Taking A City’s Vitals

Often times we measure the livability of a city or neighborhood based on economic success or other data points, like crime rates or demographic information. It turns out, while these numbers are important, they don’t tell the whole story. They don’t describe how a city feels. Does it feel fun? Does it feel lively? Does it feel safe? Heck, cities that have low crime rates can still feel unsafe. This perception matters because it is what informs how people will choose to interact with and live within a place.

As it turns out, there are things you can look out for as you walk around a city that can tell you a lot about the place. These vitals do a lot to inform you about a community’s values and what it’s actually like to live there.


One of the most important signs of life within a city is whether there are people walking from place to place. More people walking indicates that a city has life. It shows that there are things worth being there for. You can even look at this on a block-by-block biases to see what parts of the city people see as worth going to. Further, the presence of lots of other people on the street reinforces the idea of a place feeling safe. Especially at night.

The presence of pedestrians is largely impacted by:

Comfortable walking conditions. Think about the presence of wide sidewalks, separation from cars on the road, and place making things like street trees, wayfinding, planters, and art.

Active Land Uses. People would much rather walk next to restaurant patios, engaging storefronts, or unique homes than parking lots or blank walls. It’s more dynamic and makes the walk feel shorter.

Density. People need to be able to walk quickly to a diverse range of places. That means those places need to be closer together.

Lighting. At night, people need lighting to both feel safe and be able to navigate.

Who’s out and about?

It takes more than just young twenty-somethings to make a city livable. The presence of kids and seniors is a critical vital sign that shows that your city’s downtown isn’t just a bar or office district. It shows that it’s an actual neighborhood where families feel comfortable raising their kids and seniors can easily get around. Seeing kids at an urban park and seniors on the bus can demonstrate that your city is making strides to make your neighborhood inclusive to everyone.

The Essentials

Unfortunately for many American cities, people can’t live their daily lives just with access to dive bars and trendy restaurants. Successful cities have essential establishments that are needed to live full time in an urban neighborhood. This includes everything from grocery stores, to good schools, to the dentist office. If you see a city with these types of establishments in its core it shows that they are taking livability seriously.

Frequent Transit Service Outside of the 9-5 Work Day

Taking a quick glance at a city’s transit schedule can paint a fairly accurate picture of how livable a city is and where the places worth being are. If a city has frequent bus/rail service serving its urban center late into the night it shows that that part of the city isn’t just an office park. It shows that the city recognizes that people actually live there and that they need to be able to get around.

It Has to Have Character

Seeing prominent displays of art in and around the city show that there is value in creating an identity for the place. Further, street performers and public displays of creating art show that the city is actively inviting people to make their place worth living in. With that said this doesn’t end with art in the traditional sense. Enabling local entrepreneurs to start new businesses further allows locals to shape the unique character of the city. If you see a city demonstrating a strong level of support and investment in arts and entrepreneurs you know you’ve found a city that cares about livability.