Towards the liveable city

by Alexandra Linden, Astrid Ley and Alexander Jachnow

The German government pushes for a New Urban Agenda oriented towards the vision of the “lebenswerte Stadt”, i.e. a city worth to live in, but is mostly translated with “liveable city”. But how do we define “liveable”? Our authors Alexandra Linden, Astrid Ley and Alexander Jachnow contend that it goes beyond “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want” as proposed by the UN. Liveability, construed as Quality of life shouldn’t just be determined by indicator models, but within a specific local context and in conjunction with international standards.


Urban quality = quality of life: a contribution to global sustainability?
The outcomes of the most recent, significant milestones of the discussion on Global Governance such as Agenda 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement focus squarely on cities. A new position within the architecture of international decision-making is outlined for cities in the sense of living space. Furthermore, the international community argues to institute a new framework of normative standards for urban liveable spaces. The global UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) represents the first follow-up event of the Agenda 2030 and, through the New Urban Agenda (NUA), is intended to initiate a relevant paradigm shift and renewed discussions on cities for which Germany should engage. The question lies on whether the vision of liveable cities perpetuates the concept of sustainable, smart and resilient cities or steers a completely new direction.

Urban development based on quality of life realises that people make cities and is therefore strongly bound to people. This is reflected in the NUA term “people-centred” At the same time, this new formulation indicates a shift away from the growth paradigm, as it has been negotiated at national level for some time now (e.g. Buen Vivir in South America or the Gross National Happiness concept in Bhutan). With its intrinsic reference to values and quality of life assessments, the term “people-centred” highlights the complexities of urban (co-)habitation.

Urban quality of life – an attempt at a socio-spatial definition
Quality of life within the urban environment depends on how well its inhabitants are integrated with their environment and is manifested in socio-spatial conditions and relationships without limitations to personal surroundings of the individual. This makes the term quality of life multidimensional and covers both physical and mental, social and environmental needs. It also includes personal well-being and institutional aspects, such as access to participation (WBGU, 2016: 90).

The United Nations approached a definition of quality of life at the turn of the millennium with the terms of development opportunity and freedom, which it brought to bear in its demands for “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” (u.a. UNDP 1994).

Environmental and urban psychology research states that people cope with those factors, which have a negative influence upon quality of life in the city (e.g. stressors such as air pollution or crime), by developing the capacity to overcome these negative influences. One example are social relationships, which serve as security and safety nets for individuals. Urban space in the form of social space reinforces this capacity (WBGU, 2016: 90). On this basis, it is possible to differentiate between 1) the impact of urban social space on quality of life and 2) social cohabitation as an aspect of quality of life.

Liveability as a quantifiable measure of city quality – the individual vs. society
Quality of life depends on the particular individual and is therefore highly subjective. It is a contradictory notion, therefore, to regard the quality of a city as the sum of the quality of life of its citizens. This poses the risk of a conflict of interests, once it is asked whose concept of liveability is valid. Therefore, the liveable city approach requires that “liveability“ be continually redefined as part of an ongoing inner-societal negotiation process.

The question of a “liveable city for WHOM?” places the focus on the quality of life of the individual as a priority. Quality of life depends on the extent to which immediate needs are covered, whether they be health-related or nutritional, safety or housing, income or employment, freedom of movement or opportunity of individual development. Supplying people with standardised infrastructure can significantly influence the quality of life of the individual within the urban environment however, even well-functioning infrastructure cannot satisfy the needs for recognition or self-realisation inherent to liveable cities. To permit different urban groups to interact, it is crucial to agree on rules. This applies equally to the economic as the socio-cultural context. These rules are characterised by values and standards, and vice versa.

Within the urban society, it is most important to moderate processes of negotiation: the HOW? in the negotiation of infrastructure and services, as well as the consumption of resources, in terms of equality of access and participation, in the assurance of due process in private and public space, and in the protection of the commons.

A city forms and develops within entropic processes of continual social and spatial conflict. The principles, which guide these sociospatial negotiations, are crucial in defining individual quality of life and city quality for all citizens.

Liveability as a standard for urban development – a critical approach
The term “liveable city” suggests that the quality of the socio-spatial environment is measurable objectively. Accordingly, numerous indicator sets exist for urban quality of life, which are based on measurable data and which use seemingly objective criteria. To define a measurable quality standard or even an ISO certified city might seem like the best option, which in turn would mean creating another city ranking within the global competition between cities.

On the other side, quality of life and urban quality are perceived differently during the course of one individual’s lifetime as well as from generation to generation, and therefore are in a constant state of change. The city, in its entirety, is not homogeneous and differences between existing quality of life, e.g. of individual districts, as well as between demands for city quality, cannot be completely resolved. If indicators in one area improve, this may lead to a deterioration in other areas demonstrating entropic factors that cannot be ignored. On top of this, one must add subjective perception and cultural differences, which represent indispensible factors and properly assess quality of life within the relevant local context. The necessary interplay of hard factors such as infrastructure, living space, services, and framework functions such as due process, political participation, social cohesion, cannot be viewed separately from the sociospatial environment.

The liveable city can neither be a generally valid formula nor a maximum demand in all areas. It remains as an average of the urban society due to the balancing of individual and collective interests and the constant negotiation of compromises. The discussion of HOW? in terms of the “liveable city“ is therefore torn between the negotiable and the (at least temporary) non-negotiable principles of the respective society. The latter can lie, for example, within the legally protected standards of infrastructure and services in the city space. However, it is by social rules and reliability that individuals and groups are able to diversify within the urban environment.

But, in the end, who is being given a voice in the negotiation process on urban quality of life and who discusses with whom and on what footing? Where does responsibility between the state and the citizenry lie, when it becomes necessary to safeguard the rights to the city of the individual and the rights of the city within a collective; where does it lie when ensuring standards (technocratic), tolerating diversity and enabling belonging as well as variance? These issues need further clarification.

A diversion from the endless road to utopia
Many places in cities would hardly be called liveable, and in some cases they even endanger life. Cities don’t just grow because of the possibilities that they offer, but sometimes simply due to a lack of basic living conditions elsewhere. These cities don‘t offer quality of life, rather a chance to simply survive. In these places, it’s not so much about the “city we want”, but about improving the living conditions in the “city we have”.

By being oriented towards urban quality of life, the debate surrounding the future of cities continues to gain a people-oriented dimension. When implementing this vision, it will be necessary to learn from the mistakes of previous normative settlements and programmes: it shouldn’t be about creating an ideal city, an urban utopia that remains unobtainable. Utopian visions such as sustainable, compact or smart cities have continually produced standards that claim to be globally applicable for cities, regardless of their size and location or cultural, social and economic characteristics.

The road to a “liveable city” should not get bogged down by global reproducibility, competition and ranking, and it definitely shouldn’t be about creating an ideal standard product. Instead of repeating the mistakes of the sustainability debate and referencing best practice cities such as Curitiba in connection with sector-wide city development, the new debate should be centred around the local sociospatial appropriation process, not best practices. This process is characterised crucially by the specific, local conditions, relationship and interaction of the people with their environment.
This shift of focus offers the opportunity for actors to come together in specific groups and in real places, create processes and mechanisms to negotiate “liveable cities”. This answers the question, city for city, of how the term “liveable” should be defined. Processes for negotiating a liveable city for all citizens must be discussed qualitatively and according to certain principles such as participation and co-determination, but also subject to collective duties and reliability.

This should not disencumber cities from making their progress ascertainable and assessable. The discussion surrounding indicators should be limited to determining minimum standards, which are absolutely crucial for urban quality of life, e.g. freedom from fear or freedom from want. This must be agreed internationally. Everything else should be determined locally, because the proper benchmarks for public space, availability of mobility, access to education and living space etc only exist there. These aspects and their interactions can only be weighed up at a local level.

The inherent appropriation by people contained in the term “liveable city” must be realised during implementation. Only then, through this collective process can the quality of life of the individual become equal to the quality of the city as a whole.

Alexandra Linden
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    Astrid Ley
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      Alexander Jachnow