Communities across the nation are faced with difficult and complex decisions about how to respond to change, plan sensibly, and improve the quality of life for all of their members. Suburban communities are dealing with sprawl that threatens the qualities of greenness and space that initially attracted residents. Cities struggle to revitalize urban centers without displacing existing communities and cultures. Rural communities strive to balance traditional ways of life with the need for access to jobs, health care, and education. More and more, people demand a voice in what happens in their communities and an active role in deciding what, where, and how change occurs.
In order to participate meaningfully in this process of decision making and to make well-informed decisions affecting quality of life, communities need information from specialized data and from decision-support tools that assess the implications of alternatives. The extent to which available data and tools can be used by communities to make these complex decisions, spanning the interrelated domains of economy, environment, and society, has rarely been examined. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) asked the National Research Council to conduct this assessment, in support of multiple efforts on the part of government at all levels and of citizen groups, to encourage broad and effective public participation in the planning of livable communities.
This report focuses on the range of data needed by communities to plan and participate in decisions that affect the quality of life in those
communities, as well as the range of data needed for making transportation decisions that support community livability. Data needed by communities involved in decision making might include both socioeconomic and environmental statistics. Transportation data for sound decision making related to the broader goal of planning livable communities can come from a variety of sources ranging from local to national and spanning the public and private sectors.
The committee’s formal statement of task was as follows:
The committee will convene a workshop to identify the data, including geo-spatial data, and performance measures needed to make local and regional decisions on transportation, land use planning, and economic development. Based on the results of the workshop, the committee will undertake the following additional tasks: (1) review the availability and usefulness of data and performance measures to enhance “livability” or quality of life; (2) identify opportunities for meeting data needs and improving the decision-support systems; and (3) review the plans of federal agencies for developing these measures and making needed data available to the public.
To honor the breadth of the charge within its time and resource constraints, the committee decided to examine the idea of livability as a goal for communities; to discuss issues surrounding the choice of livability indicators and the measurement of those characteristics; and to provide information on the use and availability of relevant data for public decision making. Additionally, the committee identified opportunities for meeting data needs and improving decision-support systems, and reviewed the plans of federal agencies for making needed data available to the public.
Performance indicators rely on many of the same data and types of data that the committee discussed in detail, in terms of identifying indicators of livability. Choosing among possible performance measures is similar to choosing among sets of indicators; indeed, performance measures must be defined in terms of the indicators of change that they mean to measure. Proper performance measures and appropriate and useful decision-support tools vary with the community and the project.
This report offers general guidelines about the qualities and characteristics that define well-considered measures and tools, as well as an appendix on federal data sources describing the range of current research on community-based performance measures of livability and decision-support tools for increasing public participation in planning.
The 1990s marked a surge in societal interest in planning and building livable communities and a growing commitment on the part of the federal government to provide the support and information that communities need for sustainable development. At the local, state, and federal levels, efforts were geared toward the inclusion in the decision-making
process of all people who live and work in these communities. Further, citizen participation was encouraged from start to finish in the complex process of making decisions that affect the quality of life in communities. This was in sharp contrast to the kinds of participatory planning that brought in stakeholders only after major agendas had been set, thus reducing the influence of stakeholders on the end results.
During the same period, there was an increase in publicly available data. However, it became clear that data alone, without decision-support tools to help people use these data, would not lead to an increase in public participation in the decision-making process. At the same time, community efforts were launched across the country to identify indicators of livability.
Livability is an ensemble concept whose factors include or relate to a number of other complex characteristics or states, including sustainability, quality of both life and place, and healthy communities (Norris and Pittman, 2000; Blassingame, 1998). It is the more immediate manifestation of sustainability that, like livability, refers to the ability of a place or a community to meet the needs of its current citizens without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their full range of human needs.
Although the definition of livability varies from community to community, a given community’s goals can be approached, and community planning for livability can be achieved, using community-derived indicators. Often, the initial goal for people involved in the planning process is to determine what is important in and to the community.
Data must be available to measure these indicators, and many, but not all, of the needed data are spatial in nature, involving relationships between places, such as home and school, city and region, and issues of space, such as percentage of open space or space-time, including emergency response time. The range of possible indicators is wide, but a balanced set will include indicators from the social, environmental, and economic sectors. A few examples among many alternatives include economic indicators, such as whether jobs pay living wages, come with health insurance and retirement benefits, are close to affordable transit and child care, and provide safe working environments. Social indicators might include community involvement (e.g., volunteerism), number of community gardens, distance between residences of extended family members, access to health care, and equity (diversity, employment types, etc.). Examples of place-based environmental indicators include measures of species diversity, land use, soil type, surface water, wetlands, and so forth. Transportation indicators include data on built infrastructure, the percentage of the population commuting a particular distance, the percentage using public transit versus personal vehicles, and alternatively,
the number of pedestrian-friendly streets, ratio of bike paths to streets, and percentage of street miles designated as bike route miles. The key is to achieve balance among social, environmental, and economic indicators and to attend to the interrelationships among these indicators.
Conclusions and recommendations in this report derive from the following:
a review of the availability and usefulness of data and performance measures to enhance livability or quality of life;
an assessment of the opportunities to meet the data needs of the public and to improve the decision-support systems for applying these data to decision making;
a review of the plans of federal agencies for developing these measures and making needed data available to the public.
The task presented to this committee was broad, encompassing identification of the data and measures needed to make local and regional public decisions on transportation, land use planning, and economic development that aim to enhance livability or quality of life. The committee determined early in the study process that an understanding of “place” was fundamental to thinking about livability, especially transportation-related aspects of livability. Connections between people and places are complex and difficult to measure. To guide the study process and to frame the committee’s conclusions and recommendations, fundamental geographic concepts were applied. These concepts can also help guide communities as they make complex decisions that require an understanding of spatial relationships and the mutual dependence of social, economic, and environmental systems. The concepts of place, scale, and the importance of people-place interactions are traditional geographic perspectives and are discussed in the Introduction and in Chapter 2.
While the specific set of indicators chosen by a community will be the product of numerous factors including demographics, region, historical precedents, and the nature of the decision or project planned, the data needed fall into three main categories: (1) social data, (2) environmental data, and (3) economic data. A major conclusion of this study is that the basic economic, social, and environmental dimensions of livability are not completely separable from each other. For example, environmental health cannot be traded-off against social well-being or vice versa; each depends upon the other. The key is their mutual interdependence. Selected indicators of livability must span these sectors, and some indicators must cut across these sectors.
Dimensions of livability operate at multiple, interconnected spatial and temporal scales. For data on livability to be useful, they must be
integrated to reflect interdependence among people and places, between places, among scales (especially between community and regional levels), and among sectors (social, environmental, and economic). Indicators must be measured in ways that are sensitive to these interactive processes and to change over time, so historical data become important.
The analysis of livability of a place is strongly influenced by the geographic unit of measurement chosen, for example, census tract, school district, municipality, or watershed. Scale and zoning are two dimensions of the spatial aggregation of data for any particular analysis. Problems associated with the arbitrary nature of chosen geographic units are discussed as the modifiable area unit problem (MAUP) in Chapter 3.
Finally, although public data are useful for decision making, improvements in data availability are necessary and decision-support tools must be designed for the use of diverse stakeholders. This group includes individuals and representatives of government, the private sector, and community-based groups who are involved in planning livable communities nationwide. Efforts are going on to create opportunities for data sharing among federal agencies, for partnerships with state and local governments to enhance the public data available for common programs, and for new efforts in coordination. In order to coordinate with other agencies, not only the will, but also the permission and appropriate funding, are necessary. Each federal agency carries specific and critical responsibilities to serve the interests of the nation. Collection, analysis, and reporting of data and information are designed primarily to support these unique and critical national missions. Opportunities exist for multiagency cooperation in areas of mutual interest; these could enhance the ability of the government to serve the public in terms of data and information needs.
The major conclusions of the committee and recommendations for improving data availability, including access and applicability, are summarized below:
Basic dimensions of livability are not completely separable or mutually compensatory. Livability concepts often treat economic, social, and environmental factors as separate domains that can be traded against each other. This leads to issue-specific planning efforts (e.g., by economic development organizations) that pay far too little attention to the web of inter-connections among these dimensions. Transportation policies of the past have been criticized for such single-issue focus. The Interstate Highway System, for example, had a clear focus on linking major cities but a blindness toward the effect of changes on neighborhoods adjacent to the highways. This created “freeway revolts” in San Francisco, New Orleans, and other affected cities. In another example, planning emphases on protect-
ing urban parklands and historic areas have been viewed as primarily serving the economically advantaged while a broader environmental justice approach to siting roads and other infrastructure brings more attention to low-income and minority populations. The environment is the most fundamental matrix for livability, and environmental and social quality of life are important components of economic well-being if the latter is measured correctly. Consequently, the nature of trade-offs among social, environmental, and economic dimensions is much less clear in the long run than it may appear in the short run.
Crosscutting measures of livability that highlight the mutual interdependence of livability dimensions are essential. Political debates often focus on which goals to pursue and assume that progress on one front will necessarily mean a loss on another front; the result is classic “environment-versus-economy” disputes. In the long run, environmental degradation will make the economy falter. Environmental and social quality of life are seen as important components of economic well-being if the latter is measured not in terms of simple indicators such as Gross National Product (GNP), but with more nuanced measures that relate how well the economy is meeting the complex needs of society. Location, for example, is an important, crosscutting aspect of livability. In the context of transportation decision making, the value of location can be presented in comprehensible terms by the use of off-the-shelf statistical software packages that calculate for any place the number of nearby opportunities, such as food stores or green spaces, or the distance to the nearest medical facility or bus stop. A good example of a complex crosscutting measure is the ecological footprint described in Box 1.1.
Dimensions of livability operate at multiple interconnected spatial scales and time frames. Livability is perceived and experienced by people who live, work, or recreate in particular places; yet our decisions about how to live influence the livability of larger regions and even distant places and people. Moreover, our current decisions about a single place at one point in time—about life-styles, transportation choices, and environmental amenities—affect the livability of multiple places over different scales (e.g., region, nation, globe) and over time.
Data on both people and places are fundamental for assessing livability. People and place are the two sides of livability, but livability indicators often refer only to locality or territory, rather than to individuals (especially as they change and move over time). Neither type of indicator captures the full picture of livability. Moreover, reliance on information about only people or localities can be seriously misleading. For example,
tracking aggregate community income over time in a specific locality might show rising economic well-being, but this could be because gentrification has displaced lower-income people who have been thrust into more congested, affordable housing markets. Improving a place at the expense of other places can result in net loss of social, economic, and environmental quality. Thus, both people and place-based indicators are fundamental to the understanding and measurement of livability.
Each federal data program has been developed for carrying out agency-specific missions, yet all federal agencies carry critical responsibilities to serve the interests of the nation. The collection, analysis, and reporting of data and information are designed primarily to support these unique and critical federal missions. At the same time, it is recognized that other levels of government also collect and utilize data for public policy purposes. Cooperation in areas of mutual interest could enhance the ability of all agencies of government to serve the public in this regard. Several projects in this spirit have been initiated by the federal government (e.g., see the discussion of the Geodata Alliance in Chapter 5 and of the Federal Geographic Data Committee [FGDC] in Appendix A), but efforts are still in the beginning stages of development. The potential remains for enhancing relationships and common efforts in data programs.
The committee recommends the following for the improvement of data availability and decision-support systems that will encourage broad public participation in the decision-making process and result in more livable communities:
Livability planning can occur at multiple spatial scales but should be integrated across such scales, especially community-based and regional levels. Livability planning efforts often range from the scale of an entire state, down to small-scale neighborhoods. Data integrated across scales are rare despite the fact that some aspects of livability (e.g., walkability) are experienced mostly at the local scale, whereas others (e.g., air quality) are remediated at the regional scale. A regional-scale livability plan can ensure fair-share distribution of the costs and benefits of transportation services.
Robust livability indicators require data that are measured and integrated in ways that are sensitive to underlying geographic processes. Basic data to support indicators are often measured at different spatial scales. They are also often measured using zoning systems that are artificial (e.g., Census tracts, counties, municipalities, traffic analysis zones) and/or incompatible. This issue can result in arbitrary and biased livabil-
ity indicators. Geographic Information System (GIS) tools can be used to assess the sensitivity of indicators to the spatial measurement units and aggregation techniques.
Decision-support tools should be designed explicitly for the diverse stakeholders involved in livability planning. Decision-support data and models are often not available, or lack transparency (i.e., they are difficult for users to understand and evaluate). Diverse stakeholders involved in transportation planning include transportation engineers, who are familiar with data and models, and elected officials and members of citizen organizations, who are less familiar with these matters. Moreover, data and models are often limited to the analysis of land use and transportation, when it is essential to integrate economic, social, and environmental data as well. One measure of the weakness of any model is the extent to which it ignores any one of these dimensions. Model-related strengths and weaknesses, as well as their inherent theoretical assumptions, have to be articulated, and new-generation models must integrate, not only land use and transportation, but also ecological-environmental dynamics (related to pollution and habitat effects) and resulting indicators.
Public data are useful for decision making, but improvements are necessary. Federal data creation and delivery programs have provided much useful information to state and local decision makers. These programs could be improved by making selected data available more frequently, for more parts of the country, and at greater resolution and by making multisectoral (social, environmental, economic), mutually compatible data available. Often public data are collected for places defined as political units. State and local data are useful but could be improved by adopting standards allowing data to be comparable across political boundaries. Much more useful data could be available to decision makers at no or low additional costs if administrative data collected by agencies as part of their day-to-day operations were accessible to others outside those agencies.
Continued efforts are required to create opportunities for data sharing among federal agencies and to open up opportunities for partnerships with state and local governments to enhance the public data available for common programs or for new efforts in coordination. Research into the potential expanded use of various federal data sources, specifically for the purposes of cross-discipline public policy issues, is necessary. Exploring what support, what standards, and what controls are needed, as well as how to finance such efforts, may provide a firm base for challenging the separate and individualized systems currently in use. In addi
tion, privacy issues and current regulatory barriers must be addressed. Coordination would be facilitated by clear agency mandates, including appropriate levels of funding to advance such efforts.
Blassingame, Lurton. 1998. Sustainable cities: oxymoron, utopia, or inevitability? Social Science Journal 35:1-13.
Norris, Tyler, and Mary Pittman. 2000. The health communities movement and the coalition for healthier cities and communities. Public Health Reports 115:118-124.