What Makes a Community Livable?

By David Klement August 31, 2009

It is a given that nearly everyone wants to live in a “livable” community. Only masochists and fame-starved reality-show contestants choose to live in a place that’s, well, unlivable, and then only for a limited period. (Think ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s desperate effort to land a spot on I’m a Celebrity—Get Me Out of Here in the jungles of Costa Rica this spring.)

Livability is the sizzle that chambers of commerce and economic development councils everywhere do their best to sell to outsiders living in, presumably, not-so-livable places. It’s a word local leaders often use in the continuing debate over growth, density and downtown development.

What defines a livable community is subjective. To a resident of Wasilla, Alaska, Sarasota or Bradenton may seem quite unlivable, especially on a typical 98-degree, 100-percent-humidity summer day. But many Southwest Floridians would consider Wasilla the last place they would want to live, especially, say, in January.

Still, some qualities register higher on most livability scales than others. And—surprise, Sunshine State—a perfect climate doesn’t head the list, at least not in the view of Robert H. McNulty, the consultant who wrote the book, literally, on community livability. McNulty, founder and president of Partners for Livable Communities, believes there are qualities more important than perpetual sunshine and sugar-sand beaches that make a community desirable. Not that sun and sand don’t matter; check with the snowbirds from Michigan and Minnesota splashing in the surf of Siesta Beach on that typical January day. But they’re part of a bigger picture that defines true livability, according to this leader of community design.  

In anticipation of McNulty’s Sept. 30 visit, we asked him to give us a preview of his thoughts on what makes a community livable.

Livable communities, says McNulty, don’t just happen. They are created by careful planning, teamwork and a commitment to leaving nobody behind. They include a concern for the oldest among us as well as the youngest. And they exhibit a concern for the environment that goes beyond the typical battle lines of the growth vs. no-growth adversaries.

No silver bullet or magic wand will transform Sarasota-Manatee into the kind of ideal livable communities that they aspire to be, he says. But there are steps that can help us get there. Case in point: Chattanooga, Tenn., has transformed itself from a near-bankrupt, polluted industrial wasteland rife with racial tensions and social division in the 1980s to an exciting and dynamic place to live. It’s become one of the few major cities in the United States that has reversed a long decline to start growing again.

The six essential qualities of a livable community, according to McNulty:

A Healthy Economy

McNulty collaborated with the National Endowment for the Arts in 1977 to promote the diversity and consensus-building needed in the recovery of the American city. “We learned rapidly that the No. 1 agenda is economic development,” he says. “A healthy, vibrant economy with broad job choices is essential.” And those jobs must be sustainable, not based on an exhaustible resource, like timbering or coal mining. Relevant to our relatively low-paying service-oriented economy, the jobs “must create opportunities for upward mobility.” And, relevant to Florida’s declining support of higher education: Such an economy requires facilities for and a commitment to training and education.


Echoing a familiar refrain, “Early on, we discovered government is not the answer to all of our problems,” McNulty says. “It takes a team working together to create a livable community.” Such a team should include 35 to 40 persons representing a diversity of backgrounds, interests and ages, from college students to seniors. McNulty suggests, “They should probably get to know each other a bit, maybe visit another community that has gone through the process, and then they should design a process for the greater Sarasota area.” That process, known as “strategic visioning,” would “actively engage citizens to learn what they believe makes a livable city.” This assessment should consider what current assets need to be enhanced to become more accessible, more affordable and more valuable to all.

In Chattanooga, McNulty says, that process was begun by a group of 35- to 45-year-old leaders “who were empowered by working together for two or three years, got to know each other well, and then mobilized their citizens to be involved.” The plan they created resulted, 10 years later, in Chattanooga being recognized by the United Nations as a worldwide model for sustainable development.


Include in your plan “people who have never had an equal opportunity for upward mobility, which is essential to livability,” says McNulty. That would include the disadvantaged, the disabled and the underserved. “Those who have traditionally been overlooked need to know they have a place in a truly livable community,” he stresses.


Aging is a huge issue, McNulty says—especially for the Sarasota-Manatee area, with a higher proportion of residents over 65 than any other region in the U.S. The Institute for the Ages recently announced by SCOPE has already identified that factor as key to Sarasota’s future economic vitality, making this initiative an obvious point of entry in the livability equation. Of particular importance, says McNulty, is “removal of barriers so mature adults feel comfortable with every aspect of life.” He also notes a trend to form joint ventures with colleges and universities to provide housing, long-term care, education and social events. “If you have a college or university that is not falling over backwards to accommodate the 60-plus, then they’re missing a big opportunity,” he says.


Here, McNulty is talking about the very youngest, from birth to the age of five, ensuring that they have proper nutrition, learn appropriate skills and receive proper instruction to become future productive citizens. “We must nurture the young, put value on all of the elements necessary to a healthy, stimulating childhood to create a livable community for all,” he says.


A healthy environment is key to livability, says McNulty, and that is not a conservative vs. a liberal issue but an economic one. All of the issues in the national debate on sustainable economic activity factor into this issue: renewable energy production, reduced dependence on foreign oil suppliers, water conservation, reduced air emissions and the like.

Urban design is also related to livability, says McNulty, and that includes “cultural infrastructure”—a good library system, venues for the performing arts, galleries and related amenities—which Sarasota has in abundance. All that needs to be arranged in a sustainable mix, to serve the over-60 population as well as the “young and the restless between one and 25.”

And yes, that means a walkable community different from the gated subdivisions that have dominated local development in recent years, he says. The guru of livability chooses to live in a community of 200 homes “that has bus service, that has neighbors biking to work, that has continuity, a social center. And I think more people are going to live in communities like that.”

And the raging debate between pro- and anti-growth factions may be about to run its course, McNulty feels. “The issue is usually defined around tree-huggers vs. business vs. property values,” he says. “But it is being redefined by the price of fuel, clean-air standards, the desire for walkability and convenience.”

McNulty dislikes the word “mass” in referring to transit, preferring to think in terms of “alternative transportation.”

“The word ‘mass’ sounds so capital-intensive everyone is afraid of it. Mass can also be something as simple as the old trolley car system, which is coming back in a  number of places because it’s a lot cheaper than subways, a lot cheaper than light rail, more user-friendly. Anything that moves more than the two or three people that normally sit in a private vehicle is my definition of mass transit. So there is a whole set of options from walking to bikes to streetcars that are beginning to be more popular.”

To finance needed infrastructure improvements, McNulty recommends public-private partnerships, “so the whole burden is not solely on the backs of the county and city and they say we have a huge deficit and can’t afford anything.” He cites Charleston, S.C., as a model for a city that “gets it” in this area. The city recently raised a $25 million endowment to take its downtown parks off the tax rolls through a combination of foundations, individuals and community organizations. “The parks are maintained by philanthropy as a key infrastructure of their values,” he says. Such partnerships were popular during the Reagan administration, he says, and they are being revived in many areas to enhance civic resources.

Obviously, there’s a lesson here for foundation-wealthy Sarasota.

Though the arts aren’t on the top of his list, McNulty does not diminish their role in creating livability, reminding that his Partnership began 33 years ago in league with the National Endowment for the Arts.

“We really do believe that arts and culture, heritage and design, are essential building blocks for a livable community,” he says. But they must be inclusive. “If everyone is rich and famous and everyone is going to the opera, then they stand alone. But if you have special needs, if you have health, if you have jobs, then you have to put them to work as marketing agendas, as a brand that makes people think of Sarasota as exciting and dynamic.”

In other words, the arts can’t just appeal to affluent retirees. “You have to keep your young people, so after they go to college they decide to stay in Sarasota and create businesses and jobs,” he says. “It’s the arts and culture and the natural environment and attractiveness of the community and its places that create this sort of magnet that attracts newcomers to invest in the community or move there or pull in young people. They are your natural resources.”

Expanding on that idea, McNulty says every community needs a new generation, attracted by the quality of life, to develop the investment capital needed to create new jobs. “It’s not just people sitting in the audience,” he says. “It’s the reputation a community has to hang on to talented youngsters so they don’t move away after college, and to attract talented people from around the world who say, ‘I like Sarasota, I’m going to move there and maybe I’ll open up a new business, and get involved.’” ■

Robert H. McNulty

President, Partnership for Livable Communities




Speaker, facilitator, consultant, author


Led or consulted on community-building projects in more than 300 U.S. cities and 100 foreign countries

Published Works

Co-author of The Economics of Amenity, Return of the Livable City, Entrepreneurial American City and The State of the American Community. Frequent contributor to national media.


“Quality of life is a strategy, not a luxury.”

David Klement is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership at USF Sarasota-Manatee, and former editorial editor of The Bradenton Herald.

Filed under
Show Comments