My work takes me into many different kinds of neighborhoods. Always, I ask myself what about this community would compel a person to commit to it and become an active stakeholder in it? For the last 17 years, my work has been about understanding cultural vitality and its connection to housing, jobs, schools, the environment, the economy, and other issues and aspects of life. To distill what is essential about a neighborhood, I ask residents questions like ”What do you miss about your community the most when you leave it?” and “If you had to make a post card of your neighborhood, what would it look like?” Invariably, the answers have to do with sensory and emotional connections to place and people.
People miss things that they feel a part of—local eateries, places of worship, community traditions, and festivals—things that inspire human connection and meaningful memories. What resonates with them is what is unique to their neighborhood—a particular kind of cooking, music or dance, regional plants, and distinctive architectural and landscaping styles. Their answers have convinced me that good places to live do not only have adequate housing, transportation, jobs, schools, and commercial amenities. Good places to live also have character and magnetism. They have unique organic identities that grow from the history, passion, and imagination of the people who live there.
A few months ago the James S. and James L. Knight Foundation released “Soul of the Community 2010: Why People Love Where They Live and Why It Matters: A National Perspective.” Based on a three-year Gallup study of 26 US cities, this interesting report concludes that social offerings, openness, and beauty do, in fact, matter and are more important than peoples’ perceptions of the economy, jobs, or basic services in creating lasting emotional bonds between people and their community. Residents of cities with the highest rates of GDP growth over time, Gallup and Knight found, also had the highest rates of attachment.
These findings echo some I have found in my own work. Community art and cultural activity that gives people an opportunity to express themselves and even influence how their built environment looks and feels leads to a greater sense of belonging and stewardship of place. Also, sustained active arts engagement in which people connect with each other leads to greater social capital and collective efficacy—the ability to act collectively as a community.
So what does the new research mean for planners and policy makers concerned with creating good places to live? Certainly, it’s not a call to abandon efforts to improve the economy or basic service. But it is a call to find ways to integrate culture into planning for a community’s basic needs.