Ask the Experts–Planning for Sustainable and Livable Communities

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:

  1. Provide more transportation choices.
  2. Promote equitable, affordable housing.
  3. Enhance economic competitiveness.
  4. Support existing communities.
  5. Coordinate policies and leverage investment.
  6. Value communities and neighborhoods.

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

Agency/Organization    Definition
(Strategic Plan)    Livable communities are places where transportation, housing and commercial development investments have been coordinated so that people have access to adequate, affordable and environmentally sustainable travel options
Secretary LaHood    Livability is about tying the quality and location of transportation facilities to broader opportunities such as access to good jobs, affordable housing, quality schools, and safe streets.
(Road to Livability report)    AASHTO’s ‘livability’ objective is to use transportation investments to improve the standard of living, the environment, and quality of life for all communities, rural, suburban, and urban.
(Livable Communities Policy)    A ‘livable future’ is one that is enduring, vibrant, responsible (civil), and offers a desirable quality of life.  This requires a balance of three key societal goals:  vibrant communities, vital economy, and sustainable environment.
Clinton-Gore Building Livable Communities Program    The Livability Agenda aims to help citizens and communities:
Preserve green spaces that promote clean air and clean water, sustain wildlife, and provide families with places to walk, play and relax.
Ease traffic congestion by improving road planning, strengthening existing transportation systems, and expanding use of alternative transportation.
Restore a sense of community by fostering citizen and private sector involvement in local planning, including the placement of schools and other public facilities.
Promote collaboration among neighboring communities – cities, suburbs or rural areas – to develop regional growth strategies and address common issues like crime.
Enhance economic competitiveness by nurturing a high quality of life that attracts well-trained workers and cutting-edge industries
American Institute of Architects    Livability is best defined at the local level.  Broadly speaking, a livable community recognizes its own unique identity and places a high value on the planning processes that help manage growth and change to maintain and enhance its community character.
Victoria Transportation Policy Institute    Community Livability refers to the environmental and social quality of an area as perceived by residents, employees, customers, and visitors.  This includes safety and health (traffic safety, personal security, public health), local environmental conditions (cleanliness, noise, dust, air quality, water quality), the quality of social interactions (neighborliness, fairness, respect, community identity and pride), opportunities for recreation and entertainment, aesthetics, and existence of unique cultural and environmental resources (historic structures, mature trees, traditional architectural styles).
Partners for Livable Communities    Livability is the sum of the factors that add up to a community’s quality of life—including the built and natural environments, economic prosperity, social stability and equity, educational opportunity, and cultural, entertainment and recreation possibilities.