Paula Ellis in Newsday: What makes us love where we live (and why it matters)

Originally published as an OpEd in Newsday.

What makes 43,000 people from across the United States love where they live?

It’s not what you think.

A good job? A bustling local economy? Access to good health care?

As it turns out, people’s loyalty and passion for their community is overwhelmingly driven by just three things: a community’s social offerings (or fun things to do) how welcoming it is to all kinds of people, and its beauty.

These top factors were consistent in 26 diverse cities survey ‘ from Miami to Macon, Ga., San Jose to State College, Pa. Not even the worst recession in years changed people’s minds.

But why is knowing this so important to all communities ‘ including Long Island and Greater New York?

How much we love where we live may also affect our town’s livelihood. The Soul of the Community survey found a significant connection between residents’ love for their community and the area’s local economic growth. In other words, communities with the highest percentage of people with a strong emotional connection to their town had the highest local GDP growth rates over time.

Love and money may go together after all ‘ at least when it comes to community vitality.

For now, the Soul of the Community research has not determined whether community attachment causes a higher growth rate – or vice versa. But previous Gallup research did find that companies with a higher number of people passionate about their job were more productive.

Local leaders can take the Soul of the Community research to heart. In today’s world – where communities are often transient or virtual – a sense of place still has deep meaning.

Leaders also can use the findings to their community’s advantage. If the town council knows what fills residents’ collective soul, they can help beef up those factors. Invest in parks, or new spaces for people to gather ‘ and people feel better about where they live, and may even be more entrepreneurial and productive.

This is particularly important in a globalized economy, where cities are competing to attract talented workers and companies. Building a community where people want to put down roots and build a life is an essential part to that equation.

Already, leaders in several cities are putting these findings to the test. Take Miami, where The Miami Foundation is going to use the results to build a public policy agenda. For example, if social offerings are so important to Miamians, the foundation might find it’s time for advocating investing in more public access to the waterfront.

In Detroit, a city knee-deep in reinvention, the survey found the city has the highest ratings of emotional connections for young college grads. That’s the demographic that cities are clamoring for ‘ and it’s something Detroit can exploit as it plots its comeback.

Of course the findings aren’t the magic pill that will pull the country out of the recession. However, the Soul of the Community survey does provide guidance ‘ based on strong data – that leaders can use as they plot long term, public investments.

Most importantly, these findings didn’t drop down from on high. They were derived from the voices of residents across the country. And they want to be heard.