Public Spaces Vital To Community Attachment
By Reed Anfinson
“We come from all the divisions, ranks and classes of society…to teach and to be taught in our turn. While we mingle together in these pursuits, we shall learn to know each other more intimately; we shall remove many of the prejudices which ignorance or partial acquaintance with each other has fostered…. (so) we may return to our homes and firesides with kindlier feelings toward one another, because we have learned to know one another better.”
The Rev. Thomas Greene - 1829
New Bedford, Mass, Lyceum
In an intensive three-year study by the Gallup organization of 26 American communities, 10 areas were identified as essential to creating a sense of community. Can you guess which three were repeatedly found to be the most important?
The 10 areas were:
- Basic services – community infrastructure
- Local Economy
- Leadership and elected officials
- Aesthetics – physical beauty and green spaces
- Education systems
- Social offerings – opportunities for social interaction and citizen caring
- Openness/welcomeness – how welcoming the community is to different people
- Civic involvement – residents’ commitment to their community through voting or volunteerism
- Social capital – social networks between residents
“What attaches residents to their communities doesn’t change much from place to place,” Gallup said of the communities it studied, including Duluth and Aberdeen, S.D. “When examining each factor in the study and its relationship to attachment, the same items rise to the top, year after year:
“Social offerings: Places for people to meet each other and the feeling that people in the community care about each other.
“Openness: How welcoming the community is to different types of people, including families with young children, minorities, and talented college graduates.
“Aesthetics: The physical beauty of the community including the availability of parks and green spaces.”
These three areas are consistently most related to community attachment, Gallup, which did the study for the Knight Foundation, reported. Not surprisingly, Gallup’s study “showed a significant correlation between community attachment and economic growth.”
In our economic development efforts, we focus too often on buildings and land, infrastructure, and searching for that business to bring jobs to the community. Yes, these are crucial elements of efforts to attracting jobs and, with them, new residents. But if these efforts remain the primary focus of our efforts, we are doomed to continue to lose population.
Economic development today is about people creation – about attracting the young people who will fill the job openings at local businesses and industries. It is about finding people who will replace the retiring Baby Boom generation workers. It is about those who might buy a local business and keep it going.
If all we offer is a job and then sitting at home at night with nothing to do, we aren’t going to keep or retain our younger workers. We aren’t going to convince those graduating from our high schools that this is an exciting and rewarding place to live.
More of us today say we don’t know our neighbors, or the people we run into in stores and restaurants. We are a more mobile society, which challenges our efforts to create a connected community. As our communities become more culturally diverse, what spaces do we have that bring us together to break down the barriers?
Too often, our parks have solitary benches here and there that isolate a person. What message does this send to those passing by? Is it a metaphor for the community? We are a social species. We need and enjoy companionship. Why not create spaces in our parks where benches face each other to foster conversation and friendship.
We have too many passive spaces that could be energized with simple entertainment once a week or every couple of weeks. Bring in a face painter for children or someone talented in creating balloon animals. Music always draws a crowd. Speakers can entertain and educate. These are just a few of what could be numerous suggestions from residents of the community. Perhaps these events could be funded by our community foundations or economic development organizations – people creation efforts are economic development. It needs investment and effort.
Most Minnesota communities have a wide variety of warm-weather activities for youth and adults – baseball, softball, golf, walking, tennis, swimming, parks to gather in, and in which children play. We have market days for gardeners to sell their produce, honey and jams, that also provide a place to socialize.
Once the weather turns cold we are forced inside, isolated. Churches, along with the local bars and restaurants, become the only places to socialize. Bowling alleys, roller skating rinks, theatres, and adult winter sports leagues are often gone or fading away.
Our long winter seasons are forgotten times by our communities when they are probably the days when we need social connection more than ever for our mental and physical health. What are our rural communities doing to address this challenge?
Partnerships between businesses, local governments, and foundations can help redefine, reshape and expand our public spaces to become more interactive.
It is by creating an attractive, unique, caring community that we will bring new families here to fill job vacancies, shop at our stores, buy or build homes, have their children go to our schools, attend our churches, and serve as volunteers to make this a better place to live.
When we don’t feel a part of our neighborhood, our town, or schools, we have no ties that bind us. We are itinerants who can easily move from place to place rather than setting down roots. When we feel pride in our communities, when we call them home, we also begin to feel a sense of responsibility to taking care of it. We take pride in it. We spread the word about what a great place it is to work, raise a family, and retire.