What Makes People Love a City?

Soul of the Community survey: a photo of the Gulf Coast, Biloxi
The Gulf Coast, Biloxi, one of the cities in the study, by pursuethepassion, Creative Commons Non-Commerical Share Alike

The Knight Foundation, sponsor of Soul of the Community, a three-year study that asks people in 26 communities about their perceptions of their city when it comes to things like crime, schools, beauty, nightlife, and roads, has released some interesting data from its first two years of surveys, providing potentially invaluable information for CDCs and others working toward revitalizing neighborhoods and reversing out-migration.

Residents were also asked how attached they are to their city (Are they satisfied there? Would they recommend it to a friend?), as well as calculating which factors are the best at predicting an attachment to “a place.”

The top three factors so far might be a little unexpected: “Openness,” “Social Offerings,” and “Aesthetics.” I think this is worth paying attention to, inasmuch as it reinforces that cultural work, open space (parks come under aesthetics), and good design should never be shortchanged, or even necessarily made to wait in line until other things have been fixed.

This shows us that some people are willing to overlook perceptions of crime or weak economy when they are attached to a beautiful place with a welcoming community and lots of stuff to do. But since it doesn’t interview people who left those communities, we don’t really know how many people are being pushed out by crime/weak economy, even if they thought a place was beautiful and happening—and perhaps even felt attached to it.

I’ve known plenty of people who love a small, weak-market city and been very active in them, owning businesses and being involved at a neighborhood level. These people, in many instances, have have felt pushed out by one of the more mundane forces Soul of the Community downplays.

Also, the study doesn’t seem to offer any real distinction between neighborhoods, which strikes me as a significant oversight: If you’re in a stable neighborhood, an uptick in social offerings in the city can make a big difference in your level of satisfaction. If you’re in a serious crime- and blight-ridden neighborhood across town, I’m guessing it would make less of a difference. People don’t move to a city, they move to a neighborhood.

(Also, I’m inclined to think that if you’re attached to a place you’re going to see it as a good place for lots of different people, making the cause/effect on “openness” a little muddy.)

There’s a whole lot of research being done on this kind of level (think the whole Creative Class world), about what makes for strong, popular, competitive metro regions. How can it/should it apply to community development work?

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.



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