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The quality of life of the quality of place

During a recent conversation, the chairman of a multi-state economic development organization told me that a consultant has recommended that his agency drop the term “quality of life” and replace it with “quality of place.”  An interesting idea, to be sure.  The more I thought about it, the more I believe he may be onto something.  And if my basic research is any indication, communities around the country are beginning to pick up on the idea.

According to the consultant, the term “quality of life” conjures up different things to different people and can sometimes send the wrong message to the intended audience, which in the case of a community would be made up of business prospects, visitors and potential residents.  Prospective newcomers are certainly interested in the quality of the place, but their ideas of quality of life probably vary with each person.  For example, retiree’s idea of a good quality of life might be different than that of a recent college graduate.  Not only that, but the term tends to be used with other phrases that instill potentially negative images.  For example, when a community uses “quality of life” and “traditional values” in its marketing message, it may not be sending the desired message.  Whose traditional values, for example?

I did a quick search of a dozen web sites of communities and discovered the following under the “Quality of Life” section: 

“We believe that it is good to enjoy life at a slower pace.”

“We possess the close-knit feel of classic ‘small-town’ America, as well as the cultural diversity you’d expect to find in more cosmopolitan areas.”

“…offers the finest in recreation and relaxation…”

“…means good people and a good place to live.”

All of these are about values, which seem to be a fundamental component of any definition of the term quality of life.  By the way, there seems to be no standard definition of the term.  Nevertheless, it was obvious in my Internet searching that schools, healthcare, recreation and climate seem to be standard factors.  

No less than The Economist Intelligence Unit faced a challenge when coming up with a Quality of Life Index in 2005.  It pointed out that material well-being alone does not determine quality of life.  It then constructed a Life Satisfaction Index, which contained factors ranging from community life to health.  It then weighted those factors before ranking the countries of the world.  As you can see, the quality of life measurement game can get very complicated.

So what is a community to do?  One of the first things would be to consider what is going on in current population and migration trends at the national and regional level.  Two authors with recent best-selling books offer some insight.  In his book “The Big Sort,” Bill Bishop points out that people are moving to neighborhoods that reflect their own ideology.  In “Who’s Your City,” Richard Florida discusses what he calls “means migration,” which he defines as the mass relocation of highly skilled, highly educated and highly paid people to a relatively small number of metropolitan regions, and a corresponding exodus of tradition lower and middle classes from these same places.  Both authors state that this sorting of people by ideology and economics is unprecedented.  

Several communities around the country are latching onto the quality of place concept.  Two examples are offered.  In Mitchell, S.D., a Future Focus committee, as it was called, used quality of place instead of quality of life in its recent report (April 2009) on the future of the community.   The committee ultimately developed 12 indicators from which it attempted to define “quality of place.” They chose aesthetics, economics (jobs, work force, technology), schools, housing, health and wellness, churches, recreation, entertainment and culture, retail services, senior citizen services, tourism and diversity.  In Maine, a 2006 Brookings Institute report titled “Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places” assessed the current state of the state and suggested a route forward. It pointed out that the search for quality places grows in importance and that Maine possesses a globally known “brand” built on images of livable communities, stunning scenery and great recreational opportunities.  Subsequently, the governor appointed a Council on Maine’s Quality of Place.  Cities then adopted their own so-called place plans.

 So, should the term quality of life be replaced by quality of place?  Or is this discussion about terminology much ado about nothing?  Should chambers of commerce immediately change the wording on their marketing materials?  Should local and state governments rework their web sites to reflect the new term?  I would not recommend any of the above just yet.  Nevertheless, I suspect that this may be the beginning of a trend in defining and marketing communities.  

Time will tell. 


Phil Hardwick is coordinator of Capacity Development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.


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