Carnegie Mellon University


Urban Quality of Life Indicators

Sustainability and Quality of Life are commonly used terms and many data-based indicators, indexes, and assessment tools have been developed to measure their success, yet their usefulness for city planning policy and decision-making has been debated over the years. Measurement tools are typically used to understand why a neighborhood (or community, or city) may be under distress by measuring the neighborhood in relation to more successful ones or applied on a citywide basis to identify which of a city’s neighborhoods are in need of planning assistance or subsidies to meet a certain quality of life standard. This way of thinking does not seem to be effective in making planning decisions as all neighborhoods need planning assistance, whether they are “successful” or not, and this study sought to find a more appropriate way of applying sustainability and quality of life indicators specifically for Pittsburgh that could understand issues missed by other tools and identify key indicators of potential problems and issues. A secondary question regarding quality of life indicators was posed by Metro21: how can research proposals be evaluated at an early stage to determine whether proposed research will lead to improved quality of life, and to what degree?

This research began as a survey of sustainability and quality of life indicators to identify which could successfully measure these attributes with the idea that there may be select indicators that are more reliable than others. Definitions were sought, indicators surveyed, and assessment tools and indexes researched to find those that are universally identified as true measures or best practice assessment tools for creating city planning policy and decision-making. Findings, though, proved otherwise. The number and types of indicators are vast and typically reflect the bias of their authors or a conventional wisdom that reflects a consensus of the persons other than those of the identified neighborhoods. What became apparent is that general and universal indicators are not always shared values among neighborhoods; rather, they are individually understood, shared among like individuals, not necessarily shared across a neighborhood or city. The idea of livability became more apparent as a third subject area late in the study as these indicators appeared to be more useful in identifying values that are shared by a greater number of persons than individual values of quality of life. The research concluded with a proposal for developing a neighborhood planning assessment tool (not a neighborhood assessment tool) using a multidisciplinary approach involving social and economic analysis with that of the built environment and Pittsburgh’s other civic institutions. This next-step research project would involve (1) developing neighborhood assessment tool of leading neighborhood indicators to define priorities and levels of stability within sustainable, livable, and quality of life indicators; (2) developing benchmark metrics for gauging each factor’s performance; and (3) investigate a cross-reference matrix of factor type (social, economic, environmental, institutional) and indicator type (leading, coincident, lagging) to determine a satisfactory model for planning purposes. The purpose would be to frame a variety of planning actions as tools in a manner that would be useful and applicable for planning and policy decisions

Project Update:

A report detailing the completion of the seed project was issued to Metro21 in March 2018. Since then, the Regional Data Center’s community indicators personnel have expressed an interest in collaborating with RCI on the proposed next-step research. Stephen Quick and Stefani Danes have been reformulating the proposed research to focus on what makes a “good” neighborhood for its residents irrespective of economic and other classic measures as the basis for determining what type of planning action(s) would be appropriate for each neighborhood within the city.

This was a “seed” research project to determine whether integrating sustainability with quality of life (QOL) indicators would be useful for Pittsburgh neighborhood planning and whether the impact of QOL could be an indicator determinant for evaluating Metro21 research proposals. The research showed that the two indicators had some connection, but a relationship between QOL and livability was a better direction. It also showed that QOL is more of an individual’s assessment of their personal situation than that of a neighborhood’s and that livability could be a better assessment of QOL in a neighborhood setting and more apt to describe neighborhood needs and values than sustainability. Because of the overly inclusive (“loose”) definition of QOL, it has little bearing on predetermining whether or not a research project will increase QOL, either for an individual, a neighborhood, or a city. 

Project Team 

Stephen Quick (PI)
School of Architecture

Imane Fahli (researcher)
School of Public Policy & Management

Stefani Danes (advisor)
School of Architecture