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What Constitutes Quality of Life?

A city manager once told me that the only goal established for his community is ‘To Achieve Quality of Life for all Citizens.’ While a commendable vision, in my view it is hardly a strategic goal that belongs in a strategic plan. I didn’t win many points when I asked him to list the criteria the city had established to measure quality of life or to mark when the desired level was achieved. In essence, the answer was something like, ‘We’ll know it when we see it.’

Megan McArdle has written a great article in the November 2009 issue of The Atlantic that addresses one element of the quality of life question. Titled Misleading Indicator, the article addresses the national fixation on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the fundamental measure of America’s progress and well being. While GDP is the accepted measure of the Nation’s total annual production (goods and services produced annually), it has virtually nothing to do with the more basic question, ‘How are we doing?’ As McArdle notes, “It counts the dollar value of our output, but not the actual improvement in our lives, or even our economic condition.”

In communities across America, questions abound about how people are faring during this transformational era. With a re-centering economy that is grappling with rising energy, food, healthcare, and infrastructure costs, is it still possible to have a great life? In middle urban and suburban America can families and individuals achieve happiness, fulfillment, joy, harmony, and security? Do these ingredients comprise a quality life?

If one poses the question: ‘Are you better off than you were five years ago?’ there is the ever present slippery slope associated with the common response, “Based on what?’

Local government leaders must attend to much more than local productivity, job creation, economic development, and preservation of tax revenues. Is it possible for a local community to experience a reduced population, an out-migration or decline of business, revenue shortfalls, and more restricted service levels and STILL be a great place to live? Can quality of life be achieved and sustained without consistent growth, renewal, and development?

Certainly, it is a matter of balance but the primary question relies more on philosophical than analytical perspectives. During difficult times, do we pursue the illusion that the community will return to its glory days and that good times are just around the corner? Or that growth is the great panacea? Is it more essential that we maintain public transportation, decent parks, serviceable water and wastewater systems, adequate public safety and good schools while promoting broad-based collaboration, shared resources, private-public partnering, and a sense of community?

 Quality of life questions are best defined by individual communities. As McArdle noted in her article, much of the progress in important, high-value areas of life are invisible to most people. What is essential to some is irrelevant to others. People want stability and predictability. Stable, communicative, honest government at all levels is precious and will become more critical in future years.

Though I have raised the question in prior Blogs, I would again ask, What are the elements of a community that are essential for stability, harmony, and a collaborative spirit? I have seen these characteristics in seemingly poor communities with minimal services, marginal infrastructure, and struggling businesses. In such places, cohesiveness and collegiality are common attributes. Does stability, harmony, and collegiality equate to quality of life? Perhaps. At the very least, they matter as much as GDP, productivity, cost of living, and new housing starts.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

One Response

  1. My quality of life can be based only on those things/issues that are completely under MY control. Am I happy with my action relative to what I consider importantl. Did I take my action as far as I could based on the knowledge that I had. Therefore My quality of life is measured by my actions and my honesty to myself.


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