Continuing on my discussion of the Urban Next Summit last month in San Francisco, Allison Arieff, New York Times Opinionator columnist and contributor for GOOD, lead the session on Livability. The ambition:
“Everyone in a city can enjoy beauty, nature, and art everyday”
Livability is a difficult thing to pinpoint – simply because it can mean many different things to many different people. And while this ambition may seem like it is only a matter of preference and aesthetics, in reality it is tied to issues of access, housing, and development as well. A key tenant of this ambition that we focused on was the idea of making cities, and where we live/work as meaningful as possible to as many people as possible.
It is clear that current patterns of development are influenced by socio-economic, historic, and political trends of the past, however these patterns of development are not always compatible with current trends and more importantly they are not always compatible with current and future needs. So the challenge really is to make all areas of a city work for everyone. For example, while we can debate whether or not current suburbs should exist or not, the real issue is that they do not work for everyone. If you have limited transportation options, suburbs don’t work for you as well as they do for someone who owns a car and can readily leave to get what they need – livability has not been fully realized in these areas. The case could also be made about inequal access to green space and affordable housing. Really, the livability ambition dovetails nicely with the need for multiple transportation models (walkability, bikability, transit) as well as the need for increased density and diversity of development – again, with the goal to make it meaningful for more people.
Our group discussed how having art, nature, and beauty in our everyday life could impact development as well. One person in our group noted how the definition and role of “home” varies greatly in different areas of the world. While in some countries “home” is where you eat and sleep, in North America our definition of “home” has expanded over the last 50 years to include relaxation (home as your sanctuary) and entertainment as central elements. This vision is likely the reason that we have continued to build bigger houses on larger lots – we want home to provide everything. One participant noted that due to this trend, lenders do not fund one-bedroom homes anymore though people may be interested in them. This is in contrast to past development, found in many older neighbourhoods including those in Regina, where smaller homes were quite common. We asserted that if art, nature, good design, and amenities were available to more people, smaller living spaces (denser development) would be more prevalent and desired. Allison joked that she has yet to see the “multi-family dream home”presented on the market – however, this could be possible with both better access to services, art, and nature as well as a change in mindset.
So how do we get art, nature, beauty, and livability more ingrained in our cities? We can encourage development that creates/maintains green corridors through cities (Wascana park and the bike path are both great examples); we can offer incentives for developers to include art and innovative projects as part of their developments; we can do walkability/bikability audits to see what spaces need to be improved; we can create bold gathering spaces that combine architecture and natural elements (envision public seating that doubles as garden planters); we can identify and care for buildings and built features that contribute to the local history and culture and set design standards for future buildings to ensure beautiful architecture into the future.
We also discussed the current role of city planners and how it may need to change. Many argue that the role of planners has been greatly reduced over the last few decades – away from actually planning and designing spaces to simply carrying out zoning regulations. Many students go into planning with the desire to create vibrant spaces that will propel cities forward, but end up enforcing zoning codes and processing development applications. Our group discussed the importance of bringing planners back to the forefront of how our cities develop. We pictured returning the public right-of-way to planners. They would envision and create public spaces around new developments as opposed to developers including it in their blueprints (i.e. plantings, art installations, seating). In this way, there would be equity and justice consistent throughout public rights-of-way in the city. Thoughtful planning of public space can greatly improve livability and access to art, nature, and beauty so it seems fitting that this should be within the public realm.
Our discussion about livability was very diverse, however the two ideas that stuck with me the most were 1) that increasing access to art, nature, and beauty could drive the desire for smaller building footprints and denser development; and 2) the need to return planners to a role of creating and being stewards of the public realm.
However this ambition really is so much greater than what we could cover in 45 minutes. This is the full inspiring vision of The Livability Challenge taking place in Indianapolis this week:
Imagine a city where every citizen can enjoy art, beauty and nature every day. Where an investment in the community’s parks, artistic expression and architecture for the ages is considered a smart value-add for everyone. Where citizens’ attachment to their community is solidified by the pride they feel in their community’s aesthetics.