USA Banner

Official US Government Icon

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure Site Icon

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - May/June 2000

The Federal Transportation Livability Initiative - Building Livable Communities for The 21st Century

by Elizabeth E. Fischer

"In the 21st century, increasingly, a livable community will be an economically powerful one."

- Vice President Al Gore, Sept. 2, 1998

The Clinton-Gore Livability Initiative, "Building Livable Communities for the 21st Century," helps communities across America grow in ways that ensure a better quality of life and strong, sustainable economic growth. This initiative, launched a year ago, is strengthening the federal government's role as a partner with the growing number of state and local efforts to build "livable communities" by encouraging coordination on new initiatives, improving coordination of existing programs, and conducting appropriate outreach to key constituent groups.

The Three E's: Environment, Economy, Social Equity

Lexington, Va., has a historic downtown area with light standards and highway route signs that are compatible with the surrounding brick buildings. (Photo by Elizabeth E. Fischer)

The livable community concept is based on the principles of sustainable development that focus on patterns of economic activity that produce environmental quality, economic prosperity, and social equity. The Livability Initiative goes further by providing tools and resources to encourage communities to collaborate to find new ways to manage land use, transportation, and other resources to ensure a high quality of life and strong, sustainable economic growth. Because communities know what is best for themselves, the community's perspectives are emphasized in all decision-making processes.

Why the Livability Movement?

Spurred by the prosperity of the post-World War II era and the resulting availability of affordable transportation, Americans began a migration from the cities to the suburbs. This began a fundamental shift in land-use development patterns and our sense of place.

The current challenges confronting urban, suburban, and rural communities are interrelated by the fact that land is being developed faster than the population is growing. However, it is the way in which land is being developed that causes the greatest problems. Haphazard development with no foresight about how the pieces fit together is called sprawl, and it is generally a sign of a deteriorating quality of life. The center city and older inner suburbs are being abandoned, leaving vast areas of infrastructure underused. Rural areas are seeing an erosion of environmental, cultural, and economic values.

However, we have continued to follow the urban emigration because our perception is that the suburbs have a plethora of resources - water, land for housing, materials for construction - to accommodate our expansion. Public policy and laws written in the last 60 years have encouraged this. Examples include Veterans Administration loans, current policies of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Internal Revenue Service's rules for mortgages.

Objectives of the Livability Initiative

The objective is to build livable communities for the 21st century - places where young and old can walk, bike, and play together; where historic neighborhoods are preserved; where farms, forests, and other green spaces are protected; where parents spend less time in traffic and more time with their children, spouses, and neighbors; where older neighborhoods can thrive once again. A livable community has safe streets, good schools, and public and private spaces that help foster a spirit of community.

Communities can become livable by implementing "smart growth" practices: Sustain prosperity and expand economic growth by building on past investments and preserving prime farm land for agricultural use. Enhance quality of life by reducing congestion to increase personal time, encouraging redevelopment of "brownfield" sites (abandoned, idled, or under-used commercial, industrial, or institutional properties, where investment for redevelopment or reuse is discouraged by the presence of light to moderate contamination from hazardous substances), and reducing threats to air and water quality and open space. Build a stronger sense of community by bringing citizens, businesses, and governments together to solve common problems and to work as partners with a common vision and mutually supporting goals.

Principles of the Livability Initiative

Communities know their needs best. The federal government's role is to provide incentives for communities to work together; align departmental actions in support of local smart growth initiatives; and supply information, tools, and resources to empower citizens and communities.

Sometimes in the past, federal policies, rules, and regulations hampered community-based decisions. Federal agencies are now working together to assist communities in attaining their goals for livability and economic development. For example, federal transportation programs and planning processes link safety concerns, land-use development, environmental quality, the needs of disadvantaged populations, and economic development into an integrated approach to community livability.

The comprehensive, coordinated effort by the Department of Transportation (DOT) will help communities use their transportation plans, resources, and programs to make decisions resulting in a better quality of life. The transportation livability initiative will help communities use existing DOT programs more effectively as they seek to improve safety, reduce the growth in congestion, contribute to greater economic prosperity, and provide easier access to jobs, and greater accessibility in an environmentally supportive way.

Local and State Livability Effort

There is a national desire for livable communities. Pioneering livability initiatives are arising from cities, towns, and counties. New partnerships and programs are emerging at local and state levels.

In the November 1998 elections, the voters approved more than 200 measures that will trigger more than $7.5 billion in additional state and local spending for conservation. The success of 72 percent of the measures on the ballot show strong constituency and grassroots engagement.1 The 1999 elections resulted in more than 60 livability initiatives successfully supported on local, regional, and state ballots.

Across the nation, cities, towns, and counties are pioneering a wide range of innovative responses to the challenges of sprawl. Austin, Texas, overhauled its land development code with the focus on neighborhood development, including in-fill development opportunities. St. Louis, Mo., authorized transit-oriented development for integrated land use, transportation planning, and walkable communities. Minneapolis, Minn., as part of the statewide Smart Growth Network, established a partnership of non-profit organizations, government agencies, and businesses.

Furthermore, jointly developed programs and partnerships to encourage and support local livability efforts are emerging. In Utah, a Quality Growth Commission was formed to help with sound growth management and planning statewide. In Greater Chicago, 200 chief executive officers created a process to examine public policies, institutional changes, and private investments for the benefit of the metropolitan area.

The Administration's Livability Goals

The Clinton-Gore administration has established five goals for livable communities:

  1. Preserve green spacesthat promote clean air and water; sustain wildlife; and provide people with places to walk, play, and relax.
  2. Ease traffic congestionby improving road planning, strengthening existing transportation systems, and expanding use of alternative transportation as appropriate for each community and its greater region.
  3. Restore a sense of communityby fostering citizen and private sector participation in local planning, including the placement of schools, public facilities, and transportation systems and facilities.
  4. Promote collaboration among neighboring communities- cities, suburbs, or rural areas - to develop regional growth strategies and address common issues such as crime and safety as part of a larger injury prevention and healthy living agenda.
  5. Enhance economic competitivenessby nurturing a high quality of life that attracts well-trained workers and cutting-edge industries.

DOT's Livability Goals

DOT has added the following goals as part of its Livability Initiative:

  • Encourage linked transportation and land-use planning.
  • Allow communities to choose among transportation alternatives.
  • Promote consideration of actions that make better use of the existing system (carpools, van pools, walking, bicycling).
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions through transportation strategies. To reach this goal, the department established the DOT Center for Climate Change and Environmental Analysis. The center is conducting research, policy analysis, and outreach to promote comprehensive multinational approaches to reducing transportation-related greenhouse gases.


Livability Is Community-Specific

This historic live oak canopy over this neighborhood street, formerly part of the old King's Highway, in Charleston, S.C., has caused great concern over the years to safety engineers. Yet, the trees remain as an important place-defining characteristic. (Photo by Elizabeth E. Fischer)

We must recognize that there is no single correct solution that is appropriate for every community. Each community determines its own mix. The role of federal and state governments is to inform - not direct - communities about patterns of future growth.

Again, the livability of a place is defined by the communities of that place. Livability seeks economic prosperity and a healthy environment without being focused on "no growth" or exclusively on environmental issues. Smart Growth, integrated planning, and other methods are used to achieve the livability of communities. All processes are inclusive and evolving.

A caveat is that small, autonomous governments may be limited in their ability to determine the impact of their land-use and transportation planning on neighboring communities or a region. Thus, they should consider working with others.

Livability is not defined by federal or state governments for communities. It is not environmental only nor is it a "no growth" ideal. Livability does not have fragmented planning and is not exclusive with specific and predicted outcomes predefined.

Current Transportation Practices

By following a "business as usual" stance, we will continue to plan only at the metropolitan and state levels. We will only consider laws that regulate air quality and give us the standards and criteria of the day for toxic pollutants. We continue to use fossil fuels as our primary energy source and drive vehicles that have high gas-consumption rates. New development is independently determined and randomly placed on the fringes. We are concerned only for the movement of vehicles, passengers, and freight and will continue to seek the ultimate goal of meeting congestion capacity needs for mobility.

Future Transportation Practices

By adopting a stance to support livable communities, our plans will consider not only local needs but the effects on the regions and the effects of our regional plans on the nation and the world. We will focus on global climate-change issues, including natural and greenhouse gas emissions, and adopt the Kyoto Protocol - an agreement drafted during the Kyoto [Japan] Conference in December 1997, in which 159 nations came together to set binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions to protect future generations. Environmentally friendly, alternative fuels are used by new vehicles. New development is built within the existing fabric following smart growth practices by building on brownfields and determining urban growth boundaries. Partnerships of the public and private sectors are the norm in determining local growth and development needs. The focus is on providing mobility and access to goods and services. We will find ways to balance the environment with the economy while being equitable to all socio-economic levels.

Planning Themes

The planning processes for livable communities are a holistic evaluation of the local environment, its land uses, and the community needs. Each of the following components and characteristics is integral to the success in making a community more livable.

  • Coalition-building.
  • Interdisciplinary planning.
  • Integration of the three E' (environment, economy, social equity).
  • Improvement of social equity.
  • Marketing.
  • Partnerships and civic infrastructure.
  • Resource use strategies.

    Value added project elements and activities.

  • Regional governance and planning.
Why Livability Planning?

At a recent meeting of the National Conference of Mayors, the mayors identified several common needs as important issues for the long-term viability of their cities:

  • Alternative transportation modes.
  • Actions to make the cities more aesthetically pleasing and energized or invigorated.
  • Environmentally sound storm-water management methods.
  • Safety from crime and from chemical and physical hazards.
  • Reduction of new infrastructure construction and retention of open/green space through in-fill development.

Project Criteria

Livable communities are affected at the project level. Thus, each project plan must address the following points:

  • Needs of the user.
  • Retention of place identity.
  • Safety and personal security.
  • Dedicated maintenance program.
  • Project champions from multidisciplinary teams.

Additional points that must be addressed are:

  • Coordinated transportation and land use plans.
  • Accessibility for all users.
  • Local and native vegetation.
  • Appropriate placement and use of signs and sign systems
  • Coordination with utilities for respectful placement and alignment.

Livability Web Sites

For more information about livable communities, please check the following Web sites:


1. Phyllis Meyers. Report on the 1998 Elections, Brookings Institute, January 1999.

Elizabeth E. Fischer is a landscape architect in FHWA's Office of Human Environment, which is a part of the Planning and Environment Core Business Unit. While at FHWA, she has worked on the National Scenic Byways and TCSP programs in addition to overseeing visual quality and aesthetics issues and coordinating the agency's livability activities. Prior to joining FHWA in 1992, she worked for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, where she developed and oversaw the state's scenic byways program. Fischer is a member of the Transportation Research Board committees on Landscape and Design (A2A05) and Historic and Archaeological Preservation (A1F05). She is also a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, in which she has held several positions of national leadership. She has a master's degree in landscape architecture from North Carolina State University. Her bachelor's degree from Randolph Macon College is in history and biology. She is a registered landscape architect in North Carolina.