Searching for the term “Quality of Life” in Google Scholar results in nearly 2.5 million entries and although the year is still young, 16,500 of these papers have been published in 2015! Obviously there is large interest in quality of life.
Currently several researchers of our department (mainly in Prof. Blaschke’s working group ) are working on this topic; mostly in transdisciplinary project collaborations. Out of this, a miniconference has been organized this week as part of a PhD intensive week. I had the opportunity to give a kind of workbench report of our research group, presenting three recently developed analysis tools for planning purposes. Before I provide details and reflect on some of the other contributions, a fundamental question needs to be dealt with: “Quality of Life?? What is it all about?” Right, what is it actually about and why do geographers care about it?
First, many different disciplines use the term “Quality of Life” for their particular field of interest. Thus the first challenge is to get some orientation in the jungle of termini technici and buzzwords. I’ll try to briefly do this …
Being interested from a scientific perspective I first search for journals. The journal with the most promising title Quality of Life Research turns out to exclusively deal with aspects of life quality in the context of medical treatment. The journal’s very first paper, published in 1992, investigates how the quality of life changes in cases of head and neck cancer.
Because this domain-specific approach is rather different from the common understanding in my field, I consult the disambiguation page in the Wikipedia and found it quite handy. At least it helps me to learn that not only medical professionals but also movie makers seem to have some interest in the topic. Apart from these insights a quote in a linked Wikipedia article by economist Robert Costanza catches my interest: quality of life has been an explicit policy goal. Wow – policy for the people and not for the governmental/administrative body. Sounds good. And it might bring me closer to the terminological understanding of my colleagues.
Second, “Quality of Life” is an anthropocentric approach. In Costanza’s journal article (from where above-mentioned quote is drawn), QoL is tightly bound to human needs on the one hand and subjective well-being on the other. Based on this definition, one can assesses the current situation, both on an individual and aggregated level, and derive policy implications (or better recommendations) from these findings. What is missing in Constanza’s transdisciplinary (psychology, medicine, economics, environmental science and sociology are mentioned) and rather generic (this is why the article helps to gain an overview) approach is the spatial dimension. Putting the QoL or well-being of individuals into the focus, necessarily requires to consider his/her environment, which at least partly consists of physical entities (human’s physical habitat so to say). This naïve observation might bring me even closer to why geographers discovering QoL as a beneficial research topic.
Third, “Quality of Life” is a (implicitly) spatial topic. Scholars such as Robert Marans applied the QoL concept to urban environments. In the work of Marans et al. the focus primarily lies on the perceptional and/or emotional attitudes people have to their immediate environment. From the overlay of geographical space with meaning the central term place is derived. This intersection is exactly where geographers can contribute their conceptual models and analytical tools in order to serve as a hinge for several disciplines: from environmental psychologists to traffic engineers to public administration. As it should have become clear so far, “Quality of Life” covers lots of approaches, initiatives and domains. And even within the framework of place-based QoL research it is not always clear if everyone speaks the same language … what directly brings me to a short reflection of the QoL miniconference.
The event emerged from several preceding, joint initiatives by Prof. Blaschke (ZGIS) and Prof. Keul , an environmental psychologist. The latter is primarily interested in how certain, measurable parameters, such as air quality, noise or urban greenness, are perceived and emotionally experienced. Equipped with profound statistical skills, he then tries to find correlations between these two categories. If there are causal relations (for example between noise in dB and degree of annoyance), the respective parameters can serve as proxies for the average perception or, in a more general sense, “Quality of Life”. In such cases the study design is straight: the individual’s subjective perception of objective (measurable) parameters is aggregated and related to each other, based on a large enough sample size.
What I found much harder to follow were presentations in which “objective” and “subjective” indicators got mixed up. The digital representation of the physical environment and structural descriptions of it, were generally named objective indicators (building characteristics, distance to PT stop, number of facilities of daily need within a certain distance etc.). As additional indicators the collective perception of geographical space (= place) were implemented in integrated assessment or whatever tools. I don’t know if I got something wrong or some of the presenters indeed used a fuzzy concept of objectivity and subjectivity. Referring to the figure below, I had concept (b) in mind in the context of objective and subjective QoL indicators so far. But – given I’ve understood them correctly – some colleagues build der work on concept (a), which is very much different from (b).
A third group – actually the majority of contributors, including myself – presented methods and tools that helped to either capture a city’s physical structure or simulate collective human behaviour. Others provided tools to model and assess urban environments, based on expert knowledge and/or collected input of (affected/involved) people.
In my presentation I focused on the contribution of bikeability to liveable cities. Following the layer concept sketched above, this could be just another layer to consider in an overall QoL assessment. We have recently developed three analysis approaches that could help to assess the immediate environment of facilities in terms of bicycle safety, assess the accessibility of facilities and a third one, that helps to simulate potential changes in the road space and their respective effect on bikeability. Here are my slides:
Apart from the effort we plan to invest in the presented planning tools anyway, I could imagine to contribute to further joint initiatives in the QoL context. But what would be desperately needed – at least within our local group – is a precise, common understanding of the “Quality of Life” concepts and contributing parameters.