Alliance Members Define, Measure, and Compare Quality of Life Among Cities

ARTICLE | Dec 2, 2013

“Quality of life” is a slippery term because it depends on who’s using it. Rural areas equate quality of life with wide open spaces. Suburbs and exurbs define it as “safe and affordable.” Relative to the perception of their bigger neighbors and large cities define quality of life as dense and walkable with access to everything.

Asking a community to define its quality of life is like asking beauty pageant contestants to define their best characteristics. All will have an answer and none will be wrong.

Beginning around the turn of the century, my team and I began to look closely at quality of life through the lens of the young professional workforce. How did in-demand college grads define “quality of life”? What made a city cool to them?

We started this work because we saw a shift in the way new college grads, mostly Gen X 20-somethings, were starting their professional lives. They weren’t following jobs like their parents did. They were choosing a place to live and then finding work. This was a significant shift.

Beginning in 2000, when the 1990-2000 census data was released, we saw talent clusters in certain cities, mostly larger metros but also relatively little known places then, like Austin and Portland. What did these cities have that other cities didn’t?

We looked closely at these talent hotspots to see if we could codify what made them special. What we found—and what we continue to find — is that educated young professionals cluster in places that have high scores in several of the following indexes:

Seven Quality of Life Indexes

1. Learning - How smart is the community? What percentage of the population has degrees beyond high school?
2. Earning - How diverse are the community’s job opportunities, and what is the experience for entrepreneurs?
3. After Hours - What’s happening after work and on weekends in terms of retail, festivals, bars, etc.?
4. Around Town - How much time do I spend stuck in traffic? What’s the mass transit like? Can I catch a flight someplace else for work or for the weekend?
5. Cost of Lifestyle - Can I afford to live here?
6. Vitality - Is this a healthy community, where people are active, there’s access to fresh food, etc.?
7. Social Capital - Is this a community that welcomes all people, and where people are engaged?

Quality of Life, 2001-2013

The seven quality of life indexes have stood the test of time since 2001 when they were first released. They have been used by city leaders in Canada and the U.S. to assess their quality of life and invest in improvements.

In 2012, I approached the Alliance for Innovation to ask for members’ help in reassessing our indexes. Were we measuring the right categories, and the right things within those categories?

In October 2013, six alliance members (see Quality of Life Pilot Participants below) worked with us to break down the 50-plus metrics inside the seven Quality of Life indexes, and rebuild it from the ground up.

After several rounds of facilitated discussion and debate, Alliance members kept over 80 percent of the metrics, and changed 13% of what’s measured. We have a new and improved set of quality of life metrics that are battle-tested and peer-approved.

Quality of Life Pilot Participants: Arlington County, VA; the City of Decatur, GA; the City of Durham, NC; the City of Novi, MI, the City of Palo Alto, CA; and the City of St. Louis Park, MN.

In return for Pilot members’ time and effort, my team gathered the new measures for each Pilot community and provided them with two datasets and two “Handprints”: one comparing the city or county to its larger MSA and the other compared to all the other pilot communities.

Below is the Arlington County “Handprint” (pink) compared to the Washington DC MSA (blue). The handprint shows that Arlington County beats the DC MSA in After Hours and Vitality, but lags in Social Capital, Learning and Earning.



With this data, each Pilot community can assess its quality of life as the next generation does, and can invest in areas of importance vis a vis its larger urban metro. Here’s what several of the Pilots are doing:

  • Arlington County, VA is combining their handprint and quality of life data with a young professionals survey they’ve recently commissioned to zero in on areas where they can make investments and improvements.
  • Durham, NC is using the quality of life data sets to collect data for a new set of benchmark cities to show how Durham compares with other cities beyond the Pilot cities
  • Novi, MI is using their handprint to show how Novi contributes to the regional Detroit-based economy, and in turn, how the region offers assets that Novi doesn’t

The Payoff

So what? Who cares if you attract a next-gen, educated workforce?
Turns out, the payoff is huge. CEOs for Cities calls it the Talent Dividend:

  • For every one percent increase in the percentage of bachelor degree holders in your city, your community gets an $865 per capita economic dividend. For a city of 100,000 people, increasing your share of BA degree holders boosts your economy by $86.5M.
  • 58% of a city’s success, based on per capita income, can be attributed to post-secondary degree attainment.

To get a copy of the quality of life metrics, including free step-by-step instructions on how you can measure your community’s quality of life, email Rebecca Ryan,
About the author: Rebecca Ryan is a futurist specializing in the next generation workforce and the future of cities. She currently serves as the Resident Futurist for the Alliance for Innovation. Learn more:

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