“Livability” has been an urban buzzword since at least the 1980’s. Hundreds and maybe thousands of studies have been published on what makes a city more livable. But did you know the word “livable” originated in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park?
Livability in Context
In “Train Choir,” Verna awakes in the vast parking lot of a shopping center to the tap of a security guard on her car window. Raymond is making a statement on how unlivable Verna’s newly homeless life is. As she loses her dog, Lucy, to a series of bureaucratic snafus stemming from Verna’s transience, the reader is relieved to find Lucy fostered in a neighborhood of small bungalows with yards. In a sense the reader too has found a home, and though it is not a multi-family residence with easy transit access and a corner store, for Lucy, it is a big step toward a more livable life—a life Verna cannot yet achieve.
Place is character in these stories and Raymond covers a range of environments (built and unbuilt) from strip mall suburbias to dense urban cores and even the deep woods. “The Wind” tells the story of “the creek,” a place where groups of teens meet. The daily lives of these teens are separated by geography: the rich kids over the hill, the girls on Stowe Lane, and Joe in a house with tire tracks in the grass. This interstitial space could not exist in Mansfield Park; it belongs only to the teens—unchaperoned—and the story becomes one of how people activate space.
Changing Notions of Livability
Our notion of livable communities has changed over time. Certainly Austen’s heroines longed for the excitement of London, but after finding husbands, they retired to places like Pemberley, Highbury, and Mansfield Park. A more modern dream is to live in a Spartan apartment in a glass tower merely feet from the nearest train, market, and collective living room. Yet urbanism remains a distant dream for Verna, Joe and many like them—it is these Americans whose stories Raymond tells.
I originally wrote this post when I thought I would be doing book reviews for the architects, but I think it is important for all of us to think about how livable our environments are and what we are doing to shape that feeling. Livability also provides an interesting angle through which to view setting—something Austen and Raymond already know.
If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of Livability from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.