The Growing Role of Livability in City Conversations

July 8, 2014 at 5:55 am CDT
Skokie Village mayor, George Van Dusen and developer John McLinden pose before the groundbreaking at the Floral Ave. development Skokie Village mayor George Van Dusen and developer John McLinden pose before the groundbreaking at the Floral Avenue development.

It’s a great time to care about cities because it seems as if cities are caring more and more about themselves. By that I mean that livability (small ‘l’) is entering into conversations in cities of all sizes. Here are some quick examples.

I was invited to give a talk to the Downtown Committee in Syracuse. The downtown is not without its challenges, but everywhere I looked there were signs of hope, promise and progress. There is a burgeoning nightlife district in a town whose daytime population is nine times greater than its nighttime population. I saw residential development and housing aimed at bringing the students into the downtown. I saw signs of construction and investment everywhere. And I saw a lot of vacant real estate awaiting planned development or craving attention. It’s not there yet, but the city has a lot of people devoting a lot of resources to lifting it up.

Syracuse also has its challenges. One is what to do with an aging highway viaduct that cuts between the downtown and the all-important university campus. Instead of transit connecting the city, this viaduct cuts it in two and instead provides a way to speed people over the town instead of encouraging them to linger and stroll along its main streets. There are several proposals ranging from leaving it as-is to dropping it into a below-grade tunnel. But the best-looking plans involve bringing it down to street level, creating bike lanes and crosswalks, and developing it as a connective boulevard instead. It will be some time while the plans are weighed and discussed, but, hopefully, they’ll follow the path taken by cities like Oakland, San Francisco and Seoul, Korea, who have created stronger communities by planning around the human, not the automobile.

Closer to home, I was invited to the groundbreaking of a housing development in Skokie, Ill., one of our 2014 Best Places to Live. I’ve written about the project in the past, and it has received some national attention as well. What impressed me most, however, was how more than 100 members of the community came out to witness what could have just been a glorified photo opportunity with the mayor, city leaders and some golden shovels. The development has the potential to make a real difference in the community, and to see that the community clearly senses that is fantastic and encouraging.

In Chicago, I attended a gathering called the Doable City Forum presented by a group called the 8-80 Cities. The name refers to the idea that if you design cities for people who are 8-years-old and 80-years-old, you’ll design a city that works for everyone. I was only able to see the first day’s events, but it gathered city leaders and livability practitioners from around the nation and beyond to learn from each other and be inspired by all of the great projects going on in cities large and small. We’ll talk more about that in some coming posts, but I was especially struck by a comment from Carol Coletta, vice president of Community and National Initiatives at the Knight Foundation, which cosponsored the forum. She said that when she previously lived in Chicago, “Chicago was a gift [she] had done nothing to earn.” Initially, I can see how she might have come to that conclusion. But through her work at organizations like CEOs for Cities, ArtPlace and now the Knight Foundation, she is a strong advocate for better, more vibrant, more connected places. She might have done nothing to earn Chicago’s gifts before moving there, but she certainly earned her keep. It got me thinking about how each of us can work together and individually to make our cities better places to live, work and be together.

What are you doing in your community? How are you promoting the discussion of livability? After all, wherever you live is your current best place to live. How are you making it better and stronger?

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