Learning From Knight’s Soul of the Community, Leaning Toward the Future of Placemaking

April 16, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Today, as the inaugural meeting of the Placemaking Leadership Council kicks off in Detroit, Michigan, we are thrilled to bring you this special guest post by Dr. Katherine Loflin, a powerful advocate for the importance of place to local economies, and one of the event’s keynote speakers.

It’s hard for me to believe that, just six years ago, I had never even heard the word “Placemaking.” I’ve been a community practitioner all of my life, trained as a macro-practitioner with a Masters and Ph.D. in Social Work and a dissertation on civic engagement and social capital. I believed there were certain characteristics that inherently enabled places to identify and solve their own problems, and I believed that some of the answers related to civic engagement and social capital. Still, I was haunted by the thought that there was more to it: pieces of the puzzle that hadn’t been placed yet.

Then, in 2007, I found myself the Lead Consultant on Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community study. Soul was created by Knight and the Gallup organization to study communities in a new way. It is important to note that, from the outset, Soul was very open in terms of outcomes. The study was not attempt to justify the field of Placemaking. We had no preconceived notions about what we would discover. Today, I think that fact contributes to the power of the findings, insofar as they support this burgeoning field. The basic research questions were simple yet profound, yet they’d never been asked before: What makes people love where they live? And why does it matter?

We were in for a shock…and a steep learning curve. The Knight Soul of the Community study investigated community attachment—a multidimensional construct that went beyond measuring just satisfaction to also look at community pride, community optimism, and other emotional feelings about place. Attachment is not the traditional idea of engagement that is usually studied in places, but a separate construct. Understanding residents’ emotional bonds to place represented by attachment took our examination beyond the outward behaviors of traditional engagement and gave new insights into the dynamics of how place affects people. That, alone, was a significant contribution to understanding place success that had basically gone unmeasured.

The shock came as the results poured in: from 2008-2010, we received responses from 43,000 people in 26 communities across the US, in cities large and small. What we saw were findings, year after year, that for many seemed counter-intuitive—even radical at times. We not only found out that resident attachment was related to solid economic outcomes for places, but that the things that most drove people to love where they live were not the local economy or even their personal civic engagement in the place (as one might expect), but the “softer sides” of place.

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Knight Soul of the Community found out that the “softer sides” of place matter to economic development / Photo: Lafayette College via Flickr

These findings seemed like a messaging nightmare at first, because they were so groundbreaking and surprising—but as I considered how to use this new information to spread the word, make the case, and translate the findings into on-the-ground action, the nightmare became great opportunity. The Soul findings forced me to reexamine what I thought I knew about what made places tick. Eventually, I realized that this was the missing piece of the puzzle that I had been searching for.

Here are the primary findings of 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 deep in recession, that got some attention and raised some eyebrows. How is this possible? It seems that, when people love where they live, they spend more time there and invite others to do the same. They may choose to stay-cation versus travel. They are also more productive at work and more satisfied in their jobs. They are more likely to buy a house. There are so many little ways in which a love of place can translate to economic impacts, and these all add up.
  • 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 out of a neighborhood is a place that is attractive, engaging, friendly, and welcoming. In every place, every year of the study, these factors were found to be the three most important to tying people to place. Why does this matter? As mentioned above, communities where people love where they live do better economically. The best-loved places were doing better in a measureable way. Little did we still know, at first, that Soul had just empirically justified some of the core principles long advocated for by Placemaking advocates.

It was in looking for some framework that could help to organize the findings in a useable way that I stumbled across the Project for Public Spaces’ website. Serendipitously, this happened right around the time they were catching wind of Soul’s first-year findings. They gave me an organizing framework, and Soul gave them empirical justification for things that they had learned and known intuitively for years.

Of course, we’re only just getting started. The Soul findings have had significant implications for the Placemaking field, and in so doing have opened up whole new avenues for research, learning, and practice. Below are nine of the key lessons learned so far, which also represent some of the most interesting topics for future examination and discussion:

1.) Optimizing place. The thing about Soul of the Community is that it allows places to be who they are—just optimized—and that was incredibly welcomed by civic leaders. Instead of changing who your community is, it’s about being the best version of yourself that you can be. This means that no place is left behind. All cities can take advantage of this information. Places have to know their narratives: what constitutes their unique identity? If that is unknown, Soul can help places to discover that. The important point of this is: communities don’t have to try to be something that they’re not, but each must capitalize on its own distinct identity.

2.) Lead with strengths. Places often know chapter and verse what they are not good at. And that deficit-based start can be an immobilizing when talking about the future. The Soul findings allowed me to walk into any of the 26 communities that we were studying and lead off the conversation by talking about their strengths. The most powerful path to change for people and places is to leverage strengths to address challenges. Any community intervention should lead with strengths, and Placemaking leads by example.

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Optimism about a place’s future plays a big part in local resilience. / Photo: Daniel Horacio Agostini via Flickr

3.) Place optimism matters. Optimism is empirically linked to attachment. That means that the more optimistic people feel about the future of their city, the more likely they are going to be attached to it today. We have seen places in the Soul findings where attachment increased even when the local economy worsened. Optimism about the place’s future seems to be a big part of that resilience. In 2008, Biloxi, MS, was the second-most attached place that we studied, even though they were still in the throes of Katrina recovery. In 2009, there was a significant increase in optimism in Detroit. Why does this matter? Because it is with this spirit, commitment and dedication that community turnarounds begin. This speaks to the importance of public messages and leadership to cultivate optimism and then follow through with sound leadership to realize that optimism.

4.) Young talent is leading the place renaissance. According to the Soul findings, young talent is consistently perceived as the least welcomed group in a place. Yet in other polls, Gallup was finding increasingly that young talent was choosing a place to live first, and then finding a job. The fact that people are now prioritizing place before deciding what jobs to pursue has to change the way communities are imagined if places are to succeed. Optimizing place has to be moved to the front burner as an economic imperative, immediately. Place has clearly earned a seat at the economic development table.

5.) The corporate world gets this. They may have not had an empirical model to use until now, but many corporations had already noticed that, to attract and retain the best talent, they had to be able to successfully sell the place where the job is located. As a result, they want to be in places that sell themselves. This was all reinforced by the Soul finding that there’s an empirical relationship between job satisfaction and community attachment. Not surprisingly, the business community is now interested in applying Placemaking not only to their corporate giving, but also to their business models.

6.) A solution on the “growth” tug of war that immobilizes many places. Placemaking often allows residents to finally put their finger on what had kept them stuck. For many, this was the fact that, while the ‘growth’ people are saying if we don’t stay modern and provide the place people want to live we are economically in trouble, the ‘anti-growth’ residents are really worried that growth for growth’s sake would cause them to lose who they were as a place—that they’d become generic. The Placemaking framework enables these folks to re-frame the issue by saying: We will cherish our unique narrative as a place as we continue to grow in a smart and sustainable way.

7.) You’ll see impact sooner. Because Soul of the Community found a relationship between social offerings, openness, and aesthetics, and resident attachment, if you change public perception of one of those things you can see same-year differences in attachment. We saw this happen in places like Detroit and St. Paul…and I have to say: Wow. This makes Placemaking a very attractive framework, especially in places that need quick wins to restore some optimism and fuel additional social change efforts. This core strength of the “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” approach to places is one that few other models can claim.

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The core strength of the “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” approach is that it can change minds & turn things around faster than anyone expects / Photo: troistoques via Flickr

8.) It’s totally scalable. One of my favorite things about Placemaking is that it’s totally scalable. You can truly start anywhere and see impact, sooner than you might think. I’ve seen everything from places starting to turn around because they mobilized to get a strip of sidewalk installed where it was missing, to places coming together around crafting and decorating their town’s trees with lit balls of fashioned chicken wire. Sometimes, it’s all about reminding people of the greatness of their place by helping them to rediscover what’s already there. The best ideas often come from the residents themselves, who are really the true keepers of the soul of their community.

9.) The power of place. Love of place is great equalizer and mobilizer. In all my years of doing community practice, I’ve never seen a more powerful model for moving communities forward and enabling places to optimize who they are instead of trying to be someplace else. It is this message that frees people to love their place, and hearing that their love of place is a powerful resource is not something many residents (or their leaders) have properly recognized and leveraged. That’s why I think I often see tearful reactions in my audiences and hear heartfelt stories of personal relationship with a place after my talks. The message of attachment—that the softer sides of place matter—resonates deeply. Everyone has a personal relationship with their place and people can see themselves and their communities in the Soul findings.

Because of this journey, today I am forever changed. And we’re all on this journey together. That our disparate disciplines have brought us together around the cause of Placemaking is also one of the unique strengths of our practice: a key advantage that we must leverage in this critical time. We have an economic, social and human responsibility to do so—and now, we have a much-needed piece of the puzzle in place.

Tags: Placemaking, policy, Soul of the Community report