Today, there is a premium on walkability: your home’s closeness by foot to grocery stores, parks, coffee shops and entertainment. These characteristics are often used to rate the quality of your neighborhood. The overarching umbrella for such characteristics can be referred to as quality of life, reflecting the degree of access a resident has to the good things of modern living.
But as you may already be thinking, amenities are not all equally important. Websites like Walk Score, for instance, weight grocery stores higher than bars, but they put depth of choice above most factors. Better to have multiple grocery stores or bars to choose from than only having one. But in a world where many people don’t have one grocery store or bank in their neighborhood, I prefer to make a distinction that helps me understand what these ratings mean.
Quality of life should follow a rubric that takes into account the destinations that matter most for daily household needs: good schools, groceries, banking, health care, recreation and safe, affordable housing to come home to. These, and the ease of travel to them, indicate that the core services a household needs are present. Access to entertainment, luxury goods and services, and nightlife – delightful as they are – reflect qualities of lifestyle to a consumer more than the quality of a household’s access to the basic needs for thriving.
We may assume that rising quality of lifestyle improves access to basic daily needs, but it is important to not let it mask quality of life. A quick review of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will suggest why this is so.
The five basic stages of the hierarchy include three elemental types of need and two higher-level needs. If a person’s physical well-being, safety and need for belonging and love are not met, higher-level needs for esteem and self-actualization, if they can be attained at all, will only ineffectively mask deeper anxieties and tensions. That is true for individuals, and it is true for communities.
In addition to marking the distinction between quality of life and lifestyle, it is essential to understand what constitutes access. Commonly, we see proximity used to reflect access. If you live close to the grocery store or library, you can walk there and take advantage of the short trip in saving time and transportation costs. You can even get a little exercise on the way.
Like so many good things, this is not a new concept. Tucked into the fabric of Durham’s old neighborhoods are quiet former grocery stores that reflect our walkable past. The old core neighborhoods of our city were communities that responded to the basic needs of residents by bringing supplies and services very close. Most people in cities walked in the old days, and the small shops and banks that anchored neighborhoods reveal how close our basic needs were to home.
Today, many of us still do walk while others of us are able to spend time driving or riding the bus to get what we need. But we often have to travel, because neighborhood shops today serve less flour, dairy and dried goods and more packaged snack food, cigarettes and alcohol. Our level of access to basic needs quality of life declines.
But even closeness to destinations is often simply proximity. Access, on the other hand, happens when you experience no barriers to making full use of these services and amenities. What if, on your walk to the coffee shop, there is an especially dangerous intersection or a highway? Does that influence your ability to access it? What if crime prevents you from walking at all, or what you really need is fresh vegetables and bread?
In that case, you would be glad that your neighborhood has a high quality of life and would not mind the trade-off in style.
John Killeen lives in Durham and opinions expressed here are his own.