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What is Livability?

A few years ago I was spending some time in Barcelona with my cousin Josh. One night I offered to make dinner – a peanut chicken dish I had more or less invented. We sat down to dinner, and after a few bites Josh said “this is very edible.” His wife Jan immediately defended me. “What a terrible thing to say! This is great.” But Josh had meant it as a complement. “I mean I don’t want to stop eating it,” he explained. Since then I’ve loved the idea of edible meaning more than something you can eat, but something you don’t want to stop eating.

Yesterday, during our frustrating yet valuable card sort (part of the ongoing design process trip for high school students I am currently co-leading through Atlas Workshops), the students got into a conversation on the word livability. It’s a popular word in city design these days, but the definition is vague at best. To be “livable” means more than just a place you can live. It means a place that is delightful, a place that ranks at the top of Design’s Hierarchy of Needs. Livable describes a way of living in the way that Josh wanted edible to describe eating. Yet edible does connotate merely able to be eaten, to most of the world, and livability equally might mean merely able to be lived in. No wonder livability is such a difficult concept to explain!

The students’ perspective

When we asked the students to explain their understanding of livability, we were (as usual) rewarded with a plethora of answers ranging from fun and delightful (close to my own definition) to clean and safe (closer to my understanding of usable, an equally complex term). Here’s a snapshot of what they defined as livable:

  • A place that is fun to live.
  • It’s easy to get around.
  • People want to be there.
  • The air and noise is not overly polluted.
  • People can physically be there.
  • Houses and roads have been created.
  • A space adaptable to the needs of its people.
  • A place people can thrive – not just survive.
  • A space that is both comfortable and practical.

In theory, all of these answers were right, but as a result the students were getting bogged down by that concept. To them everything makes a city livable, so the word lost all meaning. I wanted to understand where they were getting stuck, so I asked them to brainstorm what types of things make this such a confusing word. They explained to me that the difficulty of defining livability came from a few sources:

  • The word means different things to different people.
  • People’s backgrounds and histories influence what they see as comfortable.
  • Most confusingly, the word “livable” seems to actually have a few different definitions.

Yes, we “can”

The different definitions of livability hit a chord for me. I immediately asked the students to define the word spelled C-A-N. I purposely spelled it, to see what context they gave it, and within a minute I had multiple definitions (including a few I hadn’t considered!)

  • “It’s an item you hold.”
  • “But it’s also a verb – to be able to do something.”
  • “Then there’s the verb to put something in a tin.”
  • “And if you get rid of someone or fire someone.”

“With all those definitions, spelled and pronounced the same way,” I asked, “how do you know what anyone means when they say that word?”  That’s when the light bulb went on.

On a related note, I’ve found that I have a new favorite sound. It’s the sound of a student exclaiming “OH!” when something that was previously confusing or frustrating suddenly makes sense. When the light bulb goes on, I get the reward of hearing that sound, and here it was quickly followed by one student explaining to the others, “it’s about the context. We know what it means because we have context to understand it.”

From there we were able to identify the two different meanings of livable. The first, like edible, means merely capable of being lived in – survived in. The second, and the context in which we are using livable when designing cities, is the ability to thrive. Full credit – these definitions are not mine. They came from the eight students who showed me new insights about livability today.

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, and she serves as managing editor at UX Booth, a publication about all areas of user experience. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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