“Stop talking about your weather. People get that it’s cold here.”
The command came from Katherine Loflin, a placemaking expert. Her audience, a batch of business leaders gathered together by the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Hennepin Theatre Trust, giggled uncomfortably. The lousy weather, after all, has been the main topic of everybody’s conversation for the past two months. “Not everybody wants to live in a place where it’s 85 degrees every single day,” she added. “Some people want seasons.”
Loflin is lead consultant to the Soul of the Community Project, a vast three-year study by Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of what drives people’s attachment to a city. She’s in the Twin Cities as part of St. Paul’s annual Great River Gathering, to hold a week-long series of discussions about what makes a place special and why people’s feelings about where they live are important.
At this point, you are probably asking, “Really? Are they important?” If people can find jobs and reasonable places to live, they’ll be attached enough. Worrying about quality of life, amenities, public spirit and all that squishy stuff seems a bit trivial in an economy that still recovering from one of the worst recessions ever.
But Loflin makes a business case for love of a place. These days, those people most likely to drive the growth of a city, namely young people between the ages of 25 and 34, have reprioritized. Quality of life registers high on their list of necessities. Corporations are finding that increasingly they have to sell talented recruits on the place where they would be relocating as well as the job. She summed up with a thought from Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett: Previously, people went where the jobs were. Now, jobs go where the people are.
The young-people-seeking-quality-of-life notion has become the conventional wisdom of chambers of commerce around the country, which are scrambling to figure out what will sell their towns to those hoity-toity Gen X- and Y-ers, not to mention the so-called Millennials.
Hierarchy of needs
I’m a bit skeptical. Not everyone can pick and choose a job with little regard for salary, the stability of an employer or the price of housing. In a conversation we had after the meeting, Loflin agreed that, of course, there is a hierarchy of needs (à la psychologist Abraham Maslow) in which physical (and one presumes) financial security take precedence over aesthetic satisfaction. But, she adds that those hard-core items “are not what pull at your heartstrings.”
And, according to Loflin, if a city pulls at your heartstrings enough, it will prosper. “Loved places seem to do better economically,” she says. That was one of the major findings of the Soul of the Community Project, whose efforts included, among other things, interviews of 43,000 residents of mostly small and mid-sized cities, one of them St. Paul, where the Knights once owned newspapers. If you play around with the project’s interactive map (and I can’t think of a better way to while away the hours), you’ll see that scores for the health of the local economy vary directly with those for emotional attachment.
So if heartstrings translate hard cash or greater prosperity, what sets them to twanging? The study looked at several factors that might give people satisfaction, for example, health care, schools, housing, highways, safety and so on. But three surprising factors outweighed those practical considerations: aesthetics, social offerings and openness.
Aesthetics are self-explanatory. Residents were asked how they rated the area’s parks, playgrounds and trails as well as its overall beauty and physical setting. Unsurprisingly, residents of not-so-pretty Gary, Ind., showed a much lower emotional attachment to their town than did those from San Jose, Calif. But the issue isn’t so much about actual beauty but its residents’ perceptions. Miami, for example, scores way lower than St. Paul on aesthetics—and displays a lower level of emotional attachment.
Social offerings include arts and cultural events that provide people with opportunities for positive social interaction. Some cities saw satisfaction with their offerings rise in the recession; people who would normally get on a plane for a vacation instead took “staycations” and wound up discovering or rediscovering attractions in their home towns that they hadn’t bothered with previously. Again, because perceptions are crucial, St. Paul ranked ahead of Philadelphia, which is five times its size and packed to the gills with museums, teams and other cultural institutions.
Openness — or what the study defined as “the perception of how welcoming a community is to different types of people, including people with young children, senior citizens, college graduates and minorities, among other groups” — may be the most difficult to crack. Most of us can only get to tolerance, which, says Loflin, is tantamount to “I put up with you.”
To get a handle on this trait, researchers asked whether the community was a “good place for” different people—senior citizens, racial and ethnic minorities, families with kids, gays and lesbians, college graduates, and immigrants from other countries. St. Paul, as it turns out, is very open to families with young children; as for other groups, not so much. The most open places: Long Beach, Calif.; Aberdeen, S.D.; Grand Forks, N.D.: Boulder, Colo.; Bradenton, Fla., and State College, Penn. I wish that the study could in future expand to include bigger and more cosmopolitan cities like New York or San Francisco or Chicago to see whether diversity in population leads to more or less openness.
Government and civic leaders can do only so much about these perceptions. They can build roads and bridges and create beautiful places and cultural institutions. But residents have to bring something to the party, says Loflin, namely civility. You can take your kids to a street fair, for example, but if people are pushing or shoving or behaving badly, you end up hating it.
By way of illustration, she mentioned the experience of one city that was trying to convince a corporation to bring its business to town. City leaders learned after the fact that the company had dispatched an undercover team to attend a Little League game (to learn whether parents behaved like adults), to bump into other people’s shopping carts at supermarkets (to see what kind of language they’d hear) and to to sit at green lights (to time how long it took before people in the cars behind started honking). “We are being judged by a whole different metric,” she quotes one city official saying.
I pointed out to Loflin, however, that New Yorkers love their city, even though they put up with a lot of rudeness. But Loflin maintains that residents often take a perverse pride in features of life that others would see as negative, like nasty cabbies or blood-feud competition for parking spots. Dealing with all that is part of the schtick of being a New Yorker.
Which brings us back to climate. Cold winters are an essential feature of our area; there’s no point in downplaying them, says Loflin. To be a place that draws people, that makes them attached, cities have to understand what they’re really about and then embrace it. It’s a kind of “to thine own self be true” philosophy.
So instead of whining about the weather, maybe we should all start bragging about how we walk around the chain of lakes even when the temperature hits 21 degrees, how we’re hardy enough to shovel mountains of snow, how we bicycle on the iciest streets, how we have parades and outdoor festivals in January and how coffee houses (for warming up) sit on nearly every corner.
I’m planning to do that next January when I’m sunbathing in Puerto Vallarta.