Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

“Livability” vs. Livability: The Pitfalls of Willy Wonka Urbanism by Richey Piiparinen

livability: (livable) fit or suitable to live in or with; “livable conditions”.

“Livability” has been a buzz word in city development for some time, and for good reason, as who doesn’t want livability, outside the zombie cohort? Things get hairy, though, when “livability”—as an economic development strategy—gets unpacked, because questions arise: “Livability” for whom? “Livability” at what cost?

Making a city “livable” these days largely means appealing to a select group of folks so as to form “an attractive economic place”. This notion of “livability” really came on in the late 1980’s, and was done under the presumption that certain cities offered higher quality of life, read: better lifestyles. For instance, in 1989 geographer David Harvey wrote that cities need to “keep ahead of the game [by] engendering leap-frogging innovations in life-styles, cultural forms, products, and service mixes…if they are to survive.” This was a radical departure from previous societal efforts to make quality of life a priority (think: pollution remediation) in that “life” was swapped out for “lifestyle”.

You could argue, then, that the original sin of “livability”-driven economic development begins right there. Namely, the emphasis will not be on the people of a city, but on potential consumers, particularly high-valued consumers with means, subsequently referred to as the “creative class”. As for creative class wants? They are, according to Richard Florida, “[an] indigenous street-level culture – a teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros…” In this sense, the idea of “livability” gets precariously slimmed out.

Nonetheless, this thinking has penetrated mainstream economic development, with cities attempting to one-up each other in their want to attract a slice of the “livability” electorate. The consequences have become predictable: more comfort for some, less comfort for most.

***

Perhaps the city most famous for livability-driven economic development is Portland. It is America’s amenity apex, and a recent study showed it attracts the young by the boatload due to a certain leisure-lifestyle it affords.

For example, from a recent article entitled “(P)retirement’s new frontier”, the author interviews a 36-year old who is “underemployed on purpose”, as well as a couple who quit their jobs in Austin, sold their car, and have backyard chickens, yet now feel “much richer”. Such folks are referred to by economist Joe Cortright as “lifestyle entrepreneurs”. Part of this entrepreneurial output, touched on in the article, is a website called Badass that rates Portland neighborhoods for amenities like pinball machines, food carts, and access to bike lanes. At times the article reads like Portland was dreamed up by Willy Wonka.

Here, I half kid. From a description of the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, notice the parallel themes: the Peter Pan motif, an escape from an unsatisfactory reality, and the promise of limitless sensory and savory experiences:

The Chocolate Room is designed to look like an outdoor landscape complete with trees, flowers and a waterfall, but Wonka has made the entire scene out of candy and chocolate. Charlie and the other children see some doll-sized human beings in the Chocolate Room, and Wonka explains they are Oompa-Loompas whom he saved from the dangerous country of Loompaland. The Oompa-Loompas agreed to work for Wonka and live in his factory in exchange for a safe home and an endless supply of their favorite food, cacao beans.

Courtesy of Knotworkshop

Swap out the over-educated and underemployed for the Oompa-Loompas, chocolate for lifestyle amenities, and the Chocolate Room for the concept of “Portland-as-place”, and you got yourself a sequel. But there are problems with such city building: it’s too often defined by the ephemera, or that “transitory matter not intended to be retained or preserved”. And while the ephemera aren’t building blocks to economic growth—but instead represent America’s tendency to fix hard structural deficits with the airy promises of the pleasure principle—they are nonetheless a main cog in the modern day city-making machine. From an article entitled “Placemaking Revolution: the powerful role of ephemera and the arts in our cities”:

Coletta addressed the question of how ephemeral events can have lasting impacts in cities. “I think you can do temporality with regularity. Some temporary events are so powerful that they stay in the memory for a long time, and spark the imagination.

But I would argue that now more than ever we need less fantasy in city building than we do reality—as reality can’t keep being handed off to folks who are unable to consume their way to imagining existence as anything but decidedly not livable.

***

“Livability” backlashes are becoming increasingly common across the country. For instance, a piece in Crain’s Chicago questions whether Chicago’s catering to the global creative class is worth the debt it is incurring, and whether the split between the amenity-rich rich neighborhoods and the amenity-poor poor neighborhoods is worth the investment, particularly given the record levels of violence that is tearing parts of the city to pieces. And while Mayor Emanuel’s bike-pathing of the City moves forward because “he wants all of [Seattle’s] bikers”, libraries are closing, red light cameras are ubiquitous, taxes are rising, and the city has a police manpower shortage of 1,000 that can’t be plugged because there’s no money. In fact things are so desperate that the City recently turned to Twitter to fight crime.

Stop-The-Violence Campaign in Chicago. Courtesy of Metropolis Coffee

In New York, the President of NYU is under a vote of no confidence for his plans to extend the creative classification of the campus into Greenwich Village. And while this has been ongoing—for instance, one commenter in the bookWhile We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York” states “There are days when I feel like I’m stranded in some upscale mall in Pasadena”—the recent city-sanctioned plan to bulldoze and “mix use” a residential neighborhood for “livability” purposes in order to “attract ambitious students and faculty to sustain the region’s economic base and quality of life” has pushed faculty and the community over the edge.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the plan—and fight for it—comes at a time with Richard Florida joining NYU as a Global Research Professor, with the President commenting on the unison this way:

There is a certain symmetry here: Richard Florida is joining NYU…at a moment when the University has begun responding to the forces that give rise to his most trenchant insights.

Even in Portland, the “livability” backlash is present. A September 2012 article entitled “Portland’s livability conflicts: Contradictions of affluence and affliction” states:

With its tree-lined streets, bike paths and transit options, Portland is beautiful and very safe. But behind that facade, Portland is also a city of contradictions.

These contradictions, according to the author, involve the discordance brewing between the poverty and “alarmingly large number of hypodermic needle” situation on one hand, and the topographical layering of that “everything is fine” sheen that remains intact for many coming to seek it.

Others in the community are questioning the theory of livability-driven economic development in its own right. For instance, in a piece entitled “The Portland Question: Livability or Job Growth?”, the author notes the growing worries in the region as to the path Portland is on:

Last year, Portland’s own catalyst for economic change, the Portland Development Commission, warned that the city’s traditional focus on livability projects such as streetcars and housing had not delivered the job growth needed to stay competitive. That’s a strong statement considering that livability has become what largely defines Portland’s character.

***

Taken together, perhaps it’s time for city leaders and citizens alike to take stock in how cities are being made, and for whom the making is focused. In fact maybe it’s time to drop the “livability” gimmicks that define Willy Wonka urbanism–or to squeeze “the style” out of “lifestyle” so as to expose the highest priority, the highest necessity: which is life.

So, you wanna make your city “hot”? Then cook the irons of affordable housing, mobility, education, and solid jobs.

Or, you know: livability.

This post originally appeared in New Geography on December 31, 2012.

23 Comments
Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning
Cities: Cleveland

23 Responses to ““Livability” vs. Livability: The Pitfalls of Willy Wonka Urbanism by Richey Piiparinen”

  1. Very thought provoking, but it strikes me that it’ll be a long time before we’re able to analyze the outcomes of these policies.

    Until then, this article may have compiled a series of neat false correlatives.

    The aim of more ‘livable’ cities, far beyond short term economic sustainability is a series of silo-crossing/whole-cost accounting opportunities, including returns in health-care, crime reduction, community engagement and local ownership.

  2. Matthew Hall says:

    Cincinnatians are begging for ‘amenities’. We have very far to go before any such “backlash”.

  3. James says:

    You seem to imply that Chicago’s money problems are due to building high end amenities like bike lanes. Is this a fair reading and do you seriously believe it?

  4. I don’t know how you can say livability initiatives mean “more comfort for some, less comfort for most.” You certainly haven’t done an adequate job supporting that assertion in this article. And I think there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary.

  5. @James, keep in mind I am not personally the author of the piece. However, while it’s hard to blame bike lanes (a fairly low cost item which is why I like them) for the city’s fiscal mess, Crain’s did run an article called something like “Mayor Daley Runs Up Big Debts Building His Global City” which talked about how Daley did indeed overspend, both by regular borrowing and letting pensions get underfunded.

  6. George Mattei says:

    @ Matthew, I think that any city has to have a “baseline” of expected amenities before it can be an attractive place (the baseline depends on the size of the city). That’s one thing that I thought the otherwise well-conceived article left out. Ohio cities have been playing catch-up the past decade, and that was probably needed-moribund downtowns and neighborhoods don’t attract anyone.

    However, most of the State’s major downtowns are now seeing significant investments, so the question is-NOW where do they go? Do they try to Portland-up and get to the lifestyle magnet level, or do they focus on a balanced approach that focuses on features that are more appropraite for that city, and builds on their strengths? My vote is for the latter.

  7. Kurt Lorey says:

    Willy Wonka, eh?

    Cincinnati and Indianapolis are both deep in the throes of Wonka envy right now. It appears that both subscribe to the “bucket list of amenties” philospohy. City “A” rates high on lists; they have “x” amenities; we need to have “x” amenties (whether they “fit” here, or not). Meh.

  8. costanza says:

    Wow, I just wasted 10 minutes reading this.

    In the future, please put this at the beginning of the post:

    This post originally appeared in New Geography on December 31, 2012.

  9. Wanderer says:

    There are certainly issues in focusing urban amenities too much on the so-called creative class (I guess the rest of us are just dull hacks!). But a lot of what the article talks about are amenities of use to a wide range of people, like bike lanes. It’s worth remembering that New Geography is Randall O’ Toole’s vehicle for promoting a suburb-based, car-dependent vision of (anti)-urbanism. Occasionally they get something right, but basically everything they publish is in the service of that agenda.

  10. @Wanderer, I don’t believe O’Toole actually writes for New Geography and he has no ownership stake or editorial role. Do you mean Joel Kotkin?

    Richey is a bona fide Cleveland urban booster who is hardly a shill for the car-centric lifestyle.

  11. Scott Adams says:

    I think you’re onto something. Lots of cities are grappling with “the pretty” vs. “the practical”. Livability definitely needs to be grounded in nuts-and-bolts basics like public safety, environmental quality (water, air) and transportation/housing options.

  12. James says:

    @Aaron,

    I have seen no evidence that Chicago’s budget woes fit the thesis of this article. Are unfunded pensions and high labor costs really catering to “liveability”? From what I’ve seen pensions and labor costs in general (kind of the same thing) is the source of Chicago’s money problems but the author of this article is implying that the city is over investing in bike trails and other amenities at the expense of the Southside and its crime. The whole article is fairly absurd but as you know I hammer people for not googling budgets and doing some basic arithmetic.

  13. @James, the Chicago Reader has done a massive amount of work documenting how the “shadow budget” of TIF drains something like a billion a year from the regular budget, most of it for projects in already affluent neighborhoods. Clearly a lot of TIF money went into that, and went into the Loop and other areas. Just like the city wants to pump money into Wolf Point. There’s clearly a connection between these types of investments and the city’s budget problems. You can argue about how big, but it isn’t nothing.

  14. Jonathan says:

    The guest writer’s argument is diminished by his referencing a television-news opinion piece that complains about speed cameras near schools and parks. I like to think that I have climbed far enough out of my own bucket of bolts that I can respect how speed limit enforcement on local streets adds to livability.

  15. Mati Senerchia says:

    Matthew, if lovely things like the new Washington Park came at the expense of our magnet schools program or adequate policing or garbage collection, we’d pay heavily without having any one loss to blame. I like bike lanes, but I like a sound public transit system even more. My neighborhood, Northside, has a dual bike path/bike lane system along Spring Grove, the major road leading to the area’s largest grocery store. The bus route, on the other hand, is painfully infrequent despite connecting to the biggest nexus outside of downtown. Carless residents find it extremely difficult to shop after work. Northside attracts people with choice and disposable income thanks to its sturdy, historic housing stock, coffee shops and galleries, but it’s mostly low-income and we all live cheek by jowl. Most of our neighbors are underserved and, it seems, edging toward invisibility. Shortsighted doesn’t begin to cover it.

    James, my reading is that a sucking chest wound is not best repaired with a handmade upcycled leather chevron necklace, not that Richey is blaming everything wrong with Chicago on bike paths.

  16. I’m sorry the more I think about this the angrier it makes me. Are you trying to connect the existence of bike lanes in Chicago to shootings on the South Side? Whatever. I think the author of this article is talking out of his ass. I love how the corporate-backed white men at New Geography become REALLY concerned about poor people in the city when it gives them a chance to punch hippies. Willy Wonka urbanism? What does that even mean? You’re trying too hard!

    Attacking livability on equity grounds is utterly ridiculous. Chicago will spend billions over the next decades expanding a highway system that will basically only serve the region’s most fortunate two thirds. And even them is will cost dearly. Clearly trying to improve existing neighborhoods is an big equity improvement over that. Let’s attack that dynamic on equity grounds. Oh right, that wouldn’t be unconventional and attention grabbing enough!

    Let’s talk about how terrible gentrifiers are and blame poor people’s problems on them! Easy targets!

  17. Angie, isn’t Richey up there in Cleveland with you? You all should grab beers one day and duke it out :)

  18. Tim says:

    I have trouble with your metaphor here. Willy Wonka’s Factory is a factory town utopia. Something akin to what Google has now. Where the company provides such fantastic amenities that you’d never want to leave.

    This all smacks of the same way that traditional companies would carp at Internet companies. “How dare you treat your workers so well, you’re making the rest of us look bad.”

    I still think the problem is more that we have pretty much zero ideas for how to push market capitalism to provide low income housing. Debating how much we’re spending on bike paths is somewhat beside the point.

  19. Peter D says:

    @Angie. I really don’t get what irks you here? What incentive does a “corporate backed white guy ” (which this author is not) have to attack gentrification? I find such guys are usually the cheerleaders for the “lifestyle amenities” that Richey critiques. The argument made here – that perhaps struggling cities may be overemphasizing amenities over real solutions to long-term problems – is certainly a sound one even if you disagree. You seem to take more issue with the manner of the argument than the argument itself. Am I missing something?

  20. Richey’s mistake and what I object to here. He has made this huge logical leap, and the these he presents here is demonstrably false and in fact flies in the face of the preponderance of evidence and accepted wisdom on this topic. He is asserting that livability issues worsen equity problems. No studies have shown this. No one else is saying this. Everything shows the opposite. What this backlash against Florida found was that economic gains from “talent agglomeration” do not trickle down, because economic gains are offset by higher housing prices. That is a very different thing than saying livability issues harm low income people. What he is saying cannot be supported by evidence. It is irresponsible for him to say it. He has not offered sufficient support. It is wrong.

  21. Peter D says:

    @Angie.

    Okay, I see your point. I get your argument about overstating the critique of Florida. That said, I still see a valid conceptual argument that Richey is making (even if the data is not yet fleshed out). From the perspective of urban policy, we well know that planners and implementers have a short spectrum of attention. When “strategists” come in a sell the planners on “lifestyle amenities”, especially when they assert that such investments will trickle down, there is a diversion of resources toward that effort – both in boosterism and rhetoric, as well as in real resources. But if there is no real trickle down, then such “solutions” are but Winnie-the-pooh-bandaids on a severed artery. I think this is Richey’s point. The over-investment in the “creative class” thesis diverts attention away from a message and resources spent on building real infrastructure and industry growth that is a fit for places like Cleveland. You are probably right that “lifestyle” amenities do not, qua amenities, hurt low-income people. But the over-reliance on their false promises DOES divert attention and much needed resources (including the resource of Cleveland’s fickle attention span).

    I don’t know if its an either/or proposition. But the over-emphasis on lifestyle amenities based on its false promises is definitely harmeful, IMHO.

    Anyhow, I appreciate healthy push-back to and fro…

    Cheers.

  22. Peter D says:

    Angie: Okay, I see your point. I get your argument about overstating the critique of Florida. That said, I still see a valid conceptual argument that Richey is making (even if the data is not yet fleshed out). From the perspective of urban policy, we well know that planners and implementers have a short spectrum of attention. When “strategists” come in a sell the planners on “lifestyle amenities”, especially when they assert that such investments will trickle down, there is a diversion of resources toward that effort – both in boosterism and rhetoric, as well as in real resources. But if there is no real trickle down, then such “solutions” are but Winnie-the-pooh-bandaids on a severed artery. I think this is Richey’s point. The over-investment in the “creative class” thesis diverts attention away from a message and resources spent on building real infrastructure and industry growth that is a fit for places like Cleveland. You are probably right that “lifestyle” amenities do not, qua amenities, hurt low-income people. But the over-reliance on their false promises DOES divert attention and much needed resources (including the resource of Cleveland’s fickle attention span).

    I don’t know if its an either/or proposition. But the over-emphasis on lifestyle amenities based on its false promises is definitely harmeful, IMHO.

    Anyhow, I appreciate healthy push-back to and fro…

    Cheers.

  23. Angie, cities with high “liveability” do have serious equity issues. Chicago and New York come rapidly to mind. The places that have done better either had few historically disadvantaged communities to begin with (Portland) or managed to gradually gentrify most of them out (San Francisco).

    Chicago is the paradigm of a place that has spent untold amounts of money on things like Loop beautification while the neighborhoods crumble. The results speak for themselves.

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