Exit133 is about Tacoma

What Makes a Place Livable?

Defining "livability" may be a bit like defining pornography: " I know it when I see it." Despite that lack of a consistent agreement on a definition (or maybe because of it?), it is worth examining our understanding of the concept of livability. 

If you know it when you see it, who gets to do the seeing? What happens when two people or groups see different things? Where do our convictions about what defines livability come from? And where do they take us? What are the implications of decisions related to livability? The costs? Who pays?

When a topic leaves us asking more questions than we have answers, we know it's worth further examination. Fortunately for us, we'll have a chance to see the idea of livability dissected, discussed, and challenged at this year's forum from the Urban Studies program at the University of Washington Tacoma. 

Every year UWT's Urban Studies program hosts a forum on issues impacting cities in our region. Past topics have included working waterfronts, urban universities, urban branding, transportation, and last year's illuminating forum on jobs and housing.

This year the forum focuses on questions related to livability. We can all agree we want our cities to be livable. What that means is a little harder to find consensus on...

For a city or a suburb to be livable, we assume certain characteristics and experiences. What are these and how do we define a livable place? Is there an agreement on what defines livability? The 2016 Urban Studies Forum will focus on these questions and what they might mean to the South Sound. In two separate panel discussions, we will focus on both the built environment dimensions of livability, as well as cultural and sociopolitical processes that produce them. Our panelists will debate various aspects of urban form, governance, social equity, and cultural productions that shape our perceptions of ‘livability.’

Questions of livability seem intertwined with virtually every urban issue: Do we allow high density residential development? Do we encourage it? Do higher density mixed-use developments make our neighborhoods more attractive - more livable - or less? How much parking do we require (or allow) with new developments? Does plentiful parking make a place more livable, or less? Who decides what makes a city more livable when environmental impacts come up against economic growth?

Sometimes, particularly when faced with the very real constraints of limited funding, space, and/or resources, conflict seems built into differing answers to these questions.  

For someone using a single-occupancy vehicle to get around town and accomplish their errands, it may seem obvious that repaved arterial streets and abundant parking close to every destination would improve livability. On the other hand, for a person without a car, investments in curb cuts, public transportation, and sidewalks may seem like the obvious and absolutely essential priority. Is either more right than the other? How does a city find answers for both of these residents?

The two panels on the agenda for this year's forum promise to unpack these and other relevant questions sure to give you a few important things to ponder. Each panel will feature experts in a variety of fields, including local professionals who know the Puget Sound region, tackling issues of livability from two different angles.


Panel #1: Livable Built Environments

The built environment is, naturally, the most visible embodiment of the livability of a place. This panel will take a look at what physical elements make places - from city centers to suburbs - livable

Questions will include: How can livability be understood within the diversity of places we choose to live? Who defines livability and for whom?


Panel II: The Role of Cultural Institutions in Creating Livable Communities

When we talk about the livability of a place, we often reference contributions of that place's cultural institutions. Sometimes it's the more obvious contributions: theather on the square, or summer festivals. Sometimes the contributions of these institutions are less obvious.

This panel will examine what contributions from cultural institutions can be, and their potential for generating positive impacts. It will also take a critical look at what works and what doesn't when it comes to these kinds of initiatives - in general, and in our region in particular. Topics will include:

Questions will include: What is the role of cultural institutions in regenerating urban and suburban spaces? How do they produce livable communities? What are some successful examples? How do we define success? What are some examples of ‘less than successful’ initiatives? What separates the two? Does scale matter? Where do Tacoma and the South Sound stand in this regard?


Keynote Lecture

Keynote speaker Jason Schupbach is Director of Design Programs, Visual Arts Division Team Leader for the National Endowment for the Arts. He will deliver a keynote on livability that promises to tie together the threads of livable built environments, the arts, and the role of cultural institutions in cities in our region and beyond. Find his bio here.


It seems obvious that we all want to live in livable places. We see the idea of 'livability' raised in virtually ever conversation about decisions in Tacoma, in the region, and beyond. Does the new Proctor Station development make its neighborhood more livable or less? Will cutting McMenamins a deal on our historic buildings yield a more livable downtown?  Does the proliferation of marijuana businesses in Tacoma make our city more livable or less? Would protecting the spacious layout of west Tacoma's Narrowmoor neighborhood make the city more livable? Did the painting of guerilla crosswalks make Tacoma more livable?

Some things are easier to agree on. Maybe we can all agree that Monkeyshines makes Tacoma more livable. But how, then, do we foster that kind of creative energy? What's the secret? 

Maybe we'll learn it at the forum... You'll only know if you attend.

Register for the free forum here.

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Jim C

I think there is a definite distinction between the New Urbanist concept of “livability” and a humanist definition of the measure of the quality of life. Sometimes the two intersect but they are often at odds, I’ve gathered from experience. To use my favorite downed horse as an example: every-other-week garbage pickup. I challenge anyone to argue that picking up trash every other week as opposed to weekly improves city residents’ quality of life; I think it’s pretty clear the policy lowers it unless one has a specific emotional attachment to their garbage. For the City’s Office of Sustainability, however, the policy is a forward-looking coup - our Waste Management division even won an award this year for what, arguably, is effectively not doing their jobs. So life in the city is objectively worse as a result, but more “livable” because those responsible can pat themselves on the back with self-satisfaction at how “sustainable” and environmentally-conscious we are.

As far as the rhetorical questions at the end of the post: if you go back and read the notes from last year’s Jobs & Housing summit you’ll find that most of these questions are already answered - we’re not Seattle, we’re not Portland, and we never will be - so why don’t we work a little harder on being Tacoma? These answers are not what the UW planning students and arrivistes want to hear so they’re being ignored, I feel.

January 28, 2016 at 1:42 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

6 | 15


I don’t understand this complaint about bi-weekly trash pick up.  Objectively, what actually happens is that 1 weeks worth of trash stays in your garbage can for 1 extra week. 

Seriously now, what are the consequences of a bi-weekly v weekly pick up schedule?

One weeks worth of my household waste sits in my garbage can for one extra week. 

My can sits far from my home where I rarely even think about it, I almost never have to see, smell or move it.  The negative impact on my life is negligible.

Occasionally, if we have extra waste, I might have to push down on the trash in the can to make room, but that’s maybe 3 or 4 times a year, if that.  If anything, it makes me think about what I can do to reduce my trash next time.

In exchange for this inconvenience, a garbage truck rumbles down my alley on Friday morning 50% as frequently.  I find this more peaceful.

Fewer pickups mean less spillage so my neighborhood has gotten cleaner.

And there are fewer diesel trucks smoking the city with their exhausts every day.

Oh and the city saves money which reduces pressure to raise my rates in the future and possibly makes available money in the budget to be directed elsewhere. 

Even without any of those benefits, a bi-weekly pick-up schedule has so little negative impact on my life (nor the lives of anyone I know) that I just don’t care.  So when I hear people like you complain about it, I simply don’t understand why.

January 29, 2016 at 11:04 am / Reply / Quote and reply

18 | 2

altered chords

A home that has kids makes more trash.  I got tired of playing human trash compactor so made all of my kids leave home.  In addition, I invite myself over to my neighbors homes all the time thus offloading my own trash burden on them. 

Now I’m as happy with our new trash laws as plug.

January 29, 2016 at 3:07 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

3 | 6


I know about kids, I’ve got three.  Two in diapers.  Even with the absurd waste that comes with that, we manage to have enough space in a average bin for two weeks.

It’s not that hard, right?

January 29, 2016 at 3:26 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

8 | 0

Jim C

Well congratulations to you that your trash sits far from your home where almost never have to see it or smell it. Due to the layout of my property and where my pickup location is, mine is in my backyard where I see it all the time, and yes there is a negative impact to not having it picked up every week. Two weeks worth of festering trash smells more, especially in the summertime, than one weeks worth, and now there are two cans full of it instead of one. I also have kids in diapers, no dogs but I’d be willing to bet most dog owners would rather have their garbage weekly for the same reason. I have neighbors two doors down who routinely let their trash pile up outside the cans in their alley because they don’t pay for enough capacity; yes this is their fault but bimonthly pickup certainly exacerbates the problem and I’m sure it’s a common occurrence in the city. I notice that you’re not actually arguing that it doesn’t reduce our quality of life, only that your perception of the reduction is negligible. Your experience is not shared throughout the city.

January 29, 2016 at 4:28 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

2 | 12


Actually I am arguing that it has improved quality of life.  Less noise, less heavy vehicle traffic, less spillage litter, less diesel exhaust.  That’s all improvement.

Neither of our experiences are universal.  But the overwhelming majority of people in Tacoma do not live close to their trash.  Just travel down any alley and see where people put their garbage cans: typically far away from living areas. 

Apparently your can is where you can see it and this bothers you.  Weekly pick-up doesn’t change that.  And you have to smell it when you go out there to empty your house cans?  Or are you saying that your trash is so pungent that you can constantly smell it across your back yard?

January 29, 2016 at 6:19 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

11 | 1


My garbage can has a lid on it, so I can only smell it when I open it to take out trash, every few days.  You should invest in lids for your cans.  It is a pretty nominal cost.

February 1, 2016 at 9:35 am / Reply / Quote and reply

7 | 1


There is nothing original or unique about Tacoma, Tacoma is following the Detroit model.  The City of Tacoma raided the budget of every maintenance shop in the City and allowed all of the City’s assets to deteriorate to the point that the City can no longer keep pace with the deterioration.  The tipping point has been past and Tacoma’s fiscal trajectory is on a down trend and without a paradigm shift in how revenues are budgeted and programmed this only ends one way - municipal bankruptcy.

January 29, 2016 at 2:06 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

6 | 16


What is “being Tacoma”?

Why can’t we emulate other cities? What’s stopping us from choosing to be like Seattle in some ways, take ideas from Portland, and model an aspect of El Paso (or anywhere)? 

I was speaking to someone about Tacoma awhile ago and he said, “In Tacoma it feels like you’re getting in on the ground floor.”  We can make the city into whatever we want. But what is that?  What is “being Tacoma”?

January 28, 2016 at 4:48 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

10 | 0

Jim C

Ground floor of what? That’s exactly my point, statements like “we can make the city into whatever we want” seem arrogant and presumptuous to me. Tacoma already is something - maritime-based industry, a hub of interstate hauling, affordable single-family housing, a solid middle class town, a good place to raise a family across generations. Efforts to shoehorn large-scale multifamily housing into every single-family neighborhood in the city and to eliminate parking requirements for this development (among other things) to negatively-incent driving ignore the fact that we’re chasing fads from the other cities you mention and ignoring the strengths of what, and who, is here already. Try actually reading the notes and Dr. Modarres’ paper from last year’s summit and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about.

January 29, 2016 at 4:43 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

5 | 4


Here’s the problem with this line of thinking, Jim.  No city is stagnant.  We have a choice right now.  As the population of Pierce County grows, we have a choice of giving up our wide open spaces, forests, and farms to sprawling development and terrible traffic.  Or, we can increase the density of the City, by infilling the many vacant lots with high-density affordable housing, yes, with no parking requirements.  We can improve our transit network so people don’t need to drive everywhere, reducing pollution and traffic.  We can make neighborhoods where I can take the bus to work, walk to the grocery store, bank, and park.  I know what future I would choose, and I’m not alone.  It’s funny, that is a Tacoma that used to exist and died during the automobile era.  Let’s bring it back!

February 1, 2016 at 9:42 am / Reply / Quote and reply

10 | 2


Why blame the status quo on capitalists who produce private transportation for the purpose of personal liberation? I think Jim C is saying that we could build a glorious city, a fantastic utopia (translation: nowhere); but why isolate the reality of Tacoma from the surrounding world?

I’m all for a city where citizens could develop and flourish through exercising their intellectual and moral faculties. That’s the classical view put forth by the ancient Greeks. There is today the opportunity to live such a life. But learning about how the world works and how to control it is a pastime which few people practice.

A quickening pace of technological development and applied science provides both a more predictable future and a more uncertain future due to unintended consequences of new forms of knowledge.

Nothing is inevitable. But I’m against extreme repressive measures with regard to how and where people can travel, and how and where people can live and work. We should be able to recognize the mind-numbing rhetoric which promotes consumerism. Likewise, we should stay alert to the fact that the same kind of tactics are used to control perceptions which promote the interests of both private and governmental social engineers.

February 1, 2016 at 9:21 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

3 | 3

altered chords

Raked leaves in my back yard a few weeks back.  Could only fit 1/2 of them into the yard waste bin.  Had to leave a few piles on my lawn for 2 weeks.  Lawn is not happy.  I would burn the sticks but can only do so when it’s not raining AND when there’s no burn ban. 

Back to the topic of what makes a city livable:

Choice of restaurants - check
Choice of places to go for great beer - check.
Beautiful scenery - check.
Proximity to grocery stores - check.
Places to run and cycle - check.
Not overly congested w/ traffic - check.

Access to education - OK on the higher ed front - unsure about HS - some good, some bad.

Abundance of high paying jobs - nope



January 29, 2016 at 4:50 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

3 | 3


What no bike share??  How could this be??

February 11, 2016 at 3:39 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

2 | 0


Isn’t it obvious that the one thing Tacoma is lacking that would make Tacoma a livable city, like Seattle, is a bike share program.  How could this be?  http://www.prontocycleshare.com/

February 11, 2016 at 3:37 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

2 | 0


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June 13, 2018 at 11:04 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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