By Dom Nozzi
[Updated Jan 2009]
“Quality of Life” has become a common “buzz phrase” at neighborhood gatherings, legislative deliberations, corporate boardrooms, and government offices. Everyone strives for it, but very few are able to define it precisely. We grope for descriptions, and end up with vague generalities such as “freedom from pain,” “maximized individual choice or freedom,” “the greatest good for the greatest number,” “congestion-free roads,” or “winning the Florida lottery.” Because our definitions are so vague, however, we find it difficult to decide whether our community boasts a high quality of life, or, in terms of changes to our community, whether a development proposal in our community will help us improve our quality of life.
Fortunately, our understanding of the concept is sufficient to enable us to make at least mildly accurate decisions about which actions improve our quality of life, and which will harm it.
Without such an understanding, our city and county commissioners would have no issues to debate. Citizens attending commission meetings would have no developments to fight for (or against).
Some of us are so bold and presumptuous as to state publicly what we feel would improve the quality of life for the entire community. In our efforts to argue for actions which would
improve the quality of life for the community, though, we are often hindered by something more than the inability to adequately define quality of life. This hindrance, which seems to grow
stronger every day, is, ironically enough, our promotion of public safety.
At first glance, there would seem to be perfect harmony between quality of life and public safety. After all, without promoting public safety, the quality of our lives would more likely be harmed by injuries, death of loved ones, or crime. And because our society has a history of dangerous streets, buildings, and factories, we have filled our law books with regulations and codes which minimize threats to public safety.
But it seems we have gone too far. In our rush to protect ourselves from all the risks of life, we have become timid, uncreative, joyless, and fearful. Due to the Law of Diminishing Returns, we have reached the point where our huge expenditures of time, effort, and money for the attainment of even greater levels of public safety are actually harming our quality of life. For example:
· Our courts allow us to win huge liability lawsuits when negligence is demonstrated. Yet this liability has become so fearfully expensive that companies are afraid to test and market new products (such as birth control devices). Similarly, governments are unable to satisfy a large and growing demand for inexpensive skateboard facilities and other imaginative youth play equipment.
· Our jails and prisons are bursting at the seams due to the huge increase in persons apprehended for crimes and incarcerated. Yet the huge cost of processing and warehousing such massive numbers of citizens has greatly diminished our ability to build parks or educate our children.
· Our building codes enable us to reduce the probability of fires and accidents in our offices, homes, and schools. Yet the cost of retrofitting older buildings in our downtowns is so high that aspiring, creative entrepreneurs, artists, and restaurants are often chased to locations remote from downtown, thereby increasing the sprawl so detrimental to our quality of life.
· Traffic safety standards frequently necessitate the removal of often huge and ancient oak trees considered too close to the roadway. Rather than slowing traffic to preserve these magnificent trees, we opt for the chainsaw.
It is time for a change in how we approach public safety. Largely, this must be done by insuring, first, that public safety does not suboptimize over other essential community objectives such as quality of life. And that will take wisdom and leadership.
My latest book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here.
You can schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
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