President's Viewpoint -

Livability 101

Originally published in the 2006 newsletter of the American Institute of Architects, Westchester Mid-Hudson Chapter.

by Michael Shilale, AIA, LEED - October 2006

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It seems every day now I read a news story telling of skyrocketing home prices and property taxes. While the stories are plentiful the solutions seem elusive.

Perhaps the high quality of life in our communities make the availability of homes scarce and prices escalate. This however cannot explain the concomitant escalation of property taxes. It seems poor planning is the culprit. Poor planning - neglecting to balance economic development with zoning restrictions and incentives. Yes zoning can also encourage the kinds of development a community desires. The problem is most communities do not know what they want or how to get it. Poor planning - by communities obsessed with open space preservation and large lot zoning, neglecting the huge direct and indirect costs associated with this myopic vision. This needs to change and many communities are trying.

Balancing quality of life, economic development, property rights, and environmental needs is no simple task. Last month I wrote of Robert Bruegmann’s idea of a community planning balance sheet. Bruegmann suggests public policy should “attempt to draw up a balance sheet showing which kinds of environment achieve the most benefits for the most people without unduly harming any group.” This community planning balance sheet should evaluate and analyze the impact on taxes, services, schools, economy, and the environment, of many of our planning, zoning, economic and environmental actions or inactions.

AIA has created a resource for communities to help develop a vision for the future and make decisions that will lead to more livable communities. “Livability 101” answers the question, what makes a community livable? It then gives us the tools to make good decisions about our communities.

It should be required reading for any community leader, business leader, planner, environmentalist, engineer or architect. It includes a “Top Ten” list of principles for livable communities. 1. Design on a Human Scale, 2. Provide choices 3. Encourage Mixed-Use development. 4. Preserve Urban Centers. 5. Vary Transportation Options. 6. Build Vibrant Public Spaces. 7. Create a Neighborhood Identity. 8. Protect Environmental Resources. 9. Conserve Landscapes. 10. Design Matters. It is available for download at

Community planning and downtown redevelopment are happening all over. In my own town, Clarkstown, attempts to think holistically and address community issues comprehensively are beginning. In an effort to encourage downtown redevelopment and provide affordable rental housing, Clarkstown is permitting one-bedroom apartments to be constructed over the existing retail spaces in several hamlet downtowns. While it remains to be seen if the return on the investment for property owners will actually be enough to encourage the redevelopment it is a step in the right direction.

Downtown New City, the county seat in Rockland, has embarked on a Main Street Revitalization and Downtown visioning project. This is partly in reaction to a very poorly planned North Main Street revitalization project that was concerned more with traffic, vehicular and signage needs at the expense of aesthetic, pedestrian and community building concerns. Fortunately an interstate type sign bridge was removed from the project before and further aesthetic damage could occur.

The visioning session in New City began as many do with a visual preference survey. Every visual preference survey I have seen seems to yield similar results. People long for the “main street” and traditional New England downtown image we have all come to know and love. Unfortunately the Nyacks, Piermonts, Cold Springs and similar communities that we all want, would be impossible to build today given our present zoning requirements. There seems to be a loss in translation of needs, goals, dreams and desires of our communities when codified into zoning, planning, and economic incentives. Our present package of zoning, planning and economic incentives creates the strip mall, the large lot subdivision, and segregated zoning. These parameters make the communities we love so much, impossible to rebuild, expand or recreate.

This is the fault of architects, planners, engineers and land use attorneys who fail to understand, communicate and advocate for better communities. This is changing as I have alluded to. However, more work needs to be done.

The failures of the past understandably make communities reticent to change. We need successful examples of community development to encourage, expand, and create the communities we all want and need. We need communities that will be more safe, secure, beautiful, livable and sustainable for ourselves and our families.

Sustainability does not only mean environmental sustainability. As the “Livability 101” guide states, “What good is it to solve an economic problem if it causes environmental degradation that will require additional funds for clean up? And what good is a solution to an environmental crisis if it wracks economic havoc on its citizens? In either case the community –the system as a whole- suffers.” We need environmental and economic sustainability. Change will occur. We need to encourage the kinds of change that will help us build communities we all seem to want and need.

It is time community planning moves beyond, my father’s old adage “last one in shuts the door.”