Livable cities are cities that address a wide range of needs and aspirations. Aristotle probably defined it first, when he wrote that when several villages come together to form what he called the polis or the city-state, while they do so to become self-supporting, its ongoing purpose is to enable the people to enjoy a good life. A good life is understood as the social pursuits of
- artistic, intellectual and spiritual growth.
Trade and commerce become a means, not an end.
- Conviviality is the cafe, the travellers inn, the tavern, the sports field and festival.
- Citizenship is people taking care of their own, sorting out their own issues, educating their children, caring for the weak, infirm and elderly – the meeting hall, the classrooms and the school of life, providing places to care for those who need help.
- Artistic and intellectual growth is also about infrastructure and buildings. The artist guild hall, the public places where people challenge each other, the concert hall and the outdoor theatre, the academic and research institutes and the libraries and museums.
- In older times, spiritual growth was the churches and temples of formal religion. In our secular era, even non-religious people still have a need for sanctuary, for refuge and for sacred places to celebrate the rites of passage: birth, coming of age, marriage, death.
However, in today's world it is much harder to achieve this because as Christopher Alexander, the author of A Pattern Language, writes, "cars turn towns into mincemeat". Travel to the historic towns of Italy and walk the car-free streets starting at 4 p.m. when it seems the whole town turns out for the promenade. The citizens walk the streets and connect with each other. They head toward the cafes and engage in conversation without an appointment. They walk in the middle of the streets because there are no cars, no trucks, only pedestrians, bicycles, wheelchairs and the occasional electric delivery cart or golf-cart-sized taxi.
When one has to drive many kilometres to work, the community ceases to be a community - it becomes a dormitory. People do not encounter each other because they are not there. Children are driven to schools, so they lose the role models of adults all around. Children are hard-wired to learn by observing and interacting with adults. Put them in isolated, segregated campuses and they don't learn how to grow up. The adults don't offer them apprenticeships and internships because the adults are somewhere else.
If we are to create livable cities, we need to create places where people live... where they are physically present before work, during work, after work and where they get to work by walking.