Tell Me What You Want

July 7, 2023

The reason community engagement surveys tend to feel meaningless is because everyone ignores the results. Last week in Marshalltown, Iowa, I had a chance to sit in as the results from the lovely staff of Main Street Iowa were being reported to local stakeholders and officials. I must admit, I was not particularly excited about the event initially, assuming I would hear the same old stuff, but fortunately, I was quite wrong.

Lessons learned:

  • Everyone likes nice things. Yes, it’s true. No matter what a town might try and tell itself about itself, residents like nice things. Communities that struggle with low civic-self-esteem start to believe because they might not have enough nice things, that residents don’t want them. This is simply a case of confusing supply with demand. The results of the study showed that the participants wanted a bookstore, a men’s clothing store, and a women’s clothing store to name a few. The types of businesses the community likely assumes people would not patronize are the ones that were named most often. On top of that, participants said how much they valued the historic county courthouse and the beautiful buildings downtown. Everyone appreciates quality, so every project, effort, and initiative undertaken should be of high quality.
  • Urbanism is very popular as long as it’s not called urbanism. The results of the survey were conclusive regarding the concept of good urbanism. Participants overwhelmingly responded with how much they valued the walkable nature of the downtown, the small locally owned shops, and the attractive buildings. No one responding seemed interested in wider roads, more big box stores, and new subdivisions. Unfortunately the word “urban” has taken on a political context and a lot of people shy away from it, but the fact remains, most people gravitate towards well-designed dense places.
  • People have a strange relationship with housing. One of the survey questions posed was about creating additional housing and the majority of responders said that they were not in favor of new housing in the downtown. Another question later in the survey asked people if they would be interested in living downtown and the answers painted quite a different picture. A large percentage of participants said that they would be interested in living downtown in upper-floor apartments, condos or townhomes.

These results demonstrated that what people think their community wants and what people want for themselves is often at odds. This is because people are poor judges of their fellow community members. They have bought into a narrative of what the people of their town are like. They have heard the accusations of “we aren’t good enough” and other complaints of low self-esteem and bought into the fallacy. They have allowed certain politically charged words to take on false meaning.

By no means is this a Marshalltown problem, I encounter it across the country and it’s one of the single greatest hindrances to community improvement. Healthy individual self-esteem coupled with low civic self-esteem leads every resident to believe they live amongst a community of people that just don’t like nice things. It’s a way of justifying why things aren’t getting better.

We need to stop asking people what they think their community wants and focus on finding out what they want for themselves because this is where the truth lies. The fact is, if you like something or want something, more than likely a lot of your fellow residents feel the same way.

This is where we run into problems with surveys and public engagement. The results are often discarded by people who assume they know their towns better than they really do. They don’t. The results prove it. I am still scarred by a particular councilwoman in Ohio that told me people in her town didn’t care about preserving old buildings downtown. Clearly, she had zero insight into what people wanted.

Stop asking people to guess what their town wants, ask them what they want. Or instead of asking people what they want, look at what they value already. Where do they vacation, where do they go on the weekends? Or better yet, you can just ask yourself what you value and the types of places you prefer. The results are likely pretty in-line with the rest of your town because people just aren’t that different. People like locally-owned businesses, they prefer walkable places, they value beauty, they appreciate historic buildings and districts, and above all, they seek to fill their lives with more quality.

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