Commentary by Ethan Seltzer

Livability comes to the Land of Livablity

By Ethan Seltzer.
Cascadia, the megaregion located in the upper left corner of the United States and crossing the border into southwestern Canada, has long been known as a place of mountains, trees, and fish.  This association with the landscape has led us to propose viewing this megaregion not as a megalopolis in the making, but as an ecolopolis: networked metropolitan areas separated by working and wild landscapes.  It's a reflection of our brand, really of our aspirations, both at the local and state/provincial scales.
We've been developing our understanding of the Cascadia ecolopolis through a series of classes in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University.  Our most recent contribution, Ecolopolis 4.0: Livability in Cascadia, looks specifically at the topic of livability, prompted by the current interest among the U.S. DOT, EPA, and HUD in livability in American states and communities.

Ecolopolis 4.0 makes several key findings.  First, livability has been a central theme for planning and action in Cascadia for some time.  It's a classic regional challenge, often framed here in regional terms, and arising in similar ways throughout the megaregion.  That said, we also found that efforts to plan for livability in Cascadia were most often directed at issues of preservation, particularly having to do with reversing threats to environmental quality, fish and wildlife, and landscape.

Second, there is a fairly well-developed history of planning for livability in Cascadia, and at the scale of Cascadia.  Institutions and interests have been interacting at a megaregional scale for some time to address livability issues.  Meeting across metropolitan boundaries on behalf of Cascadia is not a new or novel activity.  Moreover, there are examples from throughout the western United States of other efforts to address issues ranging from climate change to habitat preservation and water management that constitute useful sources for insight into what it means to plan for and act as megaregions.

Finally, though there are numerous overlaps among the livability aspirations of federal agencies, the current crop of federal "livability principles" need reworking to better promote an integrated federal effort.  In addition, moving the livability agenda into the center of concern for any of the agencies will take a sustained effort and the development of new tools.  Programs and tools developed for solving one set of problems in the past are not necessarily adaptable to new challenges posed by the recognition of livability as an over-riding theme.

Overall, these findings are very consistent with how Cascadians view their region, and how Cascadia is viewed from other places.  A federal livability agenda, though focused only on the U.S. side of the border, reinforces the megaregional brand and sense of place, and echoes both concerns and actions associated with Cascadia. 

Looking ahead, this work reinforces the notion that the Cascadia "agenda" needs to focus on two inter-related efforts.  First, we need to increase connectivity in Cascadia through the development of high(er) speed passenger rail and improved border crossing procedures.  Second, ongoing efforts to build a constituency for megaregion-scale planning and action should build community around the reasons why people choose to live here in the first place: the possibility of the close integration of urban places with the broader regional landscape, and the promise of sustaining the quality and uniqueness of both.