Economic Development: What Quality of Life (Really) Means and How to Design It

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I’ve got some bad news Hampton Roads.

Quality of life is not measured only in sunny days and sandy beaches.

It would be nice if it were, because we’ve definitely got that angle covered. There’s plenty of postcard-worthy scenery from the coasts of Corolla and Virginia Beach to the miles of shoreline along the Chesapeake Bay.

But quality of life is more complicated than that.

In economic development, the concept of “quality of life” includes a complex balance of indicators from jobs and education to healthcare and housing. It includes arts and culture and infrastructure. Crime and taxes count too.

If we want to strengthen (and diversify) our economy and build a region with a great quality of life, all of those pieces need to be in place. They need to be working in harmony with each other and they need to grow together.

But first, it helps to understand what we’re talking about.

What is the meaning of quality of life?

Go online and look up “quality of life.” You’ll find experts who define it as “the product of the interplay among social, health, economic and environmental conditions which affect human and social development.”

Or “the individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals.”

Not exactly inspiring stuff.

That’s why I prefer to think of quality of life as everything that makes a place worth calling home.

We all live in Hampton Roads for different reasons. Some were born here and never left. Some migrated here for family, friends or career. Others fell in love and settled down. Or maybe you’re just passing through.

Wildly different circumstances brought each one of us here, but “quality of life” is our common denominator… it’s what keeps us around.

IMG_9493.jpgQuality of life stays high if a place (or region) can give its residents everything they want and need to survive and thrive. The better it is, the higher those cities, towns and counties rank on popular “livability” lists.

That’s why it’s so important to economic developers. Improving quality of life raises desirability for a destination. It attracts (and retains) population, adds revenue and boosts recognition and reputation.

In Currituck County, my job is to make sure that all of my economic development victories count toward the larger goal of improving quality of life.

But before we can win the game, we need to know how to keep score.

How do we measure quality of life?

It’s not easy.

Quality of life is a machine with a million moving parts. There’s no universal standard for measuring quality of life, but there are 10 general indicators that get evaluated:

Public Amenities
Cost of living

Most people start with the data. It makes sense because there are plenty of hard statistics when it comes to employment, housing and crime rates. It’s easy to compare those numbers and contrast them with other cities and counties. 

But other quality of life indicators are much more subjective.

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You can look at job numbers and tax rates on a chart, but how do you calculate the benefit of living near the beach? Is there a way to put a dollar value on salty summer breezes? How do you measure happiness? Is it even possible?

There are plenty of groups that are trying.

Organizations around the world are working on quality of life surveys and developing new methods to “grade” things such as emotional well-being, creativity and personal freedom. They are asking questions that challenge people to think hard about their goals, where they live and WHY they live there.

Many cities and regions have adapted some of those ideas to create their own systems for measuring quality of life. None of them are perfect. Even the most advanced organizations understand that improving quality of life is a bit like trying to hit a moving target.

Technology evolves. People get older. The future is unpredictable.

But if you want to make life better, you need to start somewhere.

How can we improve quality of life?

The quality of life “to-do list” can be intimidating.

Moving the needle on things like jobs, crime and taxes isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a while and it’s going to take a lot of hard work.

But when faced with such a daunting task, I’m reminded of a classic quote from U.S. Army General Creighton Abrams, who said:

“When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.”

Which means that the best strategy for improving quality of life is taking it one day—and one project—at a time. But where do we begin? Which indicator is most important?

Every region is different. Every place has its own priorities.

But here are some sound strategies for improving quality of life throughout Hampton Roads:

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Education + workforce = jobs

Attracting and creating jobs is central to economic development, but not all jobs are created equal. Seasonal and service jobs are a great place to start, but it’s the full-time, high-salary jobs that set off a “quality of life chain reaction.” 

Better companies bring better jobs. Better jobs bring more families, tax revenue and business development. Improved quality of life attracts even better companies.

But those companies won’t come in the first place if we can’t connect them to a skilled, qualified and well-educated workforce.

Building our best workforce starts with rethinking education. Education shouldn’t just be a box that gets checked. It shouldn’t end with a graduation ceremony. We need to make sure that our local education systems keep our local talent pipelines flowing, beginning with local school systems and colleges and continuing well into people’s careers with skills training and adult education.

Think smaller

Economic developers love to think big. But sometimes the key to cultivating a better quality of life is to think smaller.

A great example is happening in Norfolk. The same city that is celebrating two huge retail projects—Norfolk Premium Outlets and IKEA—announced a plan to start a “retail incubator” at Selden Arcade. The project gives entrepreneurs and independent small businesses a venue for launching their ideas and connecting with customers.

There’s nothing wrong with landing big deals and announcing major projects, but creative thinking can go a long way. Smaller ideas like the one in Norfolk not only help small businesses, but they add value for residents by giving them something unique and exclusive.

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Green is good 

Recreation and relaxation rank high in discussions about quality of life. Natural spaces and parks are a great way to “plant the seeds” of placemaking and encourage the public to come together.

The benefits of green space for public health and mental well-being are well-documented. Studies have shown that “the experience of nature helps to restore the mind from the mental fatigue of work or studies, contributing to improved work performance and satisfaction.”

In Currituck County, we created Maple Park near the Currituck County Regional Airport and Maple Commerce Park. The public park area includes ball fields, walking trails, a fishing lake and a skate park. Since opening, it’s become a hub of community activity. 

Close the generation gaps

These days, millennials dominate a lot of conversations about quality of life. 

Cities and counties across the country are working on ways to attract young people who are starting careers and spending money. But the generation that some places try to lure with live music venues, breweries and bike paths? They’re going to get older one day and be much more interested in elementary schools and playgrounds.

When it comes to creating a place with “maximum livability,” you can’t satisfy everyone. But in terms of demographics, you also shouldn’t try to satisfy ONLY one. 

An article from Area Development’s website noted that, “Quality of life needs to focus not just on attracting a particular demographic — it’s also about retaining people as their lives evolve.”

It’s important that we look for overlap on the multi-generational wish lists. Sometimes, retiring baby-boomers and twentysomethings are looking for the same things in a community (ie. walkability, diversity, public transportation, safety, shopping).

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Ask the people what they want

Who better to offer an assessment of quality of life than the people who are actually living there?

In 2016, Currituck invited its citizens to comment and join the conversation about where the county should be headed in the coming decades. The ensuing responses gave us insights and perspectives that could never have come from spreadsheets or charts.

Citizen polling is important. Collecting feedback from residents is a great way to uncover the emotions behind people’s thinking. Making development decisions based on cold data, architectural renderings and Google maps ignores the passion (and concerns) that people have about the place where they live. 

One academic publication noted that “people’s perceptions of their quality of life are as important, or perhaps more important, to document the reality in which they live.”

This article originally appeared in Inside Business.

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