What Makes a City "Liveable"?

Ransom Riggs

I just got back from five days in Oregon, mostly in Portland (AKA Stumptown, Bridgetown, the City of Roses, the Metropolis of Aggressively Bohemian Baristas) -- a place I lived for ten months seven years ago and have been quietly pining for ever since. My brief return confirmed that it is indeed a wonderful place in more than just the nostalgia-fog of my memory; friendly, clean, temperate, green, cultured, convenient and close to an embarrassment of natural wonders, it's often called "one of the most liveable cities in the US." Which got me to wondering: though I hear the term fairly often, I'm not entirely sure I understand what "liveable" means. Los Angeles has its challenges, but also its unique pleasures, and I don't find it particularly difficult to live here -- but never in a million years would Outdoor magazine dub it "liveable." So what does it take to earn such a title?

Of course, ultimately it comes down to the subjective discretion of the editors of the books and magzines which dub cities things. They often develop their own pseudo-scientific systems: the editors of the Rand McNally Places Rated Almanac, for example, use a point system that awards points for every local medical school, and subtracts points for each air pollutant that exceeds the EPA's standard. The New York Times tackled this sticky topic back in 1987:

Health, crime, housing, education, culture and recreation are assigned equal importance. Pittsburgh, which ranks just 78th on crime, makes up for it with a 12th-place finish in the arts. That's fine for people who find Mozart divine. But those who put a much higher premium on safe streets would probably be happier in Wheeling, W. Va., which ranks best on crime but only 181st over all. There is a yet subtler problem with [liveability indexes]. Some of the negative qualities cited in the almanac could as easily reflect a city's attractions. Santa Barbara, Calif., for example, ranks 323d on housing costs, pulling its livability ranking down to 97th. Surely, though, the main reason housing is so expensive is that so many people want to live there.

Such strange rubrics are the reason that places like New York City -- a place where something like half the people I went to college with happily moved after graduating and to which they have since become slavishly devoted -- never ranks very high on these lists. "Smaller cities in California and the middle South generally do well on the index. Big cities everywhere do badly - Denver is the only one in the top 25. New York is 216th, but still ahead of Baltimore, Minneapolis, Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and Houston. St. Louis brings up the rear."

The St. Louis Business Journal weighed in on the livability issue in 2004, summing up the current thinking about the core of their city thusly:

Cities (in the eyes of current favored civic developers around these parts) now seem to be mere office parks where commerce and a dash of law is done and little else. A city is no longer a place to live. It's a place to be big, visible and ply a trade. A quick check of the residences of the current, approved developer players will show that a real, personal, life investment in downtown is quite absent.

That certainly doesn't sound livable; it also doesn't sound like every city I know.

In this post-9/11 world, there are other factors to a city's perceived liveability, too. The Economist called Vancouver, Canada the world's most liveable city this year, and aside from the usual factors (health care, crime, schools, wages, etc), the survey also said that "In the current global political climate, it is no surprise that the most desirable destinations are those with a lower perceived threat of terrorism."

How liveable is the place you live? What factors make it that way?

(Pictured at top: Portland at sunset from the top of Mount Tabor, the city's extinct volcano, two days ago.)

For a musical take on liveability, check out Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard (a guy from Portland) singing "Why You'd Want to Live Here," a rather derogatory song about the place I live, Los Angeles: