Making Livability a Law

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Following on the heels of the 2009 announcement of the joint initiative on livability between the United States Department of Transportation’s (DOT), Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD), and Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA), members of both the Senate and House have introduced bills that would make coordinating housing and transportation in an environmentally responsible way, a law.  Both bills are similar in their recommendations to promote sustainable development via coordinated housing, transportation, economic development policies through competitive grants and create a central office within HUD to manage the livability program.

Stakeholders around the country are applauding these efforts to create “livable communities”.  As housing and transportation are two of the largest household expenditures, it is high time the nation look for ways to develop them so as to compliment each other rather than having access to one at the expense of the other.  In many communities, alternative modes of travel are not an option, forcing residents to rely on driving to get were they need to be.  It’s a congestion issue, it’s an access issue, it’s an issue for our crumbling infrastructure, and it’s an environmental issue.  A community with both transportation and housing options are fertile grounds for a better quality of life and sustained economic and environmental development.

But there is plenty that can go wrong in planning to improve livability.  Take Los Angeles’s W Development, for example where coordinating transportation with other development plans has not worked that well.  The development lacks many features ranging from a poorly connected transit station, no bicycle parking facilities, and a blocked off areas for private use that could be used as a subway exit which could otherwise make it a truly accessible, multimodal facility.  Other pitfalls of livability arise when trying to cater to variety of social and economic classes while wanting to take advantage of already existing (and expensive) infrastructure.  How do you start over with so much at stake?

This isn’t to imply that planning a livable community is a bad thing.  The question really is what defines livability and how do cities ensure they are livable?  Does it mean building quaint town centers riddled with bike lines, sidewalks, and sleek transit facilities where people can walk to stores, work, and school?  Perhaps, and many instances this is a viable form of development that have positive impacts on economic growth.  But in a larger sense, it means ensuring cities are looking at what their future needs are and creating transportation and housing policies to accommodate that.  It means cities – through input from local elected officials, planners, the business community, and other stakeholders – deciding what needs to be done for their community’s economic growth and setting goals to achieve it.  It means looking forward – instead of having to look back 20 years from now and going back to the drawing board.