by Elizabeth Anderson Ferruelo
Most of us feel attached to our neighborhoods, but can this emotional connection help fuel local economies? According to a multi-year study by Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the answer is yes: Communities with high levels of attachment actually have higher local GDP growth.
At a time when traditional ways of generating growth, such as tax incentives for new business, are no longer financially viable, this finding is important. Seeing the potential of engaged and attached residents, cities are looking for affordable ways to increase these feelings.
Surprisingly, the top factors that encourage community attachment are aesthetics and having spaces for people to socialize, according to 43,000 survey participants who ranked these factors above safety, education, and municipal services. But with foreclosures and vacant buildings and the resulting loss of tax revenue, how do you create and pay for public spaces?
One innovative solution in Chicago is Space in Between, a contest organized by the Metropolitan Planning Council to re-purpose vacant parking lots or liquor stores into community gardens or art exhibitions in the greater Chicago/Gary/Milwaukee region.
“There’s a phrase making the rounds called ‘small is the new big,’ which is an apt description for what this contest is about. This contest is about how ordinary people can transform small spaces that impact them into places that better their lives,” said Marisa Novara, Metropolitan Planning Council’s Placemaking project manager.
A new twist on placemaking, Space in Between recognizes that communities where development projects have stalled and need a temporary fix. Take Bronzeville, for example. Home to a Chicago’s largest concentration of public housing, this community was left with vacant lots when a planned development fell through. Thanks to a joint government-citizen partnership, this land will now become the location of a Gospel music festival. In doing so, it will bring new visitors, help local businesses and generate renewed pride among its residents.
“What this contest celebrates is called tactical urbanism — the idea that short-term interventions can create long-term and wide-reaching transformation,” said Novara.
Increased entrepreneurial activities and investment are real. But so is the citizen engagement and public trust that develops from community initiatives like placemaking. More attachment means that residents are more successful professionally, they are more likely to stay in their communities, and they are more likely to pay taxes.
This idea is gaining ground. From the Aspen Ideas Festival to the White House, attention is turning once again to cities and communities as hubs of innovation and organic drivers of growth, a role they’ve played for thousands of years.
The Government Finance Officers Association, a nonprofit advising more than 17,000 members in municipal finance across the United States and Canada, includes community attachment as part of a long-term solution to financial recovery.
Businesses and cities across the country should take note: Locally-inspired public spaces, even temporary ones, and other quality-of-life factors have a real effect on economies. They can speed up a recovery and highlight what’s best in a community — the people.
Written by Elizabeth Anderson Ferruelo, who has worked on programming, concept development and marketing for non-profit educational and business forums.
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.