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Quality of life in a northern city : a social geography of Yellowknife, N. W. T. Ostergaard, Peter

Abstract

If urbanization in the North is to emerge beyond the "instant town" or the "frontier town" models, an integrated understanding of what constitutes quality of life in northern settlements is required. In less than ten years Yellowknife has been transformed from a frontier mining town with an uncertain future to a small city whose permanency is not only assured, but which is experiencing rapid population growth and economic diversification. This transformation was spurred by the naming of Yellowknife as the territorial capital, and compounded by developments in global markets for gold and petroleum. To gain this integrated understanding of quality of life, Yellow-knife's disparate social groups and social areas are analyzed. Discrete neighbourhoods are identified by examining housing types and compiling occupational data and house assessments. Less tangible notions of social space, as defined by perceived neighbourhood, social contacts, and place awareness patterns suggest that the town is differentiated cognitively by most residents on the basis of proximity and social networks of internally homogeneous groups. The assessment of quality of life in the city is initially approached deductively through the use of comparative urban indicators, including employment turnover, public order, poverty, income, and cost of living. These statistics however tend to be misleading of variables salient at the level of experience, and problems of data availability, reliability, and geographic scale of presentation may result in erroneous conclusions. An Inductive analysis based on an evaluation by residents themselves of their community and neighbourhood, and the criteria used in their assessment is more useful in the identification of quality of life. Survey data was collected from a representative sample of 221 Yellowknife households. A major finding shows that most Yellowknife residents are satisfied withitheir community. Sets of positive and negative liveability criteria emerge that do not always coincide with those suggested by the urban indicators. Housing, the high cost of northern living, and southern accessibility were perceived as greatest hindrances to community satisfaction; in contrast, residents enjoy the city's setting, pace of life, and the people themselves. Overall satisfaction with their neighbourhood is generally lower for residents and consistently variable among residential areas. Important neighbourhood quality criteria include privacy and views; accessibility factors and newness warranted scant mention by most. Successful neighbourhoods reflect a close correspondance between the residents! perception of the area's existing physical and social amenities and those considered to be ideal. Even in a town as small as Yellowknife, different social groups have varying perceptions of what constitutes an ideal neighbourhood. The observation and interpretation of everyday incidents and experiences in Yellowknife permit,' a third approach to evaluating quality of life. Several typical scenarios suggest the existence of a degree of cosmopolitanism within the pioneer tradition of the independent, self-made man. The city offers its people the residential and cultural diversity of older, larger cities; as such Yellowknife might be viewed as a model for other northern communities. Residents' planning needs, as expressed through attitudes and liveability components, vary internally within the city. Many needs-housing, improved transport links with the South for goods and people, and improved recreation facilities—can be incorporated into future plans, which at the same time should preserve those environmental components presently highly valued. Proposals are discussed that may help solve the problems of housing shortages, the cost, choice, and tenure of mobile home spaces, and changes in the physical and social structure of two neighbourhoods. While high financial outlays by governments may be required to improve quality of life in the North, they should be considered as investments in present and future well-being, without which the social and economic costs may be even higher in the long run.

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