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Assessing Neighborhood Livability: Evidence from LEED® for Neighborhood Development and New Urbanist Communities

Nicola A. Szibbo

Abstract

LEED® for Neighborhood Development has been rapidly adopted as the de-facto green neighborhood standard and is now used to measure the sustainability of neighborhood design in North America and around the world. Similar to previous LEED® green building rating systems, LEED®ND is heavily reliant on physical & environmental design criteria (such as compact urban form and transit accessibility), and is based on an expert-generated point system. LEED®ND excels at measuring ‘environmental sustainability’ through its stringent criteria; however, it fails to critically address important livability factors, namely socio-cultural and socio-economic factors. Furthermore, no study has critically examined how LEED®ND could better incorporate these missing factors through post-occupancy analysis. In fact, very little research at all has been done that examines the role of livability and social sustainability in LEED-ND neighborhoods. This paper assesses livability in four North American neighborhoods: two LEED®ND and two control suburban New Urbanist cases. This article also provides a series of recommendations for the rating system based on key survey findings.

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Acknowledgments

U.S. Green Building Council®, USGBC®, and LEED® are registered trademarks owned by the U.S. Green Building Council and are used with permission.

Introduction. LEED-ND: A Sustainable Neighborhood Rating System?

1Considered the gold standard in North America, the LEED®ND rating system is known as the premier and most widely used sustainable neighborhood rating system in North America. Recently, authors have dissected the LEED-ND rating system and have found that that it is generally unbalanced with regard to the three pillars of sustainability: people, planet and profit. From a structural standpoint, the rating system emphasizes environmental pillar of sustainability (Ameen et al. 2015, Wangel et al. 2016). Essentially, the pillar of social sustainability, in particular socio-economic and socio-cultural aspects which are often more difficult to quantify or qualify, have not been given the attention they deserve. Additionally, the rating system suffers from a lack of feedback from its residents and does not offer a performance-based mechanism of evaluation.

2Currently, a gap in the literature exists regarding post-occupancy analysis of LEED-ND neighborhoods, and how to tackle the difficult assessment of social sustainability. However, if sustainability is truly about the balance between economy, equity and environment (Campbell 1996, Wheeler 2004) and the developers of rating system are truly concerned with comfortably meeting the long-term and daily needs of its residents, then future revisions should be made to the rating system. These should include a) a post-occupancy method for regularly assessing social sustainability and resident needs, and b) better inclusion of socio-economic and socio-cultural measures that are important for neighborhood livability.

3Understanding the concept of livability is critical in any discussion of social sustainability. In my research I examine livability in four neighborhoods – two urban LEED-ND neighborhoods and two suburban New Urbanist neighborhoods and – in the Pacific Northwest. I conduct a mail-out mail back survey to determine what factors are most important for the residents of these neighborhoods. Although the findings are specific to the Pacific Northwest, the research is broadly applicable to the rating system itself (which is widely used), as I indicate potential gaps, areas of improvement and areas for future research. My research revealed interesting distinctions between what is important to both urban and suburban residents, and why someone chooses to live in a higher-density, sustainable neighborhood. Discovering what factors influence decision-making for choosing where to live is critical for urban planners, designers and developers in North America who want to encourage more compact, livable urban development.

Conceptualizing Livability

4While most of us would say we want to live and work in livable places, we rarely try to dissect and understand the precise meaning of the term. Donald Appleyard was the first urban theorist to use the term ‘livability’ in the 1970s and 1980s, and he specifically referenced the term with regard to the quality of neighborhood streets. Appleyard (1980, 1982) stipulated that livable neighborhood streets should be places of sanctuary and comfort, places that were healthy and protected from noise, places that were free from pollution and traffic intrusions, and places with a defined neighborhood territory, sense of community and neighborhood identity. With this simple, universal description, Appleyard set the basic parameters for defining livable places. As an academic, I have come to understand the definition to broadly mean “the suitability of a place for comfortably meeting a resident’s daily and long-term needs and desires.” However, I argue that there is much more to creating a livable place than merely checking items off a list – satisfying a set of generalized physical criteria does not necessarily result in a successful and sustainable urban environment.

5Livable places and neighborhoods are deeply contextualized environments – embedded within each place are unique historic, political, socio-economic and cultural factors. Often, these qualitative dimensions vary according to place and time. Most significantly, the people who ultimately live in such places have a measurable impact on their success, and the residents themselves determine how such developments are perceived more broadly by the public and by the media. Research on urban design and on the social factors of architecture can play an active role in the success of livable communities by contributing to the design of new neighborhoods and ensuring that both livability and equity are addressed. New residents ultimately contextualize and create nuanced versions of what livability means to them on individual and social levels. This article explores what livability means to residents in four distinct ‘neighborhoods in North America, and the implications for sustainability and eco-urbanism on a broader level.

Livability vs. Sustainability

6In the literature, the concepts of ‘livability’ and ‘sustainability’ have often been used to situate academic research within the field of city planning and urban design. The primary difference between ‘livability’ studies and ‘sustainability’ studies is that livability studies put a much greater emphasis on human and social factors. As a concept, livability is not an independent variable; to some extent it is dependent on the ‘triple-bottom line’ sustainability model (figure 1). Put differently, livability is a very specific, nuanced, and qualitative component of the broader concept of sustainability.

Figure 1. The Triple Bottom Line or Three-Legged Stool of Sustainability. While livability is not expressly named in this simplistic model, it is a critical and integral component, as modeled in Figure 2.

Figure 1. The Triple Bottom Line or Three-Legged Stool of Sustainability. While livability is not expressly named in this simplistic model, it is a critical and integral component, as modeled in Figure 2.

Source: author.

7Sustainability studies are limited to variables that are typically easier to measure, variables that relate directly to the measurement of the built environment and building performance. Although scholars have described sustainability as being composed of ‘three pillars’ – economy, equity and environment (Wheeler 2004, Campbell 1996, Godschalk 2004) – the environment pillar has come to dominate many sustainability-related studies (Ameen et al. 2015, Wangel et al. 2016). These primarily quantitative studies are also not necessarily place-based or concerned with qualitative aspects, as they fail to examine the presence and effects of social and cultural feedback in housing and neighborhood design. This is also the case with many branded ‘ecocities’, ‘eco-districts’ and ‘eco-neighborhoods’ today. Such is the case with Vancouver’s ‘ecodensity’ strategy, which saw extensive public outcry and debate with regards to affordability and diversity (Rosol 2013). Within these spaces, the emphasis is put on the environmental feedback loops – the ‘eco’ – in housing and building science, rather than holistically addressing socio-economic and socio-cultural concerns.

8Livability studies are unique in that they recognize that social factors are equally important as economic and environmental factors in terms of informing planning policy and the design of the built environment. In my research, I conceptualize livability as a critical component of sustainability – a specific piece of the ‘triple-bottom line’ model that prioritizes human and social factors over the economy pillar and the equity pillar (figure 2).

Figure 2. Livability as a critical component of sustainability.

Figure 2. Livability as a critical component of sustainability.

Source: author.

People, Place and Social Equity

9‘Livability’ studies are inherently tied to people, place, and social equity. Livability studies attempt to simultaneously measure built form, observe and record community behavior, and determine user satisfaction with a specific urban environment. There exists a large body of research on ‘livability’ studies, mostly regarding the design of streets and public interaction in plazas. Livability studies were originally inspired by the writings of Kevin Lynch (1960), who theorized that resident perceptions of the city should inform future design processes. Appleyard, Lynch and Meyer (1965) and Appleyard and Lintell (1972) also pioneered methods for early livability studies. Although the definition of livability varies widely in the literature,aries widely in the lio sitcontent=)972) 5ilitting equit the definy72)n3" id="txte">for cspeentialuH"> & streets and public interaction in plazas. Livability studhe de litAlthl2hrefitAlily ity and environment (Whetnfor futureFairviewhref="29, ORviror Thban hrec120/i972) alic urban en my research I examine liey failhelphe cakeeprame ths how suchaturertablivanAccessrs haveinkwould suresearchJilihJicly ublic ustievtion i ailivabarcht">Figure 3. Livability as a critical component of sustainability.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. The Triple Bottom Line or Three-Legged Stool of Sustainability. While livability is not expressly named in this simplistic model, it is a critical and integral component, as modeled in Figure 2.
Credits Source: author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/3120/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 64k
Title Figure 2. Livability as a critical component of sustainability.
Credits Source: author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/3120/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 324k
Title Figure 3. The inclusion of front porches—shown here in suburban Fairview Village, OR—is a key principle in the design of New Urbanist neighborhoods. This helps to keep “eyes on the street” and follows the thinking of urbanist Jane Jacobs, who believed this would aid in maintaining the vitality and safety of neighborhoods.
Credits Source: author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/3120/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 336k
Title Figure 4. The LEED-ND Rating System illustrates how points and credits are awarded in order to certify a neighborhood as a sustainable one.
Credits Source: USGBC ®
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/3120/img-4.png
File image/png, 202k
Title Figure 5. Case study comparison.
Credits Source: author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/3120/img-5.png
File image/png, 222k
Title Figure 6. Cross-comparison of LEED-ND and New Urbanist cases. The cases were picked as they were relatively similar in size and urban form, and they all are located in the Pacific Northwest.
Credits Source: author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/3120/img-6.png
File image/png, 3.6M
Title Figure 7. #1 Most Frequent Mode of Travel in A Typical Week in each of the four neighborhoods. Notably walking is the most popular mode choice in Hoyt Yards, Pearl District, Portland.
Credits Source: author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/3120/img-7.png
File image/png, 15k
Title Figure 8. Co-operative housing in Olympic Village in Vancouver's Southeast False Creek. The affordability of new neighborhoods is a concern for the majority of residents in all of the neighborhoods surveyed.
Credits Source: author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/3120/img-8.jpg
File image/jpeg, 416k
Title Figure 9. Residents in suburban New Urbanist Fairview Village in Fairview, OR have access to open space views.
Credits Source: author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/3120/img-9.jpg
File image/jpeg, 456k
Title Figure 10. Hoyt Yards in Portland, Oregon illustrates how to incorporate natural settings into urban environment.
Credits Source: author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/3120/img-10.jpg
File image/jpeg, 380k
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References

Electronic reference

Nicola A. Szibbo, « Assessing Neighborhood Livability: Evidence from LEED® for Neighborhood Development and New Urbanist Communities », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 14 | 2016, Online since 09 October 2016, connection on 16 December 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/3120 ; DOI : 10.4000/articulo.3120

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About the author

Nicola A. Szibbo

Nicola Szibbo is an Adjunct Professor at Hawaiʻi Pacific University, Affiliate Faculty at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and a practicing city and regional planner at the City and County of Honolulu. She holds a PhD in City and Regional Planning from the University of California, Berkeley in May 2015. Email: nszibbo@hpu.edu

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