On why livability is different from sustainability

I really like this essay over at newgeography.com from Alan Pisarski about “Livability and All That”.

Pisarski writes:

In an unkind moment a reporter asked the present DOT Secretary Ray LaHood what he meant by livable, given that the department had just added it to its criteria for giving away money. He replied vaguely it was something about being able to walk to work and the park and a restaurant, to a doctor and a few more things.

Well it turns out I was living the livable life style when I was growing up in Queens, New York in the fifties and didn’t know it. Here all along I just thought we were poor.

The quote captures so much about the newest incarnation of pro-environmental, pro-urban-density, pro-transit packaged thinking that I’m troubled by. First–way to go, Alan. As a kid who came from a farm family with no money, it irritates me the way people equate professors with class privilege all the time. Yes, we have privilege, and many, many of my colleagues come from families that had money. But others of us took a long road out of poverty to get to the academy, and if we succeed (which isn’t easy), we become like men without a country: we no longer belong to our working class or poor roots (where people are as likely to spit at us for being elite if they don’t know where we came from) nor do we belong among the never-been-hungry people who surround us.

But more than that, I like how the quote helps us contrast livability with sustainability. I hear it constantly: that livability is just sustainability in a new guise. It’s not. Sustainability has take its own knocks for being ill-defined, but livability privileges local comfort and amenity over other environmental goals. There’s nothing wrong with livability, but sustainability it is not.

I started trouble at dinner the other night saying that i don’t think that Manhattan is sustainable, no matter how livable it is. Please. A walking environment for I-bankers who jet off to global playspaces and hold the strings of a global capitalist world that is killing the environments of the global poor? Oh, but they walk and bike more so IT MUST BE SUSTAINABLE. Yay, us. I suppose it is marginally better if the corporate class (me included) takes transit rather than drives, but we are fools to forget the marginality of that improvement–the rearranging-the-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic aspects of it.

I understand Manhattan is more than just I-bankers and the global rich, but…it still has I-bankers and the global rich, and their participation in the destruction of environments doesn’t begin and end with whether they drive a car–no matter how fixated environmentalists, planners, and people like LaHood have become with treating cars like the only environmental problem Americans have dirty hands on.

Don’t blame you, don’t blame me, blame the driver behind the tree…