A three-year Gallup study of 26 US cities found that peoples’ love and passion for their community may be a leading indicator for local economic growth. Surprisingly, social offerings, openness, and beauty are far more important than peoples’ perceptions of the economy, jobs, or basic services in creating a lasting emotional bond between people and their community, according to the $2.4 million Soul of the Community study, commissioned by the Knight Foundation.
The 26 cities in the survey with the highest levels of resident love and passion for their community, or “community attachment,” also had the highest rates of GDP growth over time. The cities were defined by their metropolitan statistical area and were chosen because they are home to Knight-family-owned newspapers.
“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.
Three community qualities – social offerings, openness, and beauty – have consistently emerged as the leading drivers for community attachment over the study’s three years of research. They beat out other possible drivers such as perceptions of local economy, leadership, and safety across all of the 26 cities included in the survey.
“Social offerings,” including a vibrant night life and a sense that the community is a good place to meet other people, emerged as far more important than “social capital” in determining community attachment, the study found. Social capital includes the number of close friends and family members that live in a community, and the local organizations that someone belongs to. In other words, community attachment does not spring from the number of friends that you have, but rather the opportunities for making connections, Katherine Loflin, lead consultant for the project told New Urban News. “A place can provide the social infrastructure under which those connections can grow and multiply,” she said.
Beauty includes both the natural and the man-made environment — such as parks, playgrounds, and trails. Although the survey didn’t specifically ask about architecture, research has shown that asking about parks and playgrounds is a good proxy for the entire built environment, says Loftin. The quality of “openness” means the degree to which the community is welcoming to diverse ages, races, ethnicities, cultural groups, and family types.
“Our theory 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,” said Jon Clifton, deputy directory of the Gallup World Poll. “The study bears out that theory and now provides all community leaders the knowledge they need to make a sustainable impact on their community.”
The study found a clear correlation between community attachment and economic growth, and the researchers hypothesize that the relationship is causal, Loftin says. One reason is that this research amplifies the findings of prior longitudinal studies that Gallup has conducted in businesses. When employees are more attached to their jobs, they are more productive and businesses are more profitable, Loftin says. The Soul of the Community study is similar but on a larger scale, she notes. The findings make sense, Loftin adds, because when residents are more attached to their community, they are more likely to make long-term investments, spend more time in the community, and buy a house.