Monday, April 12, 2010

New York's Most Livable Neighborhoods

I've written in the past regarding my apprehension towards past attempts at objectively quantifying cities. In many ways, they were all oversimplifications that abstracted the notion of the city so thoroughly that it became difficult to determine whether all of the numbers were really just ways of confirming/making the author's preconceived notion or biases. Today, the disconnect is slowly but surely receding as we start to get our heads better around the more wholistic idea of livability as New York Magazine published their neighborhood rankings within the NYC boroughs.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that Nate Silver, a statistician by trade, who runs the political polling and analysis website, issued a survey for helping to elicit proper valuations for weighing the various criteria that go into the somewhat nebulous idea of livability. He explains:

Of course, not all of these categories are equally important: Most people would value safety over access to cool bars; public schools may be very important to some and not at all to others. The formula we finally devised weighted the categories based on a combination of objective and subjective approaches. On the one hand, we thought about what factors might be most important to five different types of New Yorkers, then averaged their answers together. On the other hand, we conducted an online survey of over 3,000 people nationwide and 700 in New York, asking respondents to rate the factors most important to them. Reassuringly, the two approaches produced very similar results, and we settled upon:

Housing Cost: 25 percent
Transit: 13 percent
Shopping and Services: 9 percent
Safety: 8 percent
Restaurants: 8 percent
Schools: 6 percent
Diversity: 6 percent
Creative Capital: 6 percent
Housing Quality: 5 percent
Green Space: 5 percent
Health and Environment: 5 percent
Nightlife: 4 percent

What is important to note that none of these by themselves is a cause, but also all of them are. They are also all effects. Thus, the complexity that is livability which is why I always say that if the solution to an urban problem isn't one of a chicken/egg issue it isn't interrelated enough to actually be the answer. For example, when thinking of downtown ten years ago, we knew that Downtown Dallas needed residential, but to get residential it also needed a grocery store. Which is more important? Which should come first? The reality is that it needed both and barriers were (and still have to) overcome to incent those new developments.

At least here, Silver's attempt at both some measure of objectivity, of crowdsourcing through survey's to determine actual weighting, and a wholistic approach is far above and beyond Joel Kotkin's ham handed use of housing cost as the be all and end all. We've already shown that if THAT was what people really wanted, the demand would be higher as would cost. The overabundance of housing shows that the relative low cost of suburban housing is a product of supply rather than of demand.

The results that Silver arrived at further this point. That affordability is a largely irrelevant statistic as highly rated neighborhoods score both high and low on the level of affordability. The most correlation appears to be between high cost of living by neighborhood and low diversity, which says nothing about neighborhood form or livability but more about historically institutionalized wealth and where certain neighborhoods are in the "gentrification" process.

Like the competition amongst various cities, neighborhoods are also competing against each other to be more livable. Some have greater resources or inherent advantages. What this study does effectively in my opinion is level the playing field to properly assess what areas generate the most livability given their place in time. Which is also important. Neighborhoods are constantly changing and evolving (or devolving), just like their cities. The results are only important today, but the process is what will continue to live on and evolve as our knowledge and understanding of how to properly assess neighborhoods grows.