“This spirit we sense in each locality would once have been described as the scintilla, or spark, of its soul, the pearl in the oyster. It accounts for the magic of a region, and without it, an acute sense of place dissipates into a vague and lazy feeling of nowhere.”—Thomas Moore, The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life.
A major three-year study entitled The Soul of the Community conducted by the Knight Foundation and Gallup polling organization, significantly strengthens the case of this blog for the importance of place and placemaking. These two highly respected national organizations wanted to answer some basic but crucial questions that all of us who care about communities think deeply about:
- What makes a community a desirable place to live?
- What draws people to stake their future in it?
- Are communities with more attached residents better off?
The results of the study, which contained over 43,000 responses across the country, challenge traditional economic development approaches such as tax breaks and industrial development.
Here are the primary findings of The Soul of the Community, from 2008-2010:
There is an important and significant correlation between how attached people feel to where they live and local GDP growth. What this means is that the more people love their town, the more economically vital that place will be. In an economy still struggling with recession, that finding attracted considerable attention and raised eyebrows. The many little ways in which a love of place can translate to economic impacts all add up to significant economic development.
What most drives people to love where they live (their attachment) is their perception of aesthetics, social offerings, and openness of a place. It appears that what people most want is a place that is attractive, engaging, friendly, and welcoming. In every place and every year of the study, these factors were found to be the most important ones tying people to place. Why does this matter? As mentioned above, communities where people love where they live do measurably better economically.
Dr. Katherine Loflin, director of the study remarked that “little did we know, at first, that The Soul of a Community study had just empirically justified some of the core principles long advocated for by Placemaking advocates.” That includes yours truly with my longstanding research interest in place and placemaking that you can find in my book, Community Design: A Team Approach to Dynamic Community Systems. I have long noted the tension between placemakers and business advocates of Growth for their communities, but the bottom line of The Soul of the Community study is that Place Matters. As Elizabeth Ferruelo wrote in her August 2012 Forbes magazine article “The Economic Secret of Vacant City Spaces”:
“Businesses and cities across the country should take note: Locally-inspired public spaces, even temporary ones, and other quality-of-life factors have a real effect on economies. They can speed up a recovery and highlight what’s best in a community—the people.”
It’s about time that local Chambers of Commerce finally learned their place, too.