[I was asked to give a ten-minute “mini-keynote” talk to a meeting of academics, nonprofit and public agency execs, and civically minded business leaders at Marist College for its 2015 Sustainability Day event, at the invitation of Peter Bienstock (Hudson River Valley Institute) and Ann Davis (Economics). My subject: the Hudson Valley’s quality of life, its relationship to sustainable economic growth in the region, and its potential harmony with environmental goals.]

Quality of life is, if not an explicit phrase, an implicit theme that underlies the many strategies toward environmental sustainability in the Hudson Valley. The prospect of this win-win situation tantalizes us when we think of various components or expressions of economic development we see around us, which I’ll talk about.

As an urban sociologist, I also think about quality of life through its role in the urban economy. As David Harvey has observed, the quality of urban life has itself become a commodity these days. The idea that quality of life can be thought of as a commodity marks an important shift in how we think about quality of life, from its origins as a political concern that involved collective investment and a sense of moral commitment, such as during the 1960s War on Poverty. Now quality of life is consumed in the market, and place is a key element in that: quality of life is fashioned by an amenity-based economy located in cities.

I think this process also applies out here in the Hudson Valley, and I’ll ask us to think about how that makes quality of life urban in nature. To begin, the Hudson Valley is endowed with a remarkable amenity infrastructure, given its relatively small population base.

Most generally, this region operates largely in a post-industrial economy where — whether by choice or having no other option — the race-to-the-bottom economic strategies like speculative developments in industrial parks, big housing subdivisions, and infrastructural projects are no longer the order of the day.

So in important regards, the natural landscape remains intact here because the industrial economy is no longer really around to pave it over. In other cases, nature has been protected or even restored because of people working hard in government, law and advocacy group to make that. That’s the case of Poughkeepsie’s waterfront right outside Marist College, from its postwar repurposing out of an industrial river economy to the on-going efforts to build the Hudson River Greenway.

This is the landscape now in which tourism has grown — visitors to historic monuments and cultural destinations, but increasingly to commune with nature and explore rustbelt towns and cities. Agri-tourism has expanded, from apple picking to increasingly hands-on encounters with farming. And the encounter with nature and small rural town living increasingly happens in day trips, second homes, and the telecommuting lifestyle of a creative class.

Agriculture is also a part of the Hudson Valley’s amenity infrastructure; it not only feeds people but supports an experience economy in the form of farmers markets, CSAs, agri-tourism, vineyards, distilleries and the like. The form of Hudson Valley agriculture, particularly the preponderance of small family farms, in turn supports open space preservation through the efforts of several land conservancies. And remarkably, it attracts a young, highly educated laborforce who wants to farm sustainably and live in the country.

Agriculture in turn is a key element in the Hudson Valley’s culinary economy. Of course, we recognize the Culinary Institute of America as a highly valuable asset in the region. As far as Hudson Valley cuisine goes, chefs and restaurateurs celebrate the connections with local farmers and the agricultural bounty that make farm-to-table menus and regional specialties possible.

I think it’s important to highlight the quality of life associated with the Hudson Valley’s cities, particularly the old industrial cities. Most notably, Beacon, Hudson, and Kingston are seeing new construction and commercial tenants after decades of decline. Art galleries, restaurants, bookstores, annual festivals, and cultural venues are making sidewalks lively again. Artists and homeowners seem to be able to find work-live spaces with distressed brick interiors to their hearts’ content.

I’d like us to consider the idea that the Hudson Valley’s QOL is metropolitan in nature. I’m not talking about our own small, self-contained, interdependent region of some six-to ten counties centered around the Hudson River. I’m talking about a quality of life that is structured and economically driven by population and industries centered in NYC, Westchester, and the tri-state metropolitan area. As a thought experiment, think about how so many other areas further upstate are endowed with similar landscapes, built environments, even colleges and other economic development anchors yet don’t see this kind of regional activity.

In my work, I’ve come to think of places like the Hudson Valley as quality of life districts. This idea, based off the traditional idea of industrial districts, refers to neighborhoods, towns and cities, and even whole regions that experience new residential growth and commercial activity because these places serve the quality-of-life wants and preferences of people who come from elsewhere — in this case, the greater NYC metropolitan area. This population is not a general cross-section of the metropolis. At its current “highest and best economic uses,” the Hudson Valley’s amenity-based economy is supported by a highly educated stratum, from financiers and business executives to the artists, freelancers, and career strivers of the creative economy. With some exceptions, they’re not coming here to raise kids; the Census figures suggest a great number of them are childless or empty nesters.

For this population, the draw of the Hudson Valley is as a place to get away from it all, to cite the phrase I hear again and again. I’d like us to think about the prospects of sustainable environmental and economic development around the issue of how to protect and enhance this place to get away from it all. The “it all” that quality-of-life tourists and migrants want to get away from when they come here is the big city and sprawling suburbs where they live, as well as the leisure zones traditionally found along the Atlantic oceanfront, from the high-society playground of the Hamptons to the teeming boardwalks of the Jersey Shore.

As a marketing endeavor, it’s fairly easy to articulate how the Hudson Valley’s quality of life differs from those population centers. But the amenity economy and infrastructures that I’ve described rest upon careful planning, coordination and support by decision-makers, so that unchecked development doesn’t effectively kill the goose that lays the golden egg. That can be a controversial principle of planning and economic strategy, because some localities and some developers won’t get to build as they’d like to.

Sustainability also invoves a delicate cultural balance. Consider this apparently philosophical question: if the Hudson Valley’s quality of life is ultimately in the eye of the metropolitan beholder, and supported by their wallets, then what is ‘local’ about it? More practically, how does growth in an amenity-based economy sustain the integrity of particular sense of place, our local ways of life, our distinctive natural and cultural ecologies?

And finally, how can cultivation and enhancement of this amenity-based economy lift up the region’s existing population? The statistics indicate that the Hudson Valley continues to bleed the household-forming, family-raising, cost-conscious demographic led by the 25-34 year old and 35-44 year old brackets. In my research on studying quality-of-life districts, I’ve yet to see widespread economic spillover in terms of a systematic growth in good-paying career jobs, particularly for people with just college degrees or less. For this populace, quality of life means something very different, and what I’ve been talking about here may very well exclude them.

An amenity-based economy is an incremental economy that advances one relocation, one new entrepreneurial business, one sensitive construction project at a time. This is what can make it frustrating for economic development advocates, as well as promising. But think about the scale and nature of the commercial nexus we see in the Hudson Valley’s quality of life. The artists, telecommuters and second-home population work at a metropolitan scale or further; rarely are they selling to or creating for a local market. When they consume locally, they’re buying real estate, household commodities and in-person services. Is the kind of boutique entrepreneurialism in retail, construction, and personal services that we see expanding in the Hudson Valley really a sizeable one? We have to ask: how can we leverage the post-industrial growth sectors I’ve described into a broader force for laborforce enhancement and economic development?