Quality of life has a broad meaning in economic development terms. It refers to the livability of an area as defined by numerous community characteristics and indicators such as public safety, quality of educational and employment opportunities, entertainment and cultural amenities, as well as environmental quality and access to open space, parks, and recreation opportunities. While the value of quality of life is not typically quantified, high quality of life correlates with positive economic growth.
Metropolitan areas in the U.S. are transitioning from heavy industry and manufacturing toward more knowledge-based industries and industries whose profits are not tied to their locations. These industries rely less on access to raw materials, heavy infrastructure, and energy supplies, and more on a skilled workforce. As a result, attracting a skilled and talented workforce is key to economic development for knowledge-based industries. A City’s success in economic development, especially in high-tech, research and development, and other mobile industries, is therefore tied to its ability to attract and retain highly educated professional employees and entrepreneurs. As other sectors of the economy become more dependent on technology and knowledge, attracting and retaining these skilled and talented employees will become increasingly important.
Knowledge workers often have more flexibility than others in choosing where to live, and quality of life is often a major factor in their decisions. As a result, businesses sometimes need to seek out high-amenity locations to satisfy their labor force requirements. High quality of life can also lead to lower employee turnover and absenteeism, better loyalty, higher productivity, and lower health care costs.
Parks, Open Space, and Recreation
PlanOlathe proposes a network of greenways, parks, and multi-use paths (bicycle and pedestrian). These types of natural and open space amenities have been shown to have positive impacts on real property values and public health. Land that is preserved for open space, either for recreational use, habitat conservation, or natural resource protection, has a tangible value that is hard to measure. One of the primary benefits of open space and conservation lands is increased quality of life. While the value of quality of life is not often quantified, quality of life has a direct link to economic development and community vitality that can be measured in other ways.
It has been well established that proximity to open lands and conservation areas enhances property values. Although less research has been conducted on community-wide benefits as a result of open space purchases, recent studies found a positive correlation.
Expanding open space and recreation opportunities and integrating bicycle paths as transportation options will also improve the health of Olatheans. Approximately two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. Children who commute to school by cycling or walking gain two to three fewer pounds per year than children who go to school using motorized transportation. The larger development pattern of a community also affects public health. People who live in mixed use neighborhoods with a variety of transportation options have lower body mass than those who live in exclusively residential neighborhoods.
Future Transit Opportunities
Plan Olathe anticipates future transit service, consisting of a potential regional rail connection to other areas of the metro area, and expanded local transit service, potentially a bus rapid transit (BRT) system. Broadly, the economic benefits of transit improvements consist of increased mobility and labor force access; reduced congestion; travel time savings; reduced fossil fuel consumption; and improved quality of life flowing from these other benefits.
Depending on the destinations and frequency of service, fixed rail transit has been demonstrated to have direct positive real estate development impacts. With more frequent service to more attractive destinations (e.g., major employment centers and shopping and entertainment districts) the development impacts are greater. The development impacts of rail transit generally occur within reasonable walking distance, ¼ to ½ mile, of a transit station. Numerous studies have quantified the real estate impacts of transit, including higher rents and faster leasing for office and commercial development, and higher property values for all development in closer proximity to transit stations.
There are economic benefits associated with bus-rapid-transit as well. The increased mobility and equity in transportation choice are economic benefits that will be realized from any transit system improvements. In addition, transit can provide potential travel time savings, reduced congestion, and reduced carbon emissions compared to single occupancy vehicles.
The experience of numerous downtowns and central city locations around the country has shown that a few well-targeted catalyst projects, public-private development projects, and infrastructure investments can trigger a cascading effect of additional redevelopment activity. Over time these initial investments are repaid with an overall increase in property values, economic activity, and the associated tax revenues.
Having a vibrant commercial area with a mix of diverse businesses, restaurants, and services is also important to the skilled workforce that is crucial to economic growth. Busy professionals enjoy having a mix of services and retail opportunities close to their place of work, as a time saver and as a lifestyle amenity.
Residential property values have been shown to be related to the quality of a commercial corridor, where homes closer to high quality commercial corridors command higher prices than those near low quality corridors. “High quality” corridors were generally areas with low vacancies and a walkable pedestrian environment. Low quality commercial corridors were generally more automobile oriented, with wide cross-section streets, few if any pedestrian or bicycle access amenities, and higher vacancies.
Studies have also found that investments in neighborhood greening, such as streetscaping and tree planting, pocket parks, and median plantings resulted in sizeable gains in comparable home values. Homes located in community improvement districts (CIDs) were found to be worth more than homes not in a community improvement district (CID).
Cost of Living
A reasonable cost of living is among the factors important for a community’s quality of life. Where cost of living is too high, it can negate the benefits of quality jobs and wages, and limit access to other necessities and amenities. The challenge for Olathe is to continue to improve quality of life while maintaining a reasonable cost of living. Cost of living includes housing, transportation, utilities, food, health, and other miscellaneous expenses.
By encouraging higher residential densities around employment and activity centers, identifying local commercial services in walkable proximity to neighborhoods, promoting a variety of transit options including a robust trail system that links residential and employment areas, the policies of PlanOlathe can reduce commute times, reliance on automobiles, and overall transportation costs. An enhanced parks and greenways system linked with a bike and pedestrian trail network provides recreational opportunities and environmental benefits that can improve resident health.
While there is evidence that access to quality of life amenities can increase residential property values, policies in PlanOlathe promote a variety of lot sizes, home sizes, styles, and price points to provide options for Olatheans of all income levels. Olathe is a very affordable community today, with an attractive combination of a high median income coupled with housing costs that are below the national average. With careful planning, Olathe can continue to enhance quality of life while remaining an affordable place to live.