'Money’s Not Everything: Surprise City Poll Results'

November 29, 2010

By Neal Peirce of Citiwire.net, Nov. 25, 2010:
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

Could it be? That there’s a smarter way for cities and towns to bolster their local economies and tax bases?

We know the old and familiar way — grant tax subsidies or other special favors to nail down new office or factory prospects. Local tax bases take a hit and all taxpayers end up subsidizing the favored businesses.

But to draw both investment and talented individuals — demonstrably the base of strong economies in today’s globalizing world — cities might focus more intensely on the qualities that most prominently build residents’ attachment to their communities.

That’s the key finding emerging from three successive years of polling in which the Gallup organization has queried close to 43,000 people on commission from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (available at www.soulofthecommunity.org).

Notably, the usual suspects — jobs, the economy, safety — don’t register as the top drivers of higher attachment. Rather, the surveys indicated that loyalty to and passion for cities is most powerfully formed by “soft” factors.

First, the polling suggests, it’s social offerings — places where people can meet and mix, ranging from social community events to vibrant nightlife, all contributing to a sense that people of a community care about each other.

Second, it’s openness — a substantial share of residents feeling their communities are good places for older people, young singles, families with young children, or racial and ethnic minorities. They do tend to be more negative about the welcoming mat for immigrants, gays and lesbians.

Third, aesthetics — parks and attractive watersides, tree-lined streets, playgrounds and trails — contribute to feelings of attachment.

Finally, education — especially having colleges and universities in town — is nudging up in the surveys.

The significant point is that communities scoring well on these “soft” factors also have a higher economic rates of growth — local “GDP” — than jurisdictions which offer less “quality of life” assets and presumably stick with “hard” growth strategies like direct subsidies to business.

Gallup’s polling for the project covers 26 cities where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers. The range from such big urban centers as Philadelphia, Detroit, Charlotte and Miami to small-city America in such spots as Lexington, Ky., and Aberdeen, S.D. — in sum not a bad cross-section of urban America.

Not surprisingly, some of the lowest levels of citizen attachment were found in such economically hard-pressed cities as Detroit and Gary, Ind., and some of the highest in cities both university-rich and relatively affluent, such as Boulder, Colo., and State College, Pa.

But the significant “takeaway” of the survey is “to design interventions to increase residents’ attachment to the place they live” — regardless of the city’s size or current complexion — notes Paula Ellis, the Knight Foundation’s vice president for strategic initiatives.

“Our theory,” says Jon Clifton, Gallup deputy director, “is that when a community’s residents are highly attached, they will spend more time there, spend more money; they’re more productive and tend to be more entrepreneurial.”

Having been personally acquainted with the late George Gallup, father of the Gallup Poll (and modern opinion surveying), I’m sure he’d be delighted seeing the organization he founded probing the ties between a city’s civic values and economy. For years Gallup chaired the National Civic League’s All-America Cities juries, hearing and honoring stories of communities’ self-help efforts.

But Gallup’s poll for Knight goes further: It runs in the flow — and may well be the global leader for cities — of a growing trend to measure citizens’ sense of well-being and satisfaction by other means than cold fiscal reckoning.

The groundwork was laid by Nobel Prize winner economist Joseph Stiglitz’s criticism of standard GDP measures which gauge levels of production and money income, but ignore what easily matters as much or more — the safety and quality of peoples’ communities, social inclusion, educational opportunities and health, and controlling greenhouse gas emissions and other unsustainable burdens on the natural environment.

In today’s GDP world, the auto body-work and hospital bills following a car wreck qualify as GDP gains — but not a cleaned-up brownfield turned into city park or housing.

In response to Stiglitz’ findings, French President Nicolas Sarkozy last year announced he would include happiness and wellbeing in France’s measure of economic progress.

In Britain, the new prime minister, David Cameron, appears poised to initiate nationwide measures of citizens’ psychological and environmental well-being — notwithstanding, as the Guardian reports, “nervousness” of testing the public mood in the midst of draconian nationwide budget cutting.

Gauging peoples’ wellbeing, Cameron has declared, is one of the “central political issues of our time.”

If he’s right, it’s as important for cities as for entire countries.

Discover the soul of your community

Great schools, affordable health care and safe streets all help create strong communities. But is there something deeper that draws people to a city – that makes them want to put down roots and build a life?

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