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Urban quality of life: An overview.

This volume of papers reflects a rediscovery of interest in the concepts of quality of life, social well-being, and social or sustainability indicators research. (1) Much of this heightened interest has been generated as a result of institutional efforts to measure, in a more systematic and seemingly more objective manner, community and individual well-being. Indicators cover not only traditional census-based categories of economic and demographic structure, but also environmental and social dimensions (Federation of Canadian Municipalities 2001, Ontario Social Development Council 2000, Murdie et al. 1992). Although the authors in this volume provide their own insights into the renewed interest in quality of life and indicator research, we feel that much of the institutional and grassroots interest in these topics is captured in the following four factors:

1. Concern expressed by many non-governmental organizations and community groups over trends in poverty rates, homelessness, un/underemployment and other "markers" of decline in social program expenditures from different government levels.

2. "Jobless economic growth," that is, improvements in economic indicators accompanied by worsening social conditions, renewing a call for alternative or complementary social indicators to GDP and other bellwether economic figures.

3. Shifts in government to community accountability, notable in the "benchmark" movement by states and municipalities in the United States and, more recently, by Canadian provincial governments and municipalities, in which governments attempt to report to citizens on the basis of achievements or outcome indicators rather than simply on process, including where and how public money is spent.

4. Attempts by a variety of community-based organizations and public institutions to bridge the gap between sectors and departments, in which "quality of life" becomes a superordinate construct allowing diverse interests to analyse community and social issues more holistically.

Several of the papers in this volume cite definitions for the term "quality of life" and it may be useful to the reader at this point to have a working introduction to this term. In reviewing other definitions of QOL, Donald suggests that the common ground seems to be "...the extent to which the necessary conditions for personal satisfaction and happiness -- those attributes of the environment that stimulate satisfaction -- are achieved." Massam and Everitt, in their work-in-progress, rely upon a combination of Renwick and Brown's (1996) definition (that is, "how good one's life is for an individual") and Clark's (2000) suggestion that "quality of life for an individual is affected significantly by his or her social environment". Townshend makes a distinction between QOL and well-being. He notes that while both concepts incorporate both objective and subjective conditions of people's lives, QOL also incorporates additional individual psychological attributes. Given these various definitions, we have tried to incorporate the interplay between the individual and the surrounding household, neighbourhood, and community environments within which individuals live. As such, our working interpretation is that quality of life is subjective, shaped by the surrounding environment, and broadly-based. It is defined by the individual but formalized by the community. It links our internally held goals and values with the world around us.

The papers in this volume run from the purely conceptual (Holden and Donald) to those that combine theory with case studies on quality-of-life (Townshend, Massam and Everitt, Williams and Randall). Although this volume is entitled "urban" quality-of-life, the contributions vary considerably in their treatment of place, both in terms of scale and geographical setting. Townshend, as well as Williams and Randall, take an intra-urban comparative perspective, addressing QOL at the level of the neighbourhood. Maclaren compares community indicator reports across North American cities, while the findings of Donald and Holden can be applied at the city, region or national level. All but one of the papers are focused specifically on industrialized or more developed urban settings. Although Massam and Everitt provide an inter-urban comparison of three communities, they offer theadditional element of examining QOL in a less developed setting, in this case western Mexico.

Townshend's paper was placed first in this collection because it provides a succinct introduction to the concepts of quality of life and well-being. These concepts are then applied in a spatially-informed empirical comparison of wellbeing across a set of neighbourhoods in Lethbridge, Alberta. This paper integrates a traditional quantitative description of urban social structure with the qualitative dimension more closely associated with QOL or well-being studies. Therefore, not only does the paper make a contribution to urban QOL research, but it also extends urban factorial ecology in a manner that addresses one of the principal criticisms of these models, that being their inability to incorporate behavioural, cognitive or affective characteristics of communities. Townshend has shown that there is a much stronger statistical explanatory relationship between experiential community structures (i.e., the behavioural, cognitive and affective experiences of place) and the geography of well-being than there is between the census-based social structural variables and well-being. In Townshend's words, "understanding and measuring changing geographies of income, ethnicity, family status, or charting increases in social segregation and social polarization (which are generally seen to be spatial manifestations of social structural change) may have little utility in understanding the intra-urban ecology of well-being."

Meg Holden reviews the problems and uses associated with the social indicator movement of the 1960s and 1970s as a harbinger of what we might expect from the more current incarnation of this research; urban sustainability indicators. Holden's paper forces us to step back from the many empirical examples of urban sustainability indicator studies that are now being churned out both by academics and by government agencies, and ask ourselves what they really intend to accomplish, and whether they are meeting those expectations. In examining several Canadian and American communities where sustainability indicators have been created and disseminated, she suggests that there is increasing recognition that the greatest value of these efforts has not been in their ability to "solve" certain urban social, economic or environmental problems, but rather in their capacity to raise public awareness with regard to the interdependence of public issues, enhance civic participation, and increase the likelihood that civic group s will be able to work more collaboratively in the future. She suggests that defining success on the basis of these process-oriented criteria fits within a broader evaluative model of social environmental learning.

In methodology and context, the paper by Williams and Randall is similar to that by Townshend. Both papers address QOL at an intra-urban level, an approach that, surprisingly, has not been commonly used. Although both papers use questionnaire surveys to develop a baseline of perceptions of QOL in their respective communities, Williams and Randall have defined the dimensions of QOL based on input from the community itself. This multi-stakeholder approach has been applied to address the objective of understanding how different characteristics of neighbourhoods or locales influence quality of life for persons in similar socioeconomic circumstances. Specifically, they compare the attitudes and perceptions of over 900 households drawn from three neighbourhoods; those composed of families primarily of Low, Medium and High socioeconomic status (SES). They find that there are statistically significant variations in perception of neighbourhood attributes between the Low SES neighbourhoods on the one hand, and the Medi um and High SES neighbourhoods on the other. In addition, the perceptions of the residents in Low SES neighbourhood are much more internally consistent across the entire range of variables defining QOL than in the Medium and High SES areas.

A persistent theme in the emerging literature on urban or regional scale QOL is the link between the amenity characteristics of place (social, environmental, cultural, and recreational) and economic development. In particular, there has been growing interest by researchers, municipal politicians and business leaders in the degree to which "quality of place" serves to attract and retain the high-skilled employees. These employees are reputed to be one of the key ingredients for success in the "new economy". Donald's paper critiques this literature, relying heavily on the work by Florida (2000) for the concept of "quality of place" and Markusen (2000) for occupational growth theory. Although she finds six criticisms of the literature, nevertheless she concludes that the new regional growth theory literature based on these concepts is not just a passing fad. Rather, old-style yardsticks of economic progress such as minimum wage, "...fails to take into account new research on the changing nature of competition, and the role that city regions and quality of life plays in a more sustainable development model."

Maclaren's paper provides a fascinating counterpoint to Donald's. While Maclaren also reviews literature on community indicators, a label she suggests includes QOL, sustainability reports, and other indicator studies, as indicators of "place image", she is more concerned with dissecting the process and problems associated with the creation of these indicators studies. Her paper reviews 30 community indicator reports from 24 communities, conducted between 1993 and 2001, including one for which she was a participant observer. She concludes that the selection of indicators to be tracked was highly dependent upon who was conducting the study. The research also suggested that disagreement with the results was as much a function of differences in understanding of the purpose as it was criticism of the methodology of the indicator project. In some cases, indicators are used to track what is, while in other cases, they are used normatively to assess "what should be". This paper also complements that by Holden in que stioning the bases on which we define success in community indicators projects.

Massam and Everitt's paper has been added as a work-in-progress in order to showcase several additional dimensions of QOL research. Not only does it apply a different method to better understand QOL in a developing world setting, it also addresses the issue of the influence of tourism on the QOL of residents in three Mexican towns, suggesting that the specific characteristics of these places are linked to residents' perceptions of their QOL. In keeping with this place-specific approach, they provide a detailed description of the three towns (El Tuito, Ixtapa and Las Palmas) in the tourist-oriented region around Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and how they have been influenced by tourism. The authors then apply a procedure developed by Renwick and Brown (1996) that requires respondents to estimate: (1) the relative importance of a set of factors related to QOL; and (2) a set of achievement scores for each of these factors. The variations across each of these dimensions create an overall QOL score for each town. The authors also add a longitudinal dimension by asking residents in two of the three communities their expectations of QOL in the future. Overall, they found that there was striking similarity across the three communities in the ranked importance of QOL factors, and in the ranked achievement of these factors. One of the values of this ongoing research is that it will be able to track the evolving perceptions of QOL in communities that are increasingly subjected to both the positive (e.g., employment opportunities) and the negative (e.g., pollution and congestion) consequences of a booming tourism market.

Collectively, these papers contribute to literature in areas far beyond that of urban quality of life. They provide the reader with insights into new regional growth theory and intercity economic competition, quality of place, sense of place and place image, the economic and social impacts of tourism, social environmental learning, and urban factorial ecology. Within the theme of Urban Quality of Life, and partly as a reflection of their origin, they provide an explicitly geographic or spatial focus to QOL and well-being. They recognize that interpretation of well-being by individuals and communities is place-specific, and is grounded locally within a neighbourhood or town. Together, they make a significant contribution to our understanding of the geography of QOL, and how this is linked with economic change, poverty, socioeconomic status, and local political decision-making.

Recalling the motivations for the resurgence of QOL research noted earlier, these papers also provide us with insights into the process and method of undertaking research on these topics. This is particularly important given that there appear to be two broad types of indicators projects; those that rely largely on secondary data, provide an intercity comparison, and intend to show change over time (Federation of Canadian Municipalities 2001, Murdie et al. 1992); and those at a more local level that use a participatory model in designing and carrying out the project. This latter group of studies relies upon the subjective and perceptual assessment of residents, often gathered through surveys, to measure and analyse QOL, and in so doing, reflects unique community values and character. For example, questions of how and for whom success is measured in QOL and indicators projects run through several of the papers. Although the national-level intercity comparative exercises cited above might measure success on the basis of change in the calculated indicators overtime, or relative change in the rankings of communities, several of the authors included in this volume argue that success should also be measured in terms of the ability to enhance civic participation, form new collaborative initiatives, and shape policy that addresses problems or issues uncovered as a result of the research. This latter approach requires an integration of qualitative and quantitative methods that is theoretically and empirically difficult to standardize and replicate in a comparison across communities, given the reliance upon local input and the interplay between the individual and broader community-level structures that is inherent in most of the definitions of quality of life.

An obvious area for future research on quality of life that emerges from this volume is the need for more work at the intra-urban and, indeed, intra-neighbourhood scale. It is at this level that many of the key QOL dimensions, such as safety and security, play out in a meaningful way in the lives of people. Also, even if we recognize and appreciate the multiple ways of assessing outcomes and successes, rarely has research examined the ability and effectiveness of QOL projects to effect policy change. This is surprising given the underlying goals of many of these exercises. Finally, the dichotomy that emerges in discussing differences in QOL research method and process in itself constitutes a future area of enquiry. How can QOL and indicators research be used as a benchmark to monitor real change when one approach to research cannot reflect particular local circumstances and the other is both expensive and relies on a process that must shift over time in concert with the values of stakeholders?

James B. Randall

Allison M. Williams

University of Saskatchewan

Acknowledgements and Grants

Funded in part by the Community-University Institute for Social Research (CUISR) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada under a Community University Research Alliance grant.


(1.) This volume of papers emerges out of a series of special sessions on Urban Quality of Life (QOL) held at the June, 2001 meeting of the Canadian Association of Geographers in Montreal.


Clark, N.M. 2000. "Understanding Individual and Collective Capacity to Enhance Quality of Life" Health Education and Behavior 27: 699-707.

Federation of Canadian Municipalities 2001. Quality of Life in Canadian Communities 2001 Report. Ottawa: Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Florida, R. 2000. "Competing in the Age of Talent: Quality of Place and the New Economy." (Report prepared for the R.K. Mellon Foundation, Heinz Endowments, and Sustainable Pittsburgh).

Markusen, A. 2000. "Targeting Occupations Rather than Industries in Regional and Community Economic Development." Working Paper, Director, Project on Regional and Industrial Economics, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

Murdie, R.A., D. Rhyne and J. Bates 1992. Modelling Quality of Life Indicators in Canada: A Feasibility Analysis. Ottawa: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Ontario Social Development Council and Social Planning Network of Ontario 2000. The Quality of Life in Ontario. Toronto: Ontario Social Development Council.

Renwick, R. and I. Brown 1996. "The Centre for Health Promotion's conceptual approach to quality of life: being, belonging and becoming". In Quality of Life in Health Promotion and Rehabilitation, edited by R. Renwick, I. Brown, and M. Nagler: 75-88. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.
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Author:Randall, James E.; Williams, Allison M.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Urban Research
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Previous Article:Networks in the Global Village: Life in Contemporary Communities. (Book Reviews).
Next Article:The contribution of social and experiential community structures to the intra-urban ecology of well-being.

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