Do you love your City?

It’s Valentine’s Day today, so it’s a good time to talk about love. Not love as it relates to your spouse or significant other, though. Let’s chat about a different aspect of love — lovable cities and neighborhoods.

Do you love where you live?

When someone asks you what you love about where you live, what do you say? I’m guessing it’s not the Wal-Mart or Home Depot, or even the Starbucks or “neighborhood” Applebees. Two of the more common responses we hear in our planning work are “I love the small town feel” (in smaller communities) and “I love my neighborhood” (in communities of all sizes). When you dig a bit deeper though, your response is more likely to be something along the lines of a locally owned coffee shop or restaurant, a walkable “historic” downtown or Main Street with a mix of shops, dining and activities, your church, or if you’re a parent, it could be your child’s school, teachers and the activities centered around it. Maybe your community has an amazing park and trail system with unique events scheduled throughout the year.

Bin 303 is one of my favorite restaurants in my home town. Nothing cookie cutter about this place — from the building design to the owners to the menu. Try the Texican burger!

What makes a community lovable?

A three-year Soul of the Community study completed by Gallup and the Knight Foundation in 2010 found three main ingredients were key to people experiencing strong emotional attachment to their communities. They are, in order of least to most important:

3) Aesthetics — The physical beauty of the community including the availability of parks and green spaces. Put simply, a pretty city is often a lovable city. Cities with well-maintained streets and landscaping, unique architecture, and a balance of natural assets and well designed public spaces are more likely to create attachment with residents and visitors. Lack of aesthetics is not a disqualifier, but it means a community has to work harder in other areas.

2) Social Offerings — A lovable community must have a variety of venues and activities for people to meet each other, interact and have fun. It is important to provide options for people of all ages and interests. This also includes a feeling that people in the community care about each other. In my home town, we have frequent events in our downtown that include a seasonal farmers market, an annual “Rib Run and Run” BBQ contest and 5K, numerous outdoor concerts, which are complemented by a host of locally owned restaurants, shops and cafes.

Our seasonal Farmer’s Market draws people from the local and surrounding communities every Saturday morning in the spring. (image c/o Planet Rockwall)

1) Openness — The most important factor identified in the study was a community’s openness and tolerance toward people of all backgrounds and ideologies, including families with young children, minorities, and talented college graduates. Studies have also shown that this factor is critical to long-term economic success of communities as well, citing the importance of keeping residents of all ages and attracting a diverse workforce. This is by far the most difficult one to achieve, as it’s easy to say we are open to new people and ideas until they start questioning or changing things we hold dear.

Places not worth caring about

In 20-plus years of planning and designing communities, I’ve never heard someone say they love their city because of large big box stores and franchise chains and the massive parking lots and traffic that often come with them. People love their communities because of the people in them and the places where they can comfortably and conveniently interact with them. Yet, since the introduction of the automobile and the suburban development model, we have seen a shift away from building unique places designed for people (lovable cities) toward places designed for cars and built on a generic, mass-production scale. In his book Geography of Nowhere, author James Howard Kunstler labels these places not worth caring about. And he’s right. Look around the country today and for every one city you find that’s truly unique, you’ll find one hundred that are remarkably similar, and frankly, uninteresting.

Anywhere, USA. NOT lovable! (photo c/o Strong Towns)

To make matters more concerning, the majority of these cookie-cutter, auto-oriented communities are upside-down financially, meaning the cities do not have the tax base and resources to maintain all of the streets, water systems and parks to an aesthetically pleasing and functional level. How are the lovable cities — the ones designed around people and quality, unique public spaces — doing financially, you ask? Quite well, in fact. As the work of Strong Towns and Urban 3 has shown in places all over the country, the cities and areas that are designed around people and walkability produce significantly more tax base and community identity than spread-out, auto-oriented development.

Who is responsible for making places lovable?

The majority of us consume our cities and our planet. We drive on the roads, consume the water and natural resources, and use the playground equipment. We obey the laws, pay our taxes (albeit always pushing for them to be lower) and to varying degrees, we contribute to the local economy by spending money back into the community. Very few people truly engage in building and maintaining their communities. This number continues to trend down as we build more generic places that do not create emotional attachment and require more time, money and energy just to get around and handle day-to-day stuff.

Gallup’s 2010 “Soul of Community” study found that over 75% of people are not emotionally attached to their community.

In the Soul of Community study, researchers found that only 24% of people were “attached” to their community. The majority of this top tier are attached in the sense that they participate in PTA meetings and youth sporting leagues, go to church, and attend the occasional meeting at City Hall — usually when the agenda item is something they don’t like. A smaller segment of this “attached” group includes local elected officials, citizen members of boards and committees, and city staff. In a typical city, only a select few — less than 1% actually — are truly emotionally connected to their community or neighborhood. These are the local business owners, entrepreneurs, artists, neighborhood group leaders, community activists and other “concerned citizens” who create the experiences that other 99% consume.

In his book For the Love of Cities, Peter Kageyama calls these people “co-creators”, because they “build on existing elements, like infrastructure and institutions, and collaborate with others to make new things. They are also connectors and catalysts who in turn inspire others to get involved and contribute to the making of their community.” Chuck Marohn and our friends at Strong Towns refer to them as “Strong Citizens”. These are people who are deeply passionate and truly care about making their community better.

Why does this matter?

Our country and our cities are already experiencing some difficult times. It’s very easy in today’s world to go about our daily lives and continue to expect our streets and parks to be maintained and local shops to be open. But as infrastructure maintenance needs continue to mount and constraints on natural resources like water get tighter, it’s getting more difficult for cities to handle these things on their own with the resources they have. Our communities need more co-creators and Strong Citizens to make and keep them attractive, fun, and engaging. Lovable.

When we love where we live, we care more about what’s going on in the community and we’re more willing to invest our own time, talents and treasure (money) in efforts that improve our neighborhoods. When the residents and businesses in a community are willing to invest and partner with the city leadership, we can do more things in more neighborhoods that make the community as a whole more lovable. And, when places are more lovable, they become magnets for more people, more businesses and more investment. Want some inspiration? Check out how Oswego, NY is partnering citizen and city resources together to revitalize blocks and neighborhoods in their community, and then branding that to recruit and retain businesses and residents.

So this Valentine’s Day, take a minute to reflect on why you live where you do and what you love about it. What could you do to help the 1% in your community that’s creating experiences instead of just consuming. Better yet, why not join them?

Kevin Shepherd, P.E., ENV-SP is a co-founder and Principal at VERDUNITY, Inc. He speaks and writes often on the subjects of infrastructure and neighborhood ROI (return on investment), economic gardening and fiscally resilient communities. Follow Kevin on Twitter and Facebook.