A three-year national study by the Knight Foundation finds that it’s not job availability or economic promise that causes people to care about and connect to their communities.
We feel the love for our towns — both here and around the country — because of softer issues, such as social offerings, openness to diverse groups, and the beauty of where we live. And when people care strongly about where they live, indications are that economic growth improves.
The study tries to capture the “soul of the communities,” organizers say. And while economic factors were asked about, people didn’t rate them as highly as might have been expected, especially given that the survey was conducted during a recession.
The Twin Cities area is one of 26 the Knight Foundation surveyed around the country — communities that formerly were home to Knight-Ridder newspapers. The report refers to St. Paul, which was a longtime KR city, but the data really include the Minneapolis/St. Paul Metropolitan Statistical Area.
Duluth, which also was home to a KR paper, also is in the study.
The Knight study looked both at the things that make people feel loyal and passionate about their communities — the things that make them want to stay put instead of transferring or moving — and also how well the communities are doing in those areas deemed important to passion.
About 1,000 people in the metro area were interviewed for the study over the years. Nationally, 43,000 people were interviewed.
Nancy Homans, St. Paul’s policy director, told MinnPost that the study “affirms a sense of what connects people to St. Paul” and helps leaders understand “what leads residents to invest in their homes and remodel their kitchens and bathrooms,” rather than moving away.
“It’s not always easy to put a finger on exactly what creates those connections, but that sense is one of the reasons why our strategic plans includes a section on the soul of St. Paul.”
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman added: “What we’ve known anecdotally now has data to back it up. A city has to be liveable. People can go anywhere in the world to live, so you want your city to be unique and have assets other places don’t have. It’s nice to affirm that by focusing on these issues, we’re actually doing the right thing for business, too.”
We like how it looks here
In the Twin Cities, resident attachment is at the highest point of the past three years, the report shows. And we’re particularly big on aesthetics, feeling that they’re important to passion and also that we’re doing well, with green space, the Mississippi River and the lakes. We’re high on education, too.
On the social offerings and openness, we say they’re important, but could do better, the study says. Looking on the bright side, the study says those areas offer an “opportunity” to make improvements.
Polly Talen, the program director for Knight in St. Paul, isn’t surprised the Twin Cities look relatively good in the study.
“We’re more attached than other cities our size, feeling loyalty and passion for where we live, for all the reasons I love to live here,” she said. “The study reinforces the kinds of things the Twin Cities and St. Paul do well — we try to maintain green spaces and have high quality of education.”
Parts of the social offerings segments — arts and culture, vibrant night life — were highly rated here, but for some reason we didn’t rate well on caring about one another, which brought the average down, Talen said.
Questions about openness included how welcoming people are to different kinds of people — immigrants, families with small children, gays and lesbians, seniors and talented recent college graduates.
Perceived to be least welcomed in the Twin Cities? Talented college graduates. Talen said that looking deeper, though, those 18-34 were most likely to feel that the new grads were well received, while those 55 and older thought we were not open to welcoming them.
Loyalty and economic growth
Organizers hope this information will be used by city leaders to make improvements in the things people most care about.
“This study is important because its findings about emotional attachment to place point to a new perspective that we encourage leaders to consider; it is especially valuable as we aim to strengthen our communities during this tough economic time,” said Paula Ellis, Knight Foundation’s vice president for strategic initiatives.
“This survey offers new approaches for communities to organize themselves to attract businesses, keep residents and holistically improve their local economic vitality,” said Jon Clifton, deputy director of the Gallup World Poll, who conducted the survey with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Other Gallup findings have shown that in businesses, the more employees feel an emotional attachment to their company, the better the company’s financial performance. Now experts are finding evidence that there’s a similar correlation with happy residents and thriving cities.
An odd finding locally was that leadership was not considered particularly important, nor did people think it was particularly good, both here and nationally.
That baffled Talen.
“There were a couple of questions about how leaders represent our interests, but I’m not sure much should be made of it [the low rankings] because it was true in every community,” she said. “I don’t know if it says something about how the questions were phrased, but the results don’t really explain anything, and it should not be considered an indictment of our mayors, for instance. We have two fabulous mayors running our cities.”
Importance of the economy
Knight officials were somewhat surprised that respondents didn’t consider economic considerations more important in creating an emotional bond with their communities.
“These softer aspects of a community were far more important in making a connection between people and where they live than factors we’d typically consider more important, like jobs, the economy and basic services,” said Paul Wiseman, a spokesman for the survey.
And over the course of the study — even with the recession — the link between residents’ emotional bonds and local GDP remained steady. And communities with a higher percentage of attached residents show higher levels of economic growth.
The report on Duluth showed:
“In the Duluth area, social offerings (entertainment infrastructure, places to meet people, community events), openness (how welcoming a place is) and aesthetics (an area’s physical beauty and green spaces) are the most important factors in emotionally connecting residents to where they live.
Aesthetics, particularly the natural beauty of the area, is perceived as a community strength.
“Social offerings, particularly the cultural opportunities, and openness, particularly to young talent needs improvement to increase resident attachment. However, nightlife is rated significantly higher in 2010. The area is perceived to be most welcoming to seniors and least welcoming to young talent, although both groups are seen as significantly more welcome in the area in 2010. Residents 55 and older are the most attached of all age groups, whereas 18-34 year old residents are least attached.”
Joe Kimball covers St. Paul, Ramsey County and other topics for MinnPost.