We can make these places, but can we still focus globally? (Lydia DePillis)

Yesterday, Tanya Snyder over at Streetsblog wrote about a Center for Disease Control study laying out the need for more ethnic and cultural diversity in the “livability movement.”

The last two words—also in Tanya’s headline—were what caught me.

You’ve heard various permutations of the term: livability index, livable streets, even livable walkable awards. I hadn’t heard there was a Movement before though. At least, no one seems to have made it official; scouring the internet yields only a few scattered references. The oldest I can find traces back to the Clinton administration, which kicked off a Livability Initiative in 1997 (and Al Gore invented the term, natch). But the Bush administration didn’t exactly pick that up and run with it.

So what is this thing? Even if no one’s drawn up a manifesto, the central principles of “livability” are pretty clear: Diverse transit options, mixed-income communities, healthy food sources, a clean urban environment, a comfortable streetscape.

Now, what are the essential attributes of a “movement”? There’s got to be some critical mass of organic citizen involvement, a shared terminology, a broad range of constituencies moving towards overturning some element of the status quo. It can have leaders, but they’re not essential.

By that loose definition, I’d say the “livability movement” passes muster. It wraps in the philosophies of environmental justice, smart growth, and sustainability. It’s appealing to city planners, developers, and social activists alike (though, as Tanya’s post highlights and the Ward 6 council race affirmed, it’s still got whiteness issues). And it’s certainly in line with a generational shift towards smaller living spaces and more shared community amenities. It doesn’t have clear leaders, although Jane Jacobs may be its patron saint.

While the livability movement has grown, the “environmental movement” has lost traction as a thing with which people identify. Despite moving beyond their image as hemp-shirt-wearing Greenpeacers, and making green principles into standard operating procedure for construction and production, environmentalists have been perhaps most disappointed by the Obama administration in its failure to meaningfully address global warming, which might be the critical issue of all.

The problem is, “livability” isn’t actually a substitute for “environmentalism.” Sure, improving urban environments is an essential goal, especially when the world’s population is gravitiating towards cities. And it’s a smaller, more achievable goal than going for political change on a global scale. I just hope people keep their eye on the ball of bigger things going on outside their communities as well.

And that’s my big thinky musing for the day! Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.