ASK 10 or 20 people how they would define ``quality of life'' and you're likely to get 10 or 20 different answers - everything from highly personal responses such as ``a good job'' and ``money in the bank'' to broader goals: safe streets, quiet neighborhoods, no crime, and clean air.
But whatever the individual ideal, America's collective quality of life appears to be eroding, and fast. So urgent is the perceived need for improvement that this could be called a quality-of-life summer. From coast to coast, never have more politicians and civic groups focused on what it takes to make cities more livable and lives more satisfying.
In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has launched a quality-of-life campaign, ordering police to enforce such minor infractions as public drunkenness, loud radios, and bicycle riding on sidewalks.
In Boston, as part of a ``customer quality-of-life'' program, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority recently spent $150,000 on a ``cleaning blitz'' of commuter-rail stations. It is also adding $500,000 to its $5 million annual cleaning budget to remove trash, gum, and graffiti.
Last month the Los Angeles Times conducted a reader survey about how to make that city more livable. Even Minneapolis, already widely regarded as a model metropolis, has developed a plan called Hennepin Community Works, an effort to use parks and green spaces to revitalize city neighborhoods, reduce crime, and improve the quality of life.
These challenges hardly stop at the city limits. Graffiti, once confined to poor urban neighborhoods, is creeping into comfortable suburbs. In other well-manicured communities, suburbanites are waging war over noisy gas-powered leaf blowers that shatter the pastoral calm. So volatile is the issue that more than 200 towns have considered laws limiting their use during the summer.
Even in the country, peace and quiet prove elusive. A group called Vermont Quiet Waters wants that state to restrict or ban motorboats on many small lakes. Elsewhere, other activists hope to preserve small-town charm by walling out superstores - and the snarled traffic they often create.
Mayor Giuliani's quality-of-life campaign has come under fire on grounds that it gives the appearance of action as police focus on petty offenders while drug dealers go free. People are getting killed in Central Park, critics say, but the mayor is worried about riding bicycles on sidewalks.
Yet Giuliani's premise is defensible. He argues that leniency toward minor offenses creates a culture that encourages more serious crimes, thus reducing the city's quality of life.
Many quality-of-life issues, in fact, among them safety and security, begin with small details within small units, such as the family and the neighborhood. Little wonder, perhaps, that participants in the Los Angeles Times survey responded to the question, ``Who's responsible for making L.A. more livable?'' by ranking ``Family'' at the top of the list, even ahead of ``Government.''
``Quality of life'' has a nice sound to it, suggesting a safe, clean, well-lighted world - a science-fiction Utopia. It is a worthy ideal but with limits. If the water and the air were made crystal pure, if the homeless got homes and the criminals got jobs, if every baby had two parents, would that be ``the answer'' - the total solution? Would everybody live happily ever after?
Long before ``quality of life'' there was another phrase, the ``good life,'' bandied about not by social engineers but by philosophers, including the Founding Fathers. The ``good life'' involved what one did - what uses and what pleasures one devoted oneself to once the stable circumstances we now call ``quality of life'' had been established.
The good life is the end to which quality of life is the means -
this is a distinction to keep in mind for the long run. But for the summer of '94, when so much seems out of order, two cheers for any civic determination to mend the broken pieces, one at a time, and see what the patchwork leads to.