What does the term “Quality of Life” mean?

Politicians, land developers and advertisers seek, and usually get our support by promising us a “better quality of life”. Neither they nor we have ever had a definition of the term, but we have become accustomed to the assumption that a “better quality of life” means living more like rich folk. By definition, then, the opposite means living like poor folk. So, if we elect the politician, buy the condo or the shaving cream being advertised, we can be assured of the ability to live like rich people – in mansions where we are served by the less fortunate, transported in gilt chariots over pothole-free streets and protected from the rabble.

Of course, by implication, for this to work, there must be a rabble – people who see themselves as not deserving of a “good” quality of life, basically because of their station in life. So it is important that we all commit to seeking a “better quality of life” so as to avoid being part of the rabble.

So one of the ways politicians frame their promises is that they would improve our quality of life. To support this, they establish rules and guidelines that are supposed to result in the delivery of their promises. For example, there has been a decision made to limit the heights of buildings on the island of New Providence to three stories, except for Downtown, Cable Beach and Paradise Island (I’m not sure why there would be no damage to the quality of life in those areas though). This decision is difficult to defend if it is based upon a concern for quality of life, since Bahamians who have lived in large cities like New York or Atlanta have reported experiencing a better quality of life in those places than in Nassau. The rate of suicide among rich people seems higher than that among poor people, which suggest that being rich does not ensure a better quality of life. So there seems to be no correlation between the size of buildings or projects, (or being wealthy) and enjoying a better quality of life. In fact, every time I drive past the Montagu foreshore and experience one of the most spectacular sights on earth, free of charge, I am convinced that the quality of life we experience has little or nothing to do with the built environment. But the built environment may either support or restrict it.

I believe that the quality of life experienced by an individual is a function of where they are on the journey of needs satisfaction, as outlined by Abraham Maslow. At any level of needs satisfaction, there is the potential for the experience of a great quality of life. There is also the perception that at the next level there will be an improvement of that quality of life. While there may be things that might facilitate growth that can be offered by the outside world (i.e. by politicians), personal growth is a personal journey, and therefore so is the experience of the quality of life and the measurement of it. What the job of the politician is, is the development of an environment that supports the experience of the best quality of life regardless of where the individual is along the needs satisfaction journey, from pure survival to concerns for safety and security to community development to finding and experiencing value in themself to complete self-actualization. The built environment must respond to all of these stages, rather than choosing one or two of them and denying those further along or not as far along the path and dooming them to experience exclusion.

This means that the conversation about the size, shape and density of the buildings in the environment have nothing to do with the quality of life, but rather with a reluctance to trust time to address the issues of innovation and the march of history. In the book “Architecture in Context”, it is noted that just about every building we find exceptional and valuable today was out of place when it was built. It was, in each case, innovative. What we seem to have done is rob our children of the opportunity to express their innovative skills by wishing our environment to remain as it is. In other words, we are robbing our children of the opportunity to dream by threatening them with a reduced quality of life if their dream is bigger than ours. The fact is, we are lying. The size, shape or density of buildings is not what creates the quality of life. What creates quality of life is the extent to which the built environment responds to the dreams of the population, regardless whether they are rich or poor, ignorant or enlightened. And regardless whether they are big or small.

So what is the point of this post? It is this. While there have been countless negative comments about the size and shape of large resort projects in the Bahamas, often by people who still brag about how much better they lived in large cities where the buildings were big and built close together, there have been no attempts to introduce or discuss a vision for the future of our built environment. We seem to be passionate about what we DON”T want, but we have not accepted the responsibility for crafting the vision of what we DO want. We prefer to tear down everybody else’s vision, but refuse live up to the responsibility for creating and contributing one ourselves.

When I landed in Miami in 1952, it looked a little like Palmdale. The tallest building, a Federal building, was about 6 stories high. Everything else was less than 4 stories high. Third Avenue was like Blue Hill Road, a commercial spine with two-storey buildings where the locals shopped. Today the same area is part of the 60-storey skyline we have admired on TV, part of why we promise our children the treat of visiting there if they do well in school, to enjoy a high quality of life as a reward.

I once showed a potential client that with his 2 acres of land he could either get 14 single family lots, each with a small backyard and a 0.2 acre playground within walking distance, or 32 less expensive units in a 6-storey building, with a playground large enough for a basketball court, a jogging track and a children’s play area, with a superior lifestyle. He insisted that Bahamians would never live in multi-story buildings or pay maintenance fees.

The prejudice we have built up about the urban look has led us to substitute our judgement of the experiences we have at eye level for an image in ads about tropical life. We accept as truth that it is better to have dilapidated single story buildings on narrow, unpaved roads than any urban environment. Could we be sacrificing our own quality of life for the stereotype images of our own tourism advertisements?

 July 2015