How often is it, that while traveling through a vibrant college town, or a quaint lakeside village, we think to ourselves: I could live here; if I lived here, I would be happy. Yet few of us have the option of uprooting our families and livelihoods, and relocating on a whim to the first picturesque town we see.
Furthermore, the image we see of a place while on vacation is very different from how it really is day in and day out. For one thing, we are different, because we are on vacation. We are not working, not schooling our children, not running errands, not participating in community life, in short, not LIVING there. Yet, something about these places is compelling enough, that we desire to recreate some aspect of it in our own communities. There is something there that makes them look LIVABLE.
But what exactly is LIVABLE? The dictionary definition, suitable for living in, doesn't quite seem to cover it.
To get at a better definition, let's consider what people look for when shopping for a home. In Chicago, at a minimum, they seek neighborhoods that have good schools, low crime, a stable community, easy accessibility to other parts of the city, and, of course, housing they can afford. When they identify a few areas that meet these categories, they get a little more demanding: they'd like stores and restaurants they can walk to, preferably not surrounded by vast parking lots; community spaces, such as coffee shops and bookstores. Maybe some public green space, such as a park or recreational path, ideally completely separated from car traffic. They want a place where they can feel their children are safe; a place that offers a respite from the stresses of the workweek.
When they start dreaming a little more, they envision a neighborhood that celebrates it's unique characteristics and offerings, be they cultural, ethnic, architectural, or perhaps culinary. They imagine a community in which fosters diversity, but allows the neighbors to create and participate in their own culture that sets them apart from all others. A community that is able to look forward and anticipate its future needs, and plans how to meet those needs in resourceful, homegrown ways.
Carried along on this dream wave, they start to envision ways they could create a healthier, more peaceful area by simply going about their lives a little differently. Because the community offers local, street-level resources, the begin to replace driving with biking and walking. Because community members actively participate in their very own local economy, independently-owned, community-based businesses and merchants can flourish, and further strengthen the community. Because less time is spent driving around in a car, this community enjoys a more leisurely pace of life. Because people are present on the street, community vigilance and safety are enhanced. Because people feel safe and comfortable on their streets, they engage in outdoor projects that go beyond their own fenced front yard, such as, perhaps, cultivating a community garden or sprucing up a blighted area. And everywhere, they keep running into people they know -- talking, interacting, building community.
A dream? If it is, some people in some places have started living it. Sure, the imagined version is always more rosy than the one actually lived. Kind of like the town you visit while on vacation. But if we can only envision more highways, more parking lots and more megastores to take our money, we're guaranteed to get just that.