What makes a city livable?

Coffee shops, housing, bike paths, transit and business opportunities are all important. But in the end, a livable city is one where everyone belongs

Donna Paris
Illustrations of elements of a city, such as cyclist, taxi, house, store, tree

Most people in the world live in cities, but choosing which city is often a personal decision. Perhaps we grew up there or our family and friends are there. Or we might be seeking work opportunities, amenities that matter to us, or simply a place where we will be accepted and included.

“It’s the same basic set of issues in North America, but people are very diverse. There isn’t just one formula,” says Professor André Sorensen, chair of the Department of Human Geography at UTSC. “There’s a whole range of income levels in any city. Rich people can pretty well buy the livability they want, so you have to look at lower-income levels, where people have less capability to do it themselves.” He says it’s important to maintain the infrastructure and water, power and communication net- works, along with parks, libraries and museums, since public facilities are more sustainable than private ones.

A roof over your head

Along these lines, affordable housing is “essential,” says Sorensen. “In cities such as London and New York, every- one but the really well-off are being priced out of decent-quality housing.”

And Canada, he says, has dropped the ball when it comes to this issue. One model he points to, however, is Options for Homes, a non-profit corporation that creates opportunities for affordable home ownership by providing down-payment loans. One of its most recent developments is Cranbrooke Village, in a north Toronto area well-served by public transit and close to shopping and restaurants. Cranbrooke Village has amenities such as car sharing, a boardroom and a rooftop garden.

Getting around

For a livable city, a well-designed transportation system is paramount. “As we plan for cars, it takes away from the enjoyment of places for non-drivers,” says Steven Farber, assistant professor in the Department of Human Geography. “And in studies, even in places where non-drivers outnumber drivers, we still see more space allocated to cars.”

Farber points to one study of the Annex, a mixed-income Toronto neighbourhood. It showed that only 10 per cent of the people using the stores and sidewalks arrived by car, with the rest having walked, biked or used public transit. Yet the sidewalks are narrow strips without room for bicycle parking, and about 75 per cent of the public space is devoted to cars and parking. “Then you start to get into justice issues,” says Farber, “and it really becomes about how we are going to devote public space...to the people who live there and enjoy it or to the people who are basically using the space to get their cars through.”

Urban planners and municipal governments are increasingly aware of how to make spaces more livable and create public spaces where people have the freedom to enjoy leisure activities. And that’s important, says Farber, so that people can conduct their lives in a way that’s pleasurable, rather than feeling that just getting from place to place is a drudgery.

“I think there is a big upswing in interest in making cities more livable, especially as more affl people return to the cities in North America,” he adds. “I think that Toronto some- times gets it right, but often it doesn’t. Toronto’s waterfront is such a huge amenity enjoyed by so few people,
for instance.” He notes that getting to The Beach neighbourhood is really diffi taking up to an hour on the Queen streetcar from downtown. “Why have we given priority to cars?”

Meeting places

Farber adds, however, that the city has allowed some great development along the waterfront with small shops, places to eat and drink, and biking and walking paths.

“When they take away street space and make playgrounds, for instance, those are the types of things that make neighbourhoods work. You need meeting places: parents need to meet other parents, kids need to meet other kids.”

This year, Toronto was named the world’s best city to live in overall in a report by the Intelligence Unit of The Economist. “Livability is a slippery concept,” says Zack Taylor, until recently an assistant professor in the Department of Human Geography. “The Economist and others have indexes that rank cities, mixing together different measurements, from affordable housing to housing access, high-quality education, low pollution…but these types of indexes have been favoured for serving upper- middle-class livability.”

Who benefits?

Taylor believes that livability is related to opportunities for people, the ability to support themselves, and access to a wide range of life choices. “You need to have a city where people are able to get around at a low cost and do it in a way that doesn’t com- promise their health or security.” He points to Johannesburg, where people are afraid to stop at intersections for fear of getting hijacked, and American cities such as St. Louis, where some people view public transit as if it were an extension of social services, meant only for a certain strata of society.

Girish Daswani, assistant pro fessor in UTSC’s Department of Anthropology, points to problems with how the term “livable city” is used. He says it can be “a catchphrase, something that is celebrated by urban planners and policy-makers who want to find out where to put community gardens and pathways. But at the same time, people don’t really share the experience of what it means to live in certain parts of a city.”

Toronto may rank high in livability ratings, but Daswani says the city doesn’t have good affordable housing, and we gloss over that fact. “It’s a question of perspective: Who is the one doing the living here?” Many important questions get hidden, he says. For example: What is it like for a person of colour? What is it like to be carded just because you are black? He says the experience of living in Toronto can differ greatly depending on which part of the city you’re in, your race, your gender and how much money you earn. For example, your access to what the city offers can depend, to a large extent, on how often a bus runs in your neighbourhood.

Defining “livability”

Toronto does deserve some credit, says Daswani, but it’s important to notice who’s asking the question of which cities are most livable and how the question gets answered (the indicators and measurements used). It’s important to note what gets included and what doesn’t. To make improvements in an area, it’s important to talk to people who live there, instead of simply deciding what people need.

Perhaps, then, the “livable city” itself is a concept that needs to be nurtured, tackling the question from different angles and with a vision for the future. Canada’s aging population is one factor that will have a tremen- dous impact on our cities in the next decade or so. “We built our cities around children and neighbourhoods around schools,” says Zack Taylor.

“Now what will happen when people over the age of 65 outnumber those under 15?”

Ultimately, livable cities are defi by the people who live there and the lives they lead. “What I’ve heard from people who come to Toronto is that there is an acceptance of diversity, and it’s a very welcoming and inclu- sive culture that is created in terms  of livability,” says Sorensen. “It’s essential to feel that you become part of a place and not to feel as if you are an outsider.”