Reconciling Livability & Sustainability in Urban Planning

Abstract: This article examines the complementarity of livability and sustainability at a theoretical level but recognizes that linkage in practice is complex. Connection between these concepts is examined through the analysis of comprehensive plans in fourteen jurisdictions in the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where a federally funded regional planning process was initiated to create “livable sustainability.”

Results show variation in local plan compliance with the livable sustainability guidelines in the region, with particular challenge integrating nontraditional planning concerns. Attention to issues of scale, context, and potential to enable change will help planners promote long-term sustainability while recognizing local livability preferences.

Introduction: Recent decades have ushered an upwelling of interest in community livability and sustainability, manifested in high public participation and greater commitment by governments to provide resources to plan for communities. Until recently, initiatives to enhance livability and sustainability have been largely community-based, responding to issues of local concern (Miller, Witlox, and Tribby 2013). This trend changed in 2009 when the U.S. federal government announced an unprecedented interagency collaboration between the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Transportation (DOT) to coordinate federal investments in housing, transportation, and the environment to promote long-term investments in sustainable community development (Partnership for Sustainable Communities 2010).

This federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities (“partnership”) has provided competitive funding to communities that could demonstrate how their planning efforts would incorporate a set of six livability principles (USEPA 2009).1 In 2010, $100 million was awarded to support regional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, transportation, and economic and workforce development. The Partnership screened and prioritized grant applications that outlined programs for inclusive and representative public engagement, and clear approaches to address the interdependent challenges of economic development, revitalization, access to opportunity, and environmental protection.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast region was first among those supported by this interagency Partnership to complete a planning process for long-term sustainability based on specific livability guidelines outlined by the federal government. Similarly, this region is among the first to grapple with the practical context of reconciling livability and sustainability within the context of this federal program.2 Attention to the connections between livability and sustainability is made relevant in a policy context with the new infusion of federal resources, to promote community livability while simultaneously supporting broader goals of sustainability.

Planners working on this frontier of livability and sustainability practice still operate without consensus on conceptual connections and methods to navigate the messy terrain of tensions between these sometimes competing visions for urban planning. There is increased interest across disciplines of community planning, environmental management, and transportation in examining relationships between livability and sustainability, primarily in the contemporary context of urban development and resource consumption (Chazal 2010; Holden and Scerri 2013; Howley, Scott, and Redmond 2009; Newton 2012). Scholars have argued that while consensus on definitions of livability and sustainability is important to advance theory and practice (Vallance, Perkins, and Dixon 2011; van Kamp et al. 2003), perhaps even more valuable are the linkages between concepts, identifying areas of potential conflict and complementarity (Allen 2010; Ruth and Franklin 2013). Given the limitations of current conceptualizations of livability and its relationship with sustainability, ways to reconcile these concepts must be examined to anticipate challenges and formulate strategies for implementing livable and sustainable land use policies.

This article examines the conceptual and practical considerations of reconciling livability and sustainability by examining local comprehensive plans from a region that participated in a federal program to advance sustainable communities that are also livable. I divide this article into three parts. The first part engages the literature on sustainability and livability to show that there is both considerable overlap and separation between concepts, providing space for tension and complementarity. The second part investigates comprehensive plans for the coupling of livability and sustainability in fourteen jurisdictions in the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Using examples from this region, I show how the nexus between livability and sustainability plays out in practice. The third part draws lessons from these examples and suggests what planners and funding agencies can do to systematically establish connections between the goals of sustainability and livability. A principal finding is that independently applying livability and sustainability concepts to comprehensive planning leaves both concepts as ideal types, good for understanding but limited in practice.

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