California Department of Transportation

California Department of Transportation Division of Transportation Planning Office of Community Planning November 6, 2001

"We already know the results of traffic congestion, air pollution and unregulated urban sprawl. We must continue to work hard to weave together the threads of transportation, commerce, health safety and the environment to build more livable communities." Jeff Morales, Director, California Department of Transportation

Definition of Livable Communities

The definition of "livable communities" can be as diverse as the individuals and groups discussing the concept. Livable communities have long been associated with other concepts like "walkable communities," "neo-traditional design," "new urbanism," and "traditional town planning." The term is also often used interchangeably with "smart growth." Smart growth evolved as a challenge to decades of low-density patterns of development-or sprawl-following World War II. If the poster child for low-density development is sprawl, the concept of livable communities has been held up as the iconic alternative to sprawl.

The characteristics that make livable communities so appealing are also the characteristics and principles that support smart growth. These characteristics include: mixed land uses; compact development; range of housing choices; walkable neighborhoods; sense of place; preservation of open space and farmland; rehabilitation and redevelopment in existing communities; and, variety of transportation choices. In the area of transportation planning livable communities are supported by terms like intermodal, integrated, seamless and pedestrian/bicycle friendly.

Livable communities are also communities that: embrace the design, land use and transportation elements of new urbanism as well as the other elements above; embrace the connections between land use and transportation; and, encourage human-scale design elements in the built environment. These communities usually address a broader concern for quality of life issues through active and continuous public participation throughout the community planning process.

The "livable communities" concept has become imbedded in the Ahwahnee Principles (see attached), the Charter for the Congress for New Urbanism, and other smart growth initiatives around the country. These are all emerging and maturing tools and the "principles of choice" for land use and transportation planning. Urban critic Jane Jacobs argues that the universal popularity of these principles comes from people wanting a return to interesting places--places that are more coherent and livable.

Smart growth has exploded onto the national consciousness as one of the most critical issues confronting this country.1 Polls across the country indicate that the widely held belief is that communities can no longer afford the patterns of low-density suburban development called 'sprawl.' This is not a call to limit growth. It's a growing call for metropolitan development that serves the economic, environmental and social needs of all communities by encouraging reinvestment in existing communities as an alternative to suburban sprawl.

When applied to transportation, livable communities ensure that environmental, social and economic considerations are factored into decisions affecting transportation activity. They ensure that transportation planning and design guidelines consider the human environment such as housing, employment, and community development.2

It's an attempt to create compact and efficient growth patterns responsive to the needs of the people at all income levels while maintaining the quality of life of the community.3 These patterns of development blend housing with business and services, thus encouraging protection of open spaces and rural areas. Livable communities have neighborhoods that are safe and convenient for walking and bicycling, which have a range of housing options for people of all income levels, have a balance in jobs-to-housing ratios, and have access to a variety of transportation options.

Livable communities recognize the clear connection between land use and transportation. They understand that transportation influences the shape of their communities. When the primary mode of transportation was walking, communities were very compact. The advent of automobiles allowed even greater freedom and independence. But as our communities expanded so did the pace of growth beyond established community centers. Today, many would argue that our transportation system is too dependent on privately owned vehicles and our communities are designed to serve automobiles rather than to serve people.4

Livable communities embrace sustainable transportation systems that meet people's needs equitably, foster a healthy environment, provide a broad, balanced transportation system in which the private vehicle and public transport, cycling, and walking are all viable options. They embrace transportation systems that are interconnected between jurisdictions and modes.5 They invest more in the infrastructure of the current community in order to build a livable and vibrant city center.

The land-use practices of livable communities result in reduced traffic congestion and commute times, reduced air pollution, less reliance on fossil fuels, preservation of habitat and open spaces, an equitable distribution of economic resources, and a heightened sense of community. These communities have contributed to a decrease in vehicle miles traveled and non-work trips and more often include safe bicycle and pedestrian facilities, as well as recognizable destinations. Additionally, their street designs allow them to be more effectively served by transit. They value the "main street" characteristics of their downtown and state highways that run through their towns, and incorporate community values and design to the extent that it does not jeopardize safety or operational needs.6

There are several actions in the area of transportation that communities can take to become more livable communities that include: transportation alternatives and new transit starts; and, initiatives in transit-oriented development (TOD).7 These TOD initiatives are moderate to higher density developments located within easy walks of major transit stops, generally with a mix of residential, employment and shopping opportunities designed for pedestrians. These initiatives facilitate transit use and reduce automobile dependent land use without excluding the auto.

TOD initiatives benefit the livability of a community through: increase in transit ridership; reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT); improved air quality; reduced need for a second auto; improved availability of affordable housing; improved jobs/housing balance; increase in walking; enhanced quality of life and economic development; reduction in infrastructure costs; and, preservation of farmland and open space.

Within neighborhoods and towns, local communities are stirring a new movement of citizens acting together to solve community problems. It's a nonpartisan movement that crosses jurisdictions and operates on a shoestring. It's a movement that begins with civic dialogue and leads to public action.8

Livable communities engage the public by identifying opportunities for public participation, instilling effective public participation techniques and best practices, and communicating to the public when and how to be involved. They reaffirm their commitment to public participation by listening to all voices throughout the planning and decision-making process. Livable communities are empowered to participate, they expect greater accountability from public officials, and scrutinize projects to ensure that they are worthy of public investment. They also understand that no issue is so technically compelling that it cannot be challenged.

Livable communities embrace integrating and balancing land use with transportation decisions, projects, plans and activities. These communities encourage design that is people and neighborhood-oriented, promotes compact development, supports land uses that are mixed-income and mixed-use; and,encourages early and active public involvement, thereby assuring the public has an opportunity to help shape the substance of the community's planning process.

Livable communities endorse polices that will result in transportation investments that support long-term economic viability of communities, foster the highest and best land uses, and expand transportation choices in an equitable manner to people in all segments of society. They support a collaborative, comprehensive and integrated approach.

By integrating land use and transportation decisions, livable communities can influence land use patterns and enhance quality of life by conserving energy, reducing air pollution, providing more housing choices for all incomes, and preserving sensitive habitat and open space. Livable communities ensure that projects will influence jobs and housing in proximity to one another, minimize the cost of public services, reflect community-sensitive solutions and exhibit a mix of uses and densities that support a balanced transportation system.

Livable communities understand that they impact non-motorized transportation and transit ridership, reduce vehicle miles traveled, address congestion, and foster a sense of community. They realize that by integrating land use and transportation decisions, vehicle mobility and safety will be balanced with multimodal options and community values.

Livable Community Strategies

The National Governors' Association Principles of Smart Growth illustrate the policies that support livable communities as well as smart growth. The policy, entitled "Principles for Better Land Use," was eventually adopted at the annual summer meeting of the National Governors' Association in 1999, and published in their "Policy on Land Use." The Governors identified ten principles that would be helpful in promoting smart growth and livable communities. While not specifically identified as one of the ten principles, density is a key concept that is critical to the success of the following smart growth principles: mixed-use and livable communities; transit and transit-oriented development; and, preservation of open space and farmland. The 10 principles identified in the policy statement encourage state and local governments to:

1. Provide a mix of land uses

Mixed-use development reverses the planning trends of the past half-century, which were largely designed to segregate uses. Mixed-use developments provide an interesting place to live, and promote a sense of community. They provide a degree of safety with 24 hour "eyes on the street." They also provide places for people to shop, work and recreate in close proximity to housing--through some means other than the automobile.

Mixed land use patterns locate a range of uses in the same structure, development or neighborhood. There are a variety of ways to implement the concept. Typical mixed-use buildings have retail uses on the ground floor and rental or owner occupied housing on the upper floors. Sometimes office space is located on the ground floor, or above the retail. Even some light manufacturing uses today can be located near housing.

Davis Commons and Aggie Village-- Davis Commons and Aggie Village are examples of horizontally mixing residential and commercial that create pedestrian and bicycling opportunities--reducing short vehicle trips and vehicle miles traveled. The City amended its zoning codes to permit existing residential and commercial zones to be combined into unified development sites.

Shattuck Avenue Lofts--Mixed-use, dense infill project in Berkeley, California with 24 residential units and density of 163 units per acre. Density allowed by zoning, determined by parking. Ground floor café, one minute walk to shopping, increased public life has improved safety of neighborhood, building completely sold out in seven months.

2. Take advantage of compact building design

One of a community's major assets is its infrastructure….its roads, transit, water, sewer, and other infrastructure. One way to nurture sustainable development is to invest more in the infrastructure of the current community in order to build a livable and vibrant city center. This concept also results in fiscal savings in infrastructure costs by the community over infrastructure costs for fringe or discontiguous (leapfrog) development. Sprawl pushes fire, ambulance, and police services to their limits. That leads to an increase in the costs of services and to the decay of downtown housing and schools.

In addition, compact development and density are key principles critical to the success of other smart growth principles: mixed-use and livable communities; transit and transit-oriented development; and, preservation of open space and farmland.

The Berkeleyan--Mixed-use, dense infill project in Berkeley, California includes includes 56 residential units with a density of 225 units per acre. Access to 1,500 square foot roof deck with bay views, 100% handicap accessible/adaptable, near campus, two blocks from rapid transit (BART), local AC Transit bus line on same corner; shops and restaurants within three to four blocks.

3. Create housing opportunities and choices

It's important to provide a variety of housing types for residents of all incomes. Jane Jacobs, the renowned urban writer and critic, stated the case for diversity and housing choices best. She championed a compatible, diverse mix of commercial and residential uses to create more lively entertainment. Only the cities that nourish diversity are able to witness the entertainment swell in the "chaos" of the city. She also believed that density produced a "friendly combustion" that spreads throughout. In this dense setting, the watchful eyes of the merchants, the neighbors, and the pedestrian traffic--who become the rather inexpensive "eyes" of the street-also provided safety.

The Ohlone-Chynoweth TOD located in the City of San Jose includes housing and community facilities developed on an under-used light rail park-and-ride lot. The former 1,100-space park-and-ride now includes a variety of uses: 240 park-and-ride spaces, 330 units of affordable housing, 4,400 sq. ft. of retail and a day care center.

4. Create walkable communities

The importance of human-scale in building designs, as well as the elimination of obstructions, the distance requirements to promote walking to and from activities, and the importance of traffic calming and street design-all of these enhance pedestrian activity and contribute to walkable close-knit neighborhoods.

Curtis Park--Near the Central Business District of the City of Sacramento, developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Narrow grid-patterned streets with sidewalks throughout Curtis Park make this neighborhood very pedestrian-friendly. Short setbacks, porches in front of the houses, garages behind the houses or at least recessed, small lot, ancillary housing, generous mature tree cover, and on-street parking--all add to the pedestrian orientation of this very "walkable" neighborhood.

5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place

Modern post-war city planning put the fate of our great cities in harm's way. Like the Ford assembly automobile that replaced the earlier hand-tooled models, the assembly houses of all "the Levittowns" replaced the earlier models of planned city growth that had defined great American cities. These cities-with their great architecture, wonderful public spaces and human-scale design-were magnets to all.

With the rapid spread of the subdivisions, Americans abandoned these cities for the lure of the suburbs and wide-open spaces. We witnessed an ironic dichotomy associated with this flight. They left the cities for the suburbs to find privacy, but found isolation; they left to get away from city traffic, but found highway congestion.

Fox and Goose-- Work on this pedestrian-friendly, adaptive-reuse project in Sacramento at 1001 R Street began in January 1972. This is an adaptive-reuse of the historic Fuller Paint and Glass Company warehouse-- one of most historic warehouses on the R Street Corridor. The building was built in 1913. Now the restaurant is a renowned eatery for the area's politicians, activists-anybody desiring conversation or entertainment. Local landmark-- modeled after the 200-year old Fox & Goose in Moors in northern England-- with traditional qualities and a unique and diverse atmosphere.

6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas

The preservation of open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas begins with compact development. One of the primary reasons for promotion of high-density development is that the more compact the design, the less land required for that development. Compact developments within established growth areas will eventually result in the preservation of open space and farmland-land that might otherwise be used for discontiguous, leapfrog (or greenfield) development.

Placer Legacy--Placer Legacy is a long range, comprehensive strategy for protecting open space in Placer County, designed to implement the open space goals of Placer County's 1994 General Plan by protecting open space and farmland while developing residential and commercial land uses along existing transportation corridors.

City of Davis Farmland Mitigation Ordinace--City of Davis 1995 comprehensive "farmland preservation ordinance" minimizes conflicts between land uses at the rural-urban edge and preserves prime farmland. Basis of success is revenue sharing agreement between county and city. For every acre of farmland developed, one acre of comparable farmland is preserved in perpetuity--to date 2,500 acres.

Vacaville-Dixon Greenbelt Authority (VDGA)--In March 1996, the Solano County cities purchased 1,002 acres of farmland along I-80 in order to create a permanent "greenbelt" between the two communities. The land was purchased at an agricultural value. Restrictions on development were added to the property's deed and the land was resold without a net loss to production agricultural interests.

7. Strengthen and direct development toward existing communities

Cities are having huge successes when they do discover how to make development pay for itself. These cities are enjoying a rare status as 24-hour cities-cities that have cultural and entertainment value that draws residents and usually leads to increased market-rates for their developments. They are also enjoying the rewards of the cultural transformation that urban centers are enjoying. Once the glaring symbol of a redevelopment process gone awry, infill developments are now enjoying the rewards of cultural transformation and appear to be the trend of the future.

Metro Square--A 45-unit production home infill development project in the Midtown District of the City of Sacramento, the development is walkable in a very pedestrian friendly neighborhood. It is just blocks away from the Capitol. Project is part of the City's efforts to revitalize the Midtown District. Each unit has traditional neighborhood design (TND) features--a front porch, a small private backyard, an attached garage tucked under the unit. Many consider the popular Midtown District as an excellent example of a modern "urban village." These units were sold by the end of the first day.

8. Provide a variety of transportation choices

Communities with successful transportation and circulation plans recognize the importance of providing a variety of transportation choices. These communities recognize that the way out from under the current "automobile-dominated" transportation trend is through choices in modes of transportation that also include pedestrian, bicycle and public transit-not just more roads.

They also recognize that a well-constructed plan provides links between each transportation mode as seamlessly and practically as possible. And they understand that land use, transportation and air quality are not mutually exclusive-that there are strong ties between the three elements that must be considered in context.

A policy that fails to link land use, air quality and transportation is doomed to further leapfrog development, increased traffic congestion and the associated diminished air quality. The quick fix always seems to point to more and more road building-which further perpetuates automobile dominated sprawl-and the circle continues unbroken. This flawed policy leaves existing core cities underserved--while putting current budgets hundreds of billions of dollars back into a gridlock of urban and suburban freeways. It takes limited resources that could be better spent serving the regional planning issues that face every community. Good regional planning assumes policies that integrate land use planning and transportation with a well-formulated system of market strategies.

Secretary of State/Archives Building--The building is located near the State Capitol across from the California Department of Transportation headquarters. It was designed to optimize transportation options for employees and visitors. The 5-story project has an entrance that addresses the center of an intersection of roadway, a transit stop and a very active pedestrian crossing. Several hundred personnel in these offices use light rail.

9. Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective

What public agencies and their planning staff can do best is publish documents that create certainty. They can incorporate smart growth principles into local general and community plans, zoning ordinances, project review criteria, street design guidelines, and other development processes. Clear policies from local government can increase smart growth development in an area. In regions where developers are confident that developments will proceed with little or no risk, they are probably more likely to pursue smart growth developments. When developers are uncertain of how cumbersome regulations and other barriers may impact their development, they will probably hold back on investments.

North Natomas Planning Principles Process--This is a proposed residential, commercial, and retail area in the City of Sacramento. The development will include schools, parks and transit centers surrounding 14 neighborhoods, surrounding a Town Center. The process included ground rules among a variety of stakeholders with potentially conflicting interests. Guiding the process was the understanding that only with the entire group reaching agreement could the plan move forward.

10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions

The participatory effort itself is a circular process. Over time it will result in a strong "sense of community" that will allow the community to engage in future efforts at improving their quality of life. This sense of community can lead to an increase in individual-level participation, and even become a catalyst for community-level participation. It has been documented that citizens who place a high "value on their community through subjective stimulus values" (communitarianism) were encouraged "to participate more in these communitarian environments."

While several characteristics of a successful citizen and stakeholder participation process can be observed comparatively, probably no measure of success is more prevalent on community surveys than leadership. This role of leadership goes beyond the expected commitment to the vision, for this kind of leadership is extremely proactive-capable of leading the charge by following through when needed: to help "set the agenda, define the processes, and mobilize that community into action…[these leaders] have the requisite vision to know what alliances and collaborations" will get them to their vision.

They understand that success can depend on the appropriate "network of stakeholders that gives them legitimacy." These networks are usually composed of organizations whose interests intersect; and, they have usually had success at amassing strength and efficiencies through an integrated and collaborative approach-- where an independent approach would not work.

Central Park and Davis Farmer's Market--Nationally recognized public park and winner of the ASLA Centennial Medallion as one of the most important landscapes of the last century, and a 1999 Ahwanhnee Award. It underscores that "making community places" requires local advocates and participation. Participation included: structured workshops, scored walking tours, models/simulations, and community surveys. Final design began only after two years of participation, project took ten years to complete. Each Wednesday and Saturday the Farmer's Market is a hub of activity in a highly walkable neighborhood near the central business district of the City of Davis.

Ahwahnee Principles 9 (Livable Community Strategies)


Existing patterns of urban and suburban development seriously impair our quality of life. The symptoms are: more congestion and air pollution resulting from our increased dependence on automobiles, the loss of precious open space, the need for costly improvements to roads and public services, the inequitable distribution of economic resources, and the loss of a sense of community.

By drawing upon the best from the past and the present, we can plan communities that will more successfully serve the needs of those who live and work within them. Such planning should adhere to certain fundamental principles. Community Principles:

1. All planning should be in the form of complete and integrated communities containing housing, shops, work places, schools, parks and civic facilities essential to the daily life of the residents.
2. Community size should be designed so that housing, jobs, daily needs and other activities are within easy walking distance of each other.
3. As many activities as possible should be located within easy walking distance of transit stops.
4. A community should contain a diversity of housing types to enable citizens from a wide range of economic levels and age groups to live within its boundaries.
5. Businesses within the community should provide a range of job types for the community's residents.
6. The location and character of the community should be consistent with a larger transit network.
7. The community should have a center focus that combines commercial, civic, cultural and recreational uses.
8. The community should contain an ample supply of specialized open space in the form of squares, greens and parks whose frequent use is encouraged through placement and design.
9. Public spaces should be designed to encourage the attention and presence of people at all hours of the day and night.
10. Each community or cluster of communities should have a well-defined edge, such as agricultural greenbelts or wildlife corridors, permanently protected from development.
11. Streets, pedestrian paths and bike paths should contribute to a system of fully connected and interesting routes to all destinations. Their design should encourage pedestrian and bicycle use by being small and spatially defined by buildings, trees and lighting; and by discouraging high speed traffic.
12. Wherever possible, the natural terrain, drainage and vegetation of the community should be preserved with superior examples contained within parks or greenbelts.
13. The community design should help conserve resources and minimize waste.
14. Communities should provide for the efficient use of water through the use of natural drainage, drought tolerant landscaping and recycling.
15. The street orientation, the placement of buildings and the use of shading should contribute to the energy efficiency of the community.

Regional Principles

1. The regional land-use planning structure should be integrated within a larger transportation network built around transit rather than freeways.
2. Regions should be bounded by and provide a continuous system of greenbelt/wildlife corridors to be determined by natural conditions.
3. Regional institutions and services (government, stadiums, museums, etc.) should be located in the urban core.
4. Materials and methods of construction should be specific to the region, exhibiting a continuity of history and culture and compatibility with the climate to encourage the development of local character and community identity.

Implementation Principles

1. The general plan should be updated to incorporate the above principles.
2. Rather than allowing developer-initiated, piecemeal development, local governments should take charge of the planning process. General plans should designate where new growth, infill or redevelopment will be allowed to occur.
3. Prior to any development, a specific plan should be prepared based on these planning principles.
4. Plans should be developed through an open process and participants in the process should be provided visual models of all planning proposals.