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Speaking of Livability

The stairs to Sydney’s Opera House invite a social moment. Photo: John J. Parman.

This post is part of a blog series related to Dialogue 30, "The Livability Issue.”

The new issue of Dialogue is designed to be read on any online device that suits you—a transition, 17 years after its debut as a print magazine, that speaks to how ideas and information reach us now. On a recent trip to Europe, I read a book on my iPhone—a necessity in the dimmed cabin of a 787, but one that spares me having to bring six paperbacks along to catch up on my reading.

Travel is a useful reminder of the minimum requirements of livability, as well as its evolution. Livability is a mutable concept that varies with context. How we define it differs from one context to another, but much hinges on whether we opt for the context or it is imposed on us. The latter is harder to take.

Dialogue 30 has two themes. “Syncing Community to Human Experience” looks at how education, healthcare and culture are engaging the communities they serve. The goal is to establish trusted, personal relationships that provide the supports that livability requires. The context is often one in which those supports have either fallen away or can be provided more effectively in new ways. The means of engagement increasingly blends real-time interaction, between people and in specific places, with virtual interaction tailored for and by the individual. Opting in is how community forms.

The second theme, “Giving the Livable City Scale & Flow,” pulls up from livability at the personal and everyday scale to ask how cities support livability in a macro sense. Two kinds of connectivity are especially important now: movement networks, including ridesharing and driverless cars; and the data centers that, as the Cloud’s “engine room,” support the smart devices on which mobility depends.

The photogenic stairs at The Broad museum in Los Angeles draw visitors to its store. Photo: John J. Parman.

Human experience takes the measure of livability. But humanity increasingly lives in a real/virtual world—a shift from the Anthropocene era to a Technocene era in which technology is integral to life and an important, if often invisible, factor in how we experience it. The main pillars of community life are making the same shift collectively that all of us are making individually, contending with disruption—the appearance of new players and the impacts of uncertainty and volatility—yet seeking to build anew on its possibilities.

In his Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand notes that community institutions move at a slower pace than other sectors. Along with support, they provide stewardship—protecting the Commons, so to speak, from faster-paced others that may not see or care about it. It’s interesting to see how this instinct for stewardship is felt now by a growing number of these “others.” That’s another shift that Dialogue 30 notes: community institutions are finding new partners to extend what they do and to innovate faster.

These new partnerships tap knowledge and expertise on both sides. Community institutions bring stewardship and a longer view; their business partners bring shorter timeframes and a bias toward application. Their complementary natures spur innovation, which is why business increasingly initiates the relationship.

Sydney's Darling Harbour is the view, and the tourists love to share it. Photo: John J. Parman.

This mirrors people’s two-way relationships with the everyday world. Artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things exist in part to relate to us, supporting and influencing our human experience in the name of livability. The relationship is increasingly sustained by technology, but communities and their institutions are still very much real places. And they’re staffed by real people who, as Tama Duffy Day notes, bring their empathy, not just their expertise, to the relationships that make community possible. Take that away, and it’s questionable that we’d find life very livable at all.

Read the full issue of Dialogue here.

Join the conversation: #dialogue30.

John J. Parman helped found Dialogue in 2000, and was the lead editor for issues 1–30. On to a new assignment, he is an advisor and contributor to Gensler’s Integrated Communications studio. john_parman@gensler.com.