There are two sides to economic revitalization and they must work in tandem to create change in a community. The first is the economic side. This is about training people to fill the roles we so desperately lack in most towns today and shifting ownership of community assets from out-of-town corporate interests back to local people. The economic side is all about closing the loop. Identifying areas where money is leaking out and finding a way to fill those gaps using local resources.
There is also an emotional side, a side that is equally important. This emotional side has to do with the way people feel about their community. We can think of this in the same terms as the economic side. We need to close the loop. All people express love and affection for places. People find certain places quaint, charming, beautiful, fun, interesting, etc. But unfortunately many people don’t have those feelings for the place that they call home. They love the places they visit; the places they go on the weekends and on summer vacations. Yet this isn’t just about being at a beach or lake. There are also cities and small towns that people are drawn to that have little or nothing to do with the natural landscape. There are certain urban environments that spark joy in people; places that make them feel happy and more alive. We shouldn’t have to travel to visit places worth caring about. We should expect as much out of our own towns as we do our vacation destinations.
When facilitating community meetings I always ask members to name their favorite vacation destinations and they inevitably rattle off the same list. The cities they mention are always attractive, walkable, mixed-used historic districts with strict design guidelines and full of locally owned businesses. Residents of every community leave their own town to spend their money and their affection in other places. Places that are lovable and provide people with an enriching experience. This is all makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is when these same people return home, they make decisions for their own community that run counter to what they all just stated they value. During one of these conversations, a man once told me, “We don’t walk in this town…”. This statement is one of the dumber things I have ever heard- and I have four children. We are often confusing supply and demand. Just because I don’t have six-pack abs doesn’t mean I don’t WANT them. Just because a community isn’t walkable, doesn’t mean people don’t WANT a walkable community.
People want to have a connection with their town. In fact, they are desperate to feel affection for their community and when they can’t, they will seek out other places in which to invest those feelings. People are drawn to each other, and to a collective sense of pride. It’s the same reason why we see support for local sports teams so much greater in struggling communities. In communities where opportunities seem bleak, athletics provide a place for people to express their pride. We as people will always feel a need to express pride, love and affection and we will seek out places to allow us to experience those feelings. Ideally, we would be able to express those emotions towards our own communities, but that is often not the case. Other towns that understand the importance of this dynamic, are reaping the rewards. Economic and emotional resources are pouring out of thousands of communities and migrating towards just a few.
The migration of resources from small to large benefits some cities, but leaves far too many behind. This is economic inequality on a city scale and this encapsulates the concept of revitalization. Each and every community can be vibrant and prosperous. All cities can have a sustainable economy and robust tax base. We can all love where we live. We SHOULD all love where we live. We shouldn’t have to go on vacation to visit someplace special. More importantly, we shouldn’t have to move to experience a sense of community and civic pride.
City leaders have a responsibility to make their communities more lovable. Laugh it off at your own expense, but tourism had a nearly $2 billion impact on the Greenville, South Carolina economy, and that’s a city of only 60,000 residents. Making your community more lovable is every bit as important as any economic development efforts, but despite years of evidence proving which yields a greater ROI, most cities will continue to throw money at corporate recruitment strategies while beautification efforts take a back seat.
Beyond tourism, it’s important to remember business decisions are made by people. CEO’s want to live in great places. Hospitals and universities need to be able to attract doctors, staff and students. Investors know there is far less risk in places people care about. Creating lovable places is an economic decision.
One of the biggest challenges in struggling communities is brain drain. The best and brightest will not be satisfied living in a place that doesn’t provide them with something they can easily access elsewhere. If a community isn’t lovable, why should anyone with the means to go somewhere else remain? We can’t blame individuals for wanting to seek out better places, the blame falls on city leaders for not making our places better. We must turn our cities into places people can love, so that there is an attachment that keeps good people from seeking greener pastures.
There’s no shortage of great materials detailing strategies to make communities more lovable, what’s important is that city leaders understand how critical this is to their success. Lovable places enjoy more tourism, are easier to market, get shared more on social media, experience more economic development success and foster much stronger relationships with residents. Consider why we love certain places and start incorporating these attributes into your own community, because every person deserves to live in a place they love.