23, 2011 at 11:40 pm #

    The graphic looks terrible!
    Wide streets, built to car scale instead of human scale. Tower-in-a-park development at top right, and even the non-high-rise buildings are separated from each other and from the street by useless empty green space, which serves no purpose other than to make them further apart. (What fraction of the area shown is actually used for places people want to go?) To the extent people want open space this purpose should be served by the park shown, but the caption emphasises the function of the park to improved air quality, when this effect is not very significant and should not be necessary if the town’s auto infrastructure is not vastly overbuilt. The train station, which should be in the center of town, is on its periphery. Residential areas seem to be separated from commercial ones. And I’m not sure what those gray rectangles in front of the city hall and stadium are, but I have a terrible feeling they might be parking.
    On the whole, looks like the typical dysfunctional American sprawl, plus windmills and a bit less parking.

  6. Anon256 April 24, 2011 at 2:01 am #

    While we’re on the subject of generalised visions of how cities should be, I am curious what commenters here think of the “traditional city” concept advocated on this site. I certainly don’t agree with everything on that site (especially the non-urbanism-related posts), but I would definitely prefer to live in a city that looked more like the pre-1800 cities of Europe (with narrow carfree streets and buildings close together) and less like the suburbia-with-windmills of the Philips’ graphic above.

  7. Alon Levy April 24, 2011 at 2:15 am #

    @Anon256: I read it. Yes, those older cities are nice. But Paris was remade very violently in the late 19th century, and still nobody who visits comes out saying the boulevards are too wide. I don’t know what other people who visit Manhattan think, but when I first did, my impression was “Wow, those streets are walkable and I won’t get lost.”

  8. Anon256 April 24, 2011 at 4:21 am #

    @Alon: There’s definitely a place for wide, arterial boulevards, but in between Hausmann’s major boulevards, most Parisian neighbourhoods retain much narrower streets, while even the basic east-west Manhattan streets are quite wide by pre-1800 standards.
    In the past you have pointed out that pedestrianising streets as was done to parts of Broadway only works when there is enough pedestrian traffic that the space does not feel empty/dead/unsafe with the cars removed. With streets as wide as New York’s (and most others in America), only the busiest urban neighbourhoods can provide enough foot traffic to achieve this. But if we’re imagining an ideal future city/development, streets should be built to a size appropriate for the expected level of foot traffic, so they can be pedestrianised to begin with without problems.
    On the other hand, I think the newworldeconomics rants may underestimate the benefit that having wider streets allows taller buildings while keeping the street aesthetically tolerable. Having buildings three times as tall may more the compensate for the density lost by having streets three times as wide. Wide suburban streets remain the worst of all worlds, though.

  9. Edward April 24, 2011 at 4:37 am #

    I agree with Anon256. This city looks like the typical modern disaster zone. All the buildings are separated, leading to losses in heat energy, and reducing the insulation. The nature of it is extremely spread, lending itself to automobile use only.
    Love all the vague slogans – sounds much more like a marketing exercise than a real attempt at the hard choices of urban planning. Where’s the transit? Anyone could park a bunch of buildings next to a farm. This picture is useless.

  10. ant6n April 24, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    I think North Americans are too much in love with their supposedly efficient grids, to realize what you can accomplish with the arterials/small residential streets paradigm.

  11. Jarrett at April 24, 2011 at 8:02 am #

    Anon256.  Opposition between "grids" and "arterials-secondary streets" isn't very precise.  Many extremely walkable, efficient, and transit-friendly cities are grid based, with arterials every 800m or so and a finer walkable grid of low-traffic streets in between them.  See Portland, Seattle, Vancouver …

  12. ant6n April 24, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    Well, it’s a geometric issue. Grids sort of act like a sponge for traffic; it distributes it, and all roads are through-fares. There are ways to try to not have traffic in the residential streets, but you’re working against geometry.
    A lot of the examples of the previously mentioned ‘traditional city’ have street patterns that do not rely on grids. And if you want to go somewhere in a straight line you basically have to use the arterials. The non-arterials will force you to go in a zig-zag.

  13. Matt April 24, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    I don’t think they’ve thought much of that through at the Philips Think Tank (on a par with the word renowned Ponds Institute no doubt)
    It says the parks are needed to improve the air quality, yet the graphics has all the little houses with chimneys. Like every moron with a chimney are they blind to cause and effect?

  14. EngineerScotty April 24, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    The graphic is ridiculous on many levels, although some of its ridiculousness (such as the chimneys on the homes–wood burning fireplaces have been illegal in new homes where I live for years now) are probably symbolic rather than meant to be taken literally. Likewise for the big red barn in the lower left corner–while it’s probably meant to symbolize urban agriculture of some sort, that’s different from actually proposing that livestock be raised in close proximity to high-density urbanism.

  15. Alon Levy April 24, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    There’s nothing wrong with making the minor streets through-streets. It’s easier to walk if you’re in an unfamiliar area. My love for the Manhattan grid comes not from being used to the US, but from being used to the arterial/side-street network of Tel Aviv and the cul-de-sac hell of Singapore. In such cities, it’s easy to get lost walking on side streets, even when such streets are quite lively, so I stick to arterials. A grid makes it easier to explore more streets.
    Uptown Manhattan avoids turning every residential street into a highway in three ways. First and most importantly, it has very low car ownership and even lower car use, so that there isn’t as much traffic. Second, the side streets only have one car travel lane, or sometimes one car travel lane in each direction, so that they’re slow and drivers prefer the wider streets. And third, and least recommended for an urban area, there are parks blocking all but a few major streets, so that side streets are even less useful for through-traffic.

  16. Anon256 April 24, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    I wasn’t complaining about grids at all; I think grids are an excellent way to efficiently lay out a city if you’re lucky enough to be able to plan it in advance. Having a grid does not require every street to be built for heavy auto traffic. For “traditional cities” with regular grids of streets narrower than any in New York above 14th, see New Orleans’ French Quarter, Kyoto, Mannheim, or Antigua Guatemala. If the residential streets are narrow enough to make driving on them slow and unpleasant, auto through traffic will avoid them even it means taking a less direct route on a wider boulevard.

  17. Alon Levy April 24, 2011 at 11:32 pm #

    Sure, but what I’m saying is that in a large, dense city, 60 feet is too narrow for pleasant driving. Ultimately, in a city road width needs to be enough for fire trucks (which is wider than some Tokyo streets), plus either on- or off-street parking, plus some sidewalks. If the parking is on-street, it adds up to not much less than 60 feet. Going up to 60 doesn’t make driving pleasant enough that people do it voluntarily; people only drive on one-way Manhattan streets when they absolutely have to.
    I’ve never been to those other cities, but my impression from Streetview-touring Mannheim is that the auto capacity on the side streets is the same; the differences are that the sidewalks are narrower and that cars park with two wheels on the sidewalk. That’s like the street I grew up on in Tel Aviv.
    Kyoto, again from Streetview tourism, is something else. The streets are much narrower and more auto-hostile. This comes partly from narrower travel width, but mostly from lack of on-street parking; if Kyoto is anything like Tokyo, it places the parking off-street instead.
    I think the main lesson is that you need to keep car traffic low and density high enough to suppress speeds. There are plenty of rural and small-town roads narrower than anything in Manhattan north of 14th, e.g. in the Riviera, but you’ll never confuse these with pedestrian-friendly streets.

  18. Wad April 24, 2011 at 11:50 pm #

    @Engineer Scotty and @Anon256,
    The whole graphic is an abstract assembly. Each element is a visual bullet point. It’s only a form of communication. The chimney and the red barn are only used because they are commonly understood perceptions of what they represent, not a codified form. (An urban farm is going to look like an exurban Houston industrial park with a lot of crops rather than an old barn. People are going to understand the visual symbol of a barn and associate it with farming. No more and no less.)
    It’s not meant to be a blueprint for how an ideal city is supposed to look like, let alone how an actual city works.
    Take the urban farm. One of the reasons why agriculture doesn’t exist in cities, at least prosperous ones, is because the land is too valuable to be used to grow crops.
    Agriculture, forestry, mining and fishing are raw materials, which are the lowest-valued goods in the economic chain. Their land is also the lowest value in the land-value chain. (One acre/hectare of urban land is more economically versatile, and thereby more valuable, than an acre of agricultural land). Ag land being that close to urban land is unrealistic because the land is more valuable in higher-value uses than in agriculture. Rationally, the farmer would want to cash out.
    Realistically, a farm can be a couple hundred miles from the edge of the nearest big city and still feed the urban population. Fuel and transportation are a small part of the value of crops to begin with, and transportation (road, rail and water) and technology (refrigeration and other preservation methods) counteract the geographic penalty.
    Also, sorry to harsh the mellow of locavores — the best form of food security is trade, not proximity between farm and mouth.

  19. Morgan Wick April 25, 2011 at 12:45 am #

    The locavore movement is mostly about the amount of greenhouse gases spewed out directly or indirectly by trying to move food large distances. The problem with that is that, in my view, we should be dropping everything to solve global warming, so going local seems more important than it might normally be.

  20. Anon256 April 25, 2011 at 12:49 am #

    @Alon: Why is parking, on-street or off-street, required in a residential neighbourhood? If driving is so difficult and rare, why are separate sidewalks needed instead of the whole street being primarily pedestrian (as long as there is room to get out of the way if a car does come)? And why can’t fire trucks be smaller?
    That said, on the whole I agree that 60 foot streets work well in Manhattan, particularly given the prevailing building heights (which might make narrower streets intolerably dark and confining). The real problem is when streets are even wider in much smaller and less busy towns, which is the case almost everywhere else in America (especially if you count the useless buffer of ‘green space’ typically found along such a street).
    @Wad: I admit that I was attacking the graphic rather than the prose, but this was mostly because the prose is too airy and vague to say anything about at all. To the extent that there is any substance to it, it seems to have very little to do with the city itself (or livability thereof) and perhaps more to do with the people who happen to live there.

  21. Wad April 25, 2011 at 2:15 am #

    @Morgan Wick, the most urgent problem facing about 6 billion on Earth is hunger. That’s a more immediate threat to our well-being than global warming.

  22. Morgan Wick April 25, 2011 at 6:49 am #

    Global warming affects all of us, and specifically our ability to deal with any other problem, and the relevance of our solutions to those problems. If the planet becomes uninhabitable, it won’t matter if we managed to feed a few more people in the short term. (And global warming is the biggest long- and medium-term threat to food supplies.)

  23. anonymouse April 25, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

    @Morgan Wick sometimes it is much more efficient, in terms of energy use, to transport food hundreds of miles than to grow it locally. If you’re living in the Netherlands, you can buy tomatoes from Spain, which are transported by fairly efficient rail or ship, or you can buy local tomatoes which are grown in heated greenhouses that waste huge amounts of energy and were built primarily because there was a surplus of gas back in the 50s. Of course, if you happen to be living in California, you can get just about anything locally, but in most other places, the “locavore” thing starts to sound like overprivileged Californians telling everyone to eat only local rutabagas and onions while Californians can eat their local oranges and strawberries and avocados and so on.

  24. Wad April 27, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    @Morgan Wick, the impacts of global warming are in the horizon of years and decades.
    Hunger kills within days. Hunger is the more imminent threat to humans.

  25. Wad April 27, 2011 at 9:43 pm #

    @Anonymouse, sometimes it’s necessary and proper to ship food long distances.
    Trade is the best form of food security. Better than growing locally. Better than cutting the distance from farm to mouth. Better than trying to simulate artificial conditions of the foodstuffs’ natural habitat.

  26. Benjamin Hancock May 2, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

    “high volumes of international trade — including in food, which is the opposite of local self-reliance — are the most reliable mechanism that human society has found to prevent large-scale wars”
    Jarrett, this is an interesting assertion, is their some literature on this subject? Or is this speculation? Also how would you define “large-scale wars”?

  27. Jarrett at May 3, 2011 at 12:45 am #

    Call it informed but poorly sourced speculation.  I'm not a political scientist.  But the idea that economic interdependence discourages war seems to be playing out, no?  Certainly this was a central part of the founding narrative of the EU. 
    International investment means that powerful people in each country have an interest in the peace and stability of many other countries.  People don't bomb their own investments, or kill people who owe them money.