Clean air and water

Good communities maintain a clean environment for their residents. Great communities enact policies to improve and protect the environment for generations to come. The Livability Index looks at air and water quality. It measures communities’ actions to create resilience plans to prepare for emergencies and natural disasters, and it awards points to states that have policies promoting energy efficiency and that protect consumers from having their utilities cut off during extreme weather events.

How does my community compare to neighborhoods across the country?

  • Top Third
  • Middle Third
  • Bottom Third

Water quality Drinking water quality

of people are exposed to violations Median US neighborhood: 0.50%

Percentage of the population getting water from public water systems with at least one health-based violation during the past year: measured at the county scale, lower values are better

We need water to survive, so it’s only natural that livable communities provide residents with clean drinking water. Contaminated drinking water can cause severe health issues; it also may reflect infrastructure that can’t support future growth. More than 20 percent of the nation’s water systems have violated health standards in recent years, which is why the Index investigates the percentage of people in a county who get water from public systems that fall below health standards.  For areas that don’t report drinking water quality data, we assume the national average of 4.95%. 

Source: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, 2014 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps

Air quality Regional air quality

unhealthy air quality days per year Median US neighborhood: 8.0

Number of days per year when regional air quality is unhealthy for sensitive populations: measured at the county scale, lower values are better

Poor air quality not only makes day-to-day life less enjoyable, but also poses long-term health threats, especially for young people, older adults, and people who are at risk of developing asthma and other respiratory diseases. The Air Quality Index (AQI) measures the level of several different air pollutants on a scale of 0 to 500. An AQI of 101 or higher is considered unhealthy for sensitive populations. The Index measures the number of days per year when a county’s AQI score is 101 or higher, using 3 years of data and controlling for year-to-year changes in the weather. For areas that don’t report air quality data, we assume the national average of 14.3 days per year. 

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2010-2012 Air Quality Index Report

Air quality Near-roadway pollution

of people are exposed Median US neighborhood: 0.00%

Percentage of the population living within 200 meters of a high-traffic road with more than 25,000 vehicles per day: measured at the neighborhood scale, lower values are better

A high-traffic road isn’t just a nuisance to navigate, it can be a threat to public health, too. People who live near these roads are exposed to stressful noise pollution, not to mention exhaust and other emissions that can increase the risk of cancer and asthma. Busy roads also create barriers for pedestrians and bicyclists. The Index measures the percentage of people in a neighborhood who live close enough to high-traffic roads that they are regularly exposed to these negative impacts.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2011 National Transportation Atlas Database

Air quality Local industrial pollution

index from 0 to 311,000 Median US neighborhood: 0.00

Toxicity of airborne chemicals released from nearby industrial facilities: measured at the neighborhood scale from 0 to 311,000, lower values are better

Industrial facilities emit a wide range of pollutants that taint the local air and damage the health and quality of life for nearby residents—especially older adults, children, and those who have difficulty breathing. The Index assesses health impacts from all major industrial pollution sources within 1,000 feet of a neighborhood using a tool that measures relative health risks from different pollutants. More than 90 percent of U.S. neighborhoods have no local industrial pollution, so even communities with trace amounts of pollution score poorly on this metric. Any local pollution should be cause for concern.

Sources: The location of sources and type of pollution come from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 Toxic Release Inventory, and the toxicity of pollutants comes from EPA’s 2013 Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators model

Resilience State utility disconnection policies

State date-based policies prohibiting disconnection of utility service
 In communities with harsh and unpredictable climates, reliable utilities are a must, especially for older adults. Even if customers are behind on their payments, supportive communities don’t disconnect key utilities during periods of exceptionally hot or cold weather. Here, the Livability Index awards credits to states with policies that prevent utilities from stopping service to any customer during seasons when extreme weather is likely.

Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Community Services Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, 2015 Seasonal Termination Protection Regulations

Resilience Local hazard mitigation plans

Approved local hazard mitigation plans

While communities can’t prevent emergencies from happening, they can prepare for the worst to protect residents. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pushes local government to develop mitigation plans that identify stakeholders, risks, and potential responses for a range of hazards like floods, tornadoes, and wildfires. Here, the Index gives credit to communities with up-to-date, FEMA-approved, hazard mitigation plans. All communities that are covered by plans that are valid as of March 2016 receive credit.

Source: FEMA, 2016 Hazard Mitigation Plan Status database

Energy efficiency State energy efficiency scorecard

State policies that support energy-efficient buildings, facilities, and appliances

Energy efficiency initiatives protect the environment by minimizing pollution from fossil fuels. Green options like energy-optimized homes, appliances, and vehicles can also save people money on gas and electric bills. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) ranks states based on a range of energy-efficient programs and policies, and the Index awards credit to states that fall in the top quarter of ACEEE’s rankings. 

Source: ACEEE, 2015 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard

Commitment to livability State and local plans to create age-friendly communities

Communities that have taken comprehensive steps to prepare for the aging of the U.S. population

By 2030, there will be twice as many Americans over the age of 65 as there were in 2000. To help residents live comfortably in all stages of life, communities must provide opportunities like convenient transportation, walkable neighborhoods, affordable and accessible housing, multi-generational social opportunities, and inclusive business practices—just to name a few. To guide communities toward making these forward-thinking changes, several organizations have also established peer-learning networks and identified processes to help make communities age-friendly. The Index gives credit to states, metropolitan areas, counties, and cities that are part of the AARP or World Health Organization (WHO) networks of Age-Friendly Communities or recipients of Grantmakers in Aging Community AGEnda grants. In the future, the Index may award communities that participate in other age-friendly initiatives.

Sources: AARP 2016 Age-Friendly Communities Member List, WHO Global Network for Age-friendly Cities and Communities, and Grantmakers in Aging 2016 Age-Friendly America database