Originally published in the February 2020 edition of Streetsmart News (Vol 22)
Almost everyone can agree that how we build our cities and neighborhoods have a big impact on a resident’s quality of life. However, there is less agreement about what we mean by the term quality of life. Livability as a concept is complicated by its lack of definition, which means it is a term that gets bandied about to support or oppose a variety of community projects. Indeed, neighbors arguing on opposite sides of an affordable housing proposal can claim that new housing will detract from or support livability.
Although our understanding of livability is vague enough to contain contradictory ideas, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been quantified. Some of these frameworks, such as the AARP Livability Index, offer well-considered indicators. Other indices highlight a particular idea of livability (see here and here for some reflection).
Given the number of policies and plans across the nation whose express purpose is to promote livability, having a more consistent and meaningful definition would be useful. What if the term livability were infused with scientific rigor? What if the definition of livability actually related to what it sounds like; that is, supporting people’s health and well being?
Researchers in Australia have done just that. A multi-institutional partnership led by Professor Billie Giles-Corti, the National Liveability Study, pursued the idea of constructing built environment livability indicators that impact health outcomes. Having found that the concept of livability and health were frequently linked, their research approach adopted a social determinants of health (SDOH) approach to building their indicator set. The SDOH are defined as the conditions in which people are born, live, work, and play. The most impactful way of improving a community’s health outcomes is by addressing these social determinants (versus a reliance on clinical interventions, for example).
As a result, researchers in this project defined a livable places as those that are “safe, attractive, socially cohesive and inclusive, and environmentally sustainable; with affordable and diverse housing linked to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities; via convenient public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities.” Not only does this paint a clear picture of a livable neighborhood, this definition is also supported by the evidence on the social determinants of health in urban areas.
As discussed in a previous newsletter, transportation is a social determinant of health. Some of the pathways by which transportation affects health include supporting healthy behaviors—access to healthy food, facilitating physical activity, and enabling social interaction—and exposure to noise pollution, air pollution, traffic safety, and crime.
A health-informed approach to defining and promoting livability could be a way of translating an abstract concept to something very tangible and meaningful to people—the health of our bodies.