Forget Livable, St. Louis Is A Lovable City

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In St. Louis, city lists aren't often welcome. Stigmatized with variations of the "most dangerous city" lists, losing flights and corporate headquarters, the city would rather not be listed at all. You'll never see St. Louis on a "most-walkable" list or topping a "bike-friendly city" Top 10. But who cares? What's being measured and what's a livable city anyway? Better yet, what's a lovable city?

A great city should be "an inventory of the possible". At least that's what Descartes wrote about 17th Century Amsterdam. For good and bad, that seems to fit St. Louis to a T. The industrial city, the ancient city (Cahokia Mounds), the American boomtown, the brick heritage, the private streets, glamorous public parks, decay, the arts, transit, the suburbs, the exurbs. St. Louis lacks very little of what makes a city a city.

Why will we never rank high on the "livable lists"? The Financial Times has a great article about what these lists are and what they are not, what they measure and what they do not. Of course, the article is more focused on why American cities such as New York and Los Angeles never appear and why the same European cities play musical chairs with the top spots, than where St. Louis might appear.

The sought-after livable city of the rankings is clean, orderly, efficient, safe, well-filled with Starbucks, transit and high-end retail. In the FT article, Monocle Editor Tyler Brule frames the metrics this way, "There always proximity to nature…Global connectivity is important, education and we’ve recently added chain store metrics – is there a Starbucks or a Zara." 

The choice quote in the article, deftly points out the obvious. From Joel Garreau, the US urban academic and author, agrees. "These lists are journalistic catnip. Fun to read and look at the pictures but I find the liveable cities lists intellectually on a par with People magazine’s 'sexiest people' lists." "

So these lists do not claim to measure anything concrete. Nor should they. And perhaps they're harmless enough, why not celebrate cities that are the most "livable"? Well, as Ricky Burdett, founder of the London School of Economics’ Cities Programme, says, “We also have to acknowledge that these cities that come top of the polls also don’t have any poor people." Why not? How does the presence of poor people make a city less livable? How is the list of most "livable" cities any different than a list of most affluent and homogenous cities?

As described in the article, "Most of these people (who are surveyed) are profoundly concerned with things like well-designed street furniture." We must know that a litter-free street, a Starbucks and modern bike racks that double as sculpture do not effect a livable city.

So St. Louis doesn't make that list. So what? St. Louis is a lovable city. We're routinely listed (damn, couldn't avoid the lists!) as the most philanthropic community in the nation. We support our teams and the arts. Whether its a fish fry, block party or balloon race, St. Louis exudes community and love for the city (meaning the whole region). We may fight ourselves more than necessary, but the fact that so many are native-born residents tells a positive story as much as a tale of economic stagnation. 

St. Louis is a city of opportunity, a place where one can reinvent themselves, but do so with much support from friends new and old. The city is home to 2.8M people who love where they live. We are witnessing an urban resurgence, the outcome of which we do not know. We support a growing transit system. We're comfy in our suburban homes. We battle crime, abandonment and displacement every day. St. Louis is "an inventory of the possible." "Livable" or not, we love it that way.

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  • STLgasm

    Great post. I highly recommend “For the Love of Cities” by Peter Kageyama. It highlights the intangible qualities and little but significant elements that make cities lovable– things that can’t quantified with statistics, rankings and lists:
    http://fortheloveofcities.com/
    (PS– this book is available for purchase at STyLehouse!)

  • RobbyD

    Well said.

    I must say that I find Downtown exceedingly livable and becoming more so every day. And, yes, there is MUCH to love about Saint Louis and the region.