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Quality of Life Indicators

A new way to measure progress

March 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Perhaps no character trait more clearly distinguishes the United States from other industrialized nations than the American devotion to statistics. From the acres of irrigated wheat across the country (3.73 million) to the number of miles the average sixth grader doodles (1.3), is there any fact of even modest note that goes uncatalogued?

We are a country of polls, lists, standings, rankings, indexes and charts. From the family kitchen to the manager’s office, from city hall to the Oval Office, almost nothing of consequence occurs without its attendant numerical recording.

But what happens when leaders conclude that measures they have long relied on to assess their community’s performance — such as unemployment rates, education levels, and average incomes — are stale or incomplete? The answer: develop new measures of civic health.

In select Michigan communities, and in many others across the country, business groups and municipalities have unleashed their treasuries to pay fact gatherers, hold workshops, and finance new tailor-made statistical models to measure how they are doing. No longer content to gauge mere economic and cultural strength alone, these communities are seeking to put numerical values to their "quality of life."

Quality of life, like beauty, is a relative concept. Thus, communities seeking to appraise quality of life have scoured the countryside for distinctive measures to define it. In Traverse City, the number of professional educators with masters degrees is being documented as are tons of recycled material per capita. In Detroit, statistics are being collected to count the number of days public beaches were closed because of bacterial contamination.

Jacksonville, Fla. compares delivery of public services in 17 neighborhoods. New Hampshire communities in the Connecticut River Valley are recording the number of new developments in the floodplain. Twelve counties in California’s Sierra Nevada range established a wealth index that measured 42 indicators, among them achievement scores of college bound students, the availability of physicians, and the rate of old growth timber harvest. Seattle counts wild salmon in the Cedar River, and measures the amount of park space that is 1/8 to 1/4 mile from residences.

Such exercises in number crunching are variously known as "Community Benchmarking," "Quality of Life Indexes," or "Sustainability Indicator" projects. They are seen by proponents as dynamic new tools to aid community planning. By taking consistent measurement of non-traditional indicators — average traffic counts on busy highways, days of high ozone pollution, number of people who maintain active public library membership, to name just a few — supporters say their communities are gaining access to more relevant information from which leaders and residents can make informed policy decisions.

"We see it as a chance to compile pieces of information specific to our community that we can use for planning," said Marsha Smith, executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, who is managing a new $40,000 benchmarking project in the Traverse City area. "In this day of dwindling state and federal resources, and declining natural resources, it will give us a real measure of how we are doing allocating economic resources."

But quality of life index projects have also raised concerns among some city and regional leaders. They worry the projects are value-loaded, faddish replacements for the hard work of fact-gathering, constituency building, and policy implementation that has long marked the best of civic governance. "In some instances, it may turn out to be an academic exercise especially if communities don’t happen to hit on the right indicators," said Don Last, professor of resource management at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, and editor of Law of the Land Review. "Also, there is always the possibility that you can misinterpret indicators."

Similar warnings, though, have not diminished the enthusiasm for quality of life projects. In Michigan, projects are underway in Ann Arbor and Flint, and a third is due to be operational in February in Traverse City. In other states, according to various sources including a world wide web site, more than 100 such projects are in effect or nearing completion.

Measuring urban trends to assist in planning is nothing new, of course. During the Depression, H.L. Mencken, the famed Baltimore journalist, published a famous series of articles that rated the quality of life in cities and states. Mencken’s rankings were based on household incomes and education levels, crime rates, housing prices, infant mortality, and other now-standard statistical measurements.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Census Bureau updated its statistical models and began publishing series of quality of life measurements for cities and states. Included in the series were attitude surveys that asked citizens such questions as how safe they felt in their neighborhoods, how long their commute was, how they felt about the environment.

The modern benchmarking projects got their start in Florida in 1985 when the non-profit Jacksonville Community Council invited citizens to assist municipal leaders in better defining the quality of life and setting civic goals for the year 2000. The project, which was heavily financed by the chamber of commerce, led to a Quality Indicators report that costs $15,000 to $20,000 annually to keep current.

The report, now financed by the city, includes 75 separate measures of civic life grouped in 9 categories — education, economy, public safety, natural environment, health, social environment, government, culture/recreation, and mobility. Many of the statistics are culled from existing data bases, such as those measuring water quality.

Others are completely home grown. For instance, Jacksonville surveys residents each year to determine what percentage of people say racism exists. In 1994, 60 percent said it existed. The city set a goal of reducing the positive responses to 28 percent by 2000. Jacksonville also asks citizens how safe they feel walking alone at night. Roughly 64 percent said they felt safe in 1984, but that number fell to 51 percent a decade later. The city’s goal is that 60 percent of its citizens should feel safe on the street at night by 2000.

"One of the innovations in Jacksonville was to find out what residents themselves felt were key goals and what was needed to both measure and attain them," said Cyrus A.Yoakum, publisher of Urban Quality Indicators, a quarterly newsletter published in Ann Arbor that covers the indexing projects around the country. "Until then, cities measured current levels of performance, and weren’t much interested in setting targets."

The success of Jacksonville’s project as a meter of civic health, and in setting planning targets, has attracted national attention. In the fall of 1995, members of the board of directors of Rotary Charities in Traverse City learned about Jacksonville’s effort during a conference and became enthused.

In the 1990s, Rotary Charities has targeted much of its grant making on improving land use management and protecting the environment. The business group’s focus has helped to establish Traverse City as one of the leading rural centers of environmental policy innovation in the nation. A model program for preserving farm land and open space was established on Old Mission Peninsula in 1994, the first of its kind in the Middle West. In 1996, Rotary Charities financed a 5-county growth management project, New Designs for Growth, that is bringing public education and technical specialists to rural townships. Last year, the nation’s largest electric windmill was constructed and put on line by the local power utility, a project that the business community supported. And Rotary Charities has facilitated a series of talks between the environmental and road building communities over alternatives to a proposed $250 million highway bypass planned for Traverse City.

Thus, when the Rotary board members learned about the Jacksonville project, they quickly recognized that an annual report card on the health of the Grand Traverse region would be a useful addition to the group’s work. Along with Rotary Charities, the indicators project has received funding from the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, the Oleson Foundation, Grand Traverse County, Benzie County and the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation.

According to Marsha Smith, Rotary formed a steering committee that identified 10 general subjects to measure. Eight have become standard in most indexing projects — culture/recreation, economy, education, government and politics, health, infrastructure and transportation, natural environment, and public safety. Two subject areas, though, are distinctive — ethical and civil norms, and social environment.

The committee then identified potential indicators to be measured within each subject area. Last fall, the indicators were critiqued at four public meetings held in Antrim, Benzie, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties. Rotary hired research teams at Northwestern Michigan College to collect the data and to conduct a citizen survey of 1,885 residents.

The preliminary findings were made public in December. In January, the Traverse City Record Eagle published a fuller accounting. Among the most intriguing results were from the survey. It found, for instance, that 49 percent of the commutes in the region take less than 15 minutes, and 55 percent of those surveyed said they anticipated that wouldn’t change soon. The reason: traffic congestion was not getting worse.

The survey also found that a large majority of residents enjoyed their lives in Northwest Michigan. More than 75 percent of those who responded rated the region as an excellent or above average place to live.

"The Quality of Life Indicator Project is intended to be an annual community report card," said Ms. Smith. "We expect that this process will be one of continuous improvement over several years, ensuring that this will be a useful tool to improve the quality of life for everyone in north western Michigan."


About the Author


Keith Schneider, an environmental writer and regular commentator on National Public Radio’s Living on Earth, is executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Benzonia.


For More Information on:


Urban Quality Indicators and publisher, Cyrus A. Yoakum, Suite 239, 1756 Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48105 phone/fax 313-996-8610. Charter Subscriptions are $21.75 and $7.25 for a sample issue.


Traverse City Quality of Life Indicators Project, c/o Marsha Smith, Executive Director Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, 115 Park Street, Traverse City, MI. 49684. voice 616-935-4066, fax 616-941-4066.


Law of the Land Review and publisher Don Last, College of Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point., Stevens Point, WI 54481. voice 715-346-2386, e-mail: dlast@uwsp.edu


Jacksonville Quality Indicators Project, c/o Jacksonville Community Council, Inc., 2434 Atlantic Boulevard, Suite 100, Jacksonville, FL 32207, voice 904-396-3052


Sierra Business Council, Leigh Fitzpatrick, Field Director, P.O. Box 2428 Truckee, CA 96160. voice 916-582-4800, fax 916-582-1230, e-mail: sbc@sierra.net. A copy of the 48-page Sierra Nevada Wealth Index is $11.75.


Sustainable Seattle, c/o Kara Palmer, Program Director, Metrocenter YMCA, 909 Fourth Avenue., Seattle WA 98104. voice 206-382-5013 ext. 5072, fax 206-382-7894, e-mail sustsea@halycyon.com, Web: http//wwwscn.org/sustainable/susthome.hlml.


For a Guide to Sustainable Community Indicators, check out this web site. Http://www.subject-matters.com/indicators/index.html

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