What Is the Difference between Livability and Sustainability?
Livability and sustainability are distinct concepts, although there is substantial overlap and they may be occasionally used interchangeably. Both notions are multifaceted, dynamic, flexible, and powerful. These concepts serve as the nexus for a new and transformative Federal interagency partnership, and the distinctions between them are important organizing principles for planning.
Sustainability is a fluid and expansive term for complicated, complex, and sometimes conflicting concepts. The 1987 United Nations Brundtland Commission report sets out the classic definition of sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” One commonly used method to operationalize the sustainability concept is the triple bottom line approach, which measures impacts or success in relation to three dimensions: environment, social systems (equity), and economy.
Sustainability is focused on the future as well as the present, and in particular the ability to sustain human society within the contexts of [without irreparable harm to] the natural world [natural environment]. It is also broad enough to serve as an umbrella concept for a variety of goals, including livability.
Livability is most often used to describe the diverse aspects of society, surroundings, and shared experiences that shape a community. Livability is focused on the human experience of place, and is specific to the place and time in question. It includes an interrelated set of economic, spatial, and social components that together are challenging to understand and measure in the defined world of planning and development. As such, it is best defined by the state, region, association, or community in question, and is best measured at a geographic scale where definitional consensus about livability can be found.
A shared, definitional framework for livability is established by the Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities, formed in 2009. This collaboration of U.S. DOT, EPA, and HUD set forth the following six livability principles:
While livability does not always line up with sustainability, it is greatly strengthened when approached within a sustainable framework that includes environment, equity, and economy. This alignment of present goals within a sustainable future allows for a comprehensive and integrated planning framework that can guide development and investment effectively and efficiently in a manner that meets the vision of both livability and sustainability.
Multiple federal initiatives, non-profit organizations, and professional associations have developed different multidisciplinary definitions of livability.
A sample of definitions of livability, mostly adopted by previous and current federal or national programs, appears below.
Representative Definitions of Livability
Elizabeth L. Sanford is a Senior Associate with more than 20 years of experience in transportation, community, and environmental planning. Currently the Director of Cambridge Systematics’ Atlanta Office, Ms. Sanford has a broad range of experience in Federal, state, regional, and local planning. She presently is assisting various clients with visioning and public involvement, bicycle/pedestrian planning, integrated planning, and approaches to measuring livability.