What is it about your community that makes current and future residents and businesses want to locate, live, work and/or play there? Evidence suggests that businesses and residents place considerable importance on community characteristics that go far beyond simply a vibrant economy. Importantly for many communities, a strong social and aesthetic foundation is critically important to building a healthy and sustainable economy - and not necessarily the other way around.
While everyone is likely to answer the questions above a bit differently, research over the years suggests a number of commonalities in our preferences that are worth considering in our efforts to build strong and vibrant communities. Looking at your community through the lens of these considerations may well suggest strategies for strengthening your community's social, economic, and environmental well-being - and long-term success.
While there's a good bit of social science research that addresses one or more aspects of what we're looking for in the 'good community', two studies are particularly relevant.
Perhaps best known, David McMillan and David Chavis (1986), in their analysis of previous studies found that four factors consistently show up as community attributes we all look for in a good community.
- Membership - that feeling that part of us is invested in the community, that we have a right to belong and feel welcome
- Influence - that sense that we have some say in the community issues that affect us and that our perspectives are appreciated and respected
- Integration and fulfillment of needs - based on the notion that the community has numerous opportunities for both individual and social fulfillment including basic needs, recreation, and social interaction. Some scholars have referred to this as the meeting the needs of 'whole person' in all our roles, (e.g. goods, services, recreation, desirable social interaction activities etc.)
- Shared emotional connection - based in part of shared history or sense of community and quality of interactions within the community
The second study comes from the Soul of the Community Project conducted in 26 communities across the nation by the Knight Foundation and Gallup (2010). The focus of this work was to look at those factors that facilitate "community attachment". In addition to highlighting individual factors, they found that those communities with the highest levels of community attachment also had the highest rates of growth in local gross domestic product.
The 10 community characteristics that most influenced community attachment (in order of importance) were: social offerings, openness, aesthetics, education, and basic services. While there were some differences in the relative strength of each of these factors across the 26 communities, these 5 factors consistently had the strongest influence on feelings of attachment. Other important, but somewhat less influential factors included leadership, economy, safety, social capital, and civic involvement.
Taken together, this and other research provides strong evidence for communities to pay close - and specific - attention to the social as well as economic conditions in their communities. While these are often related, the evidence suggests that businesses and residents are clearly looking for community characteristics that go far beyond simply a vibrant economy. Perhaps even more importantly, it seems clear that a strong social and aesthetic foundation is critically important to building a healthy and sustainable economy - and not necessarily the other way around. How would you assess your community on each of these characteristics? And what strategies can you put in place to begin strengthening this foundation?