Friday, June 21st, 2013

What Makes a Great Community?

My latest post is online at GoLocalProv and is called “What Makes a Great Community?” This one goes beyond the Providence specific to take a look generally at what makes a great place to live. I discuss the debates over what metrics to look at, as well as the emotional and cultural appeal of place. Here’s an excerpt:

There appear to be two fundamentally different views of what makes a successful community, the “horizontal” model and the “vertical” model. The horizontal model focuses on quantitative metrics like population and job growth. The vertical model emphasizes qualitative ones like per capita income or GDP.

Unsurprisingly, cities tend to fall into one or the other of these categories. And the partisans of the different models tend to be very vocal about their “team.” Vertical success cities include Boston, New York, and San Francisco. Horizontal success cities include Dallas, Charlotte, and Nashville.
The people, culture, and lifestyle, things that are difficult to quantify and capture in ranking systems, are what distinguish most of New England. But exactly what it is about these can be frustratingly difficult to articulate. I have found this to be the case almost everywhere. For example, I am from the Midwest. Most of the Midwest has a rather plain vanilla reputation and most cities there find it almost impossible to describe themselves other than with platitudes like “a great place to raise a family” or “big city amenities without the price tag and hassles.” But go to say Ohio and visit Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland and you will experience three radically different places. Yet is hard to really describe the uniqueness of each one. I know it when I experience it, but it’s hard to articulate.

I have found this similarly to be the case in much of New England. Where I live in Rhode Island, I hear people describe its best assets as the coast, the food, the fact that everything is close, and the historic architecture. The coast is very nice, I agree. But to be blunt I don’t find the other three items very compelling. They are nice things, but not overwhelming distinctives.
This is a difficult problem. Not because of anything unique to the community or New England, but because it’s a hard problem generally for places that are not used to being introspective. Lots of places struggle with it. Almost everyplace struggles with it to be honest. It requires digging deep into the local soil. It’s like going on an anthropology or archeology expedition.

Topics: Civic Branding, Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Urban Culture

12 Responses to “What Makes a Great Community?”

  1. John Morris says:

    Great for whom? Beyond some very basic measures like really high violent crime or massive unemployment it’s very hard to quantify.

    The Berlin video showed a place that likely doesn’t look so good by most standard measures, but has been chosen by tens of thousands of artists and creatives as the best relative choice. Does Portland, Oregon measure very well by standards like per-capita GDP? It’s famous for underemployment, but still has a pull.

  2. Matthew Hall says:

    Choice. A place can’t be great unless there are meaningfully different ways of living, working, and socializing.

  3. John Morris says:

    The other big problem is that in many cases the unemployment and income numbers don’t give an accurate view of what’s really going on.

    In spite of the vast flows of immigrants and underground economy- Aaron rarely mentions the informal sector in his posts.

    My total experience in NY was about living with people hustling at the margins of law- off the books income, informal sublets, Illegal loft conversions (Often successful people live that way). In that context, population stats can’t be accurate.

    I think people are finally questioning the Fed’s “job” statistics which counts people working 1 hour a week as employed.

    I understand Aaron’s interest in quantifying things but he needs a better grip on the truth behind the numbers.

  4. John Morris says:

    What I mean is that in many dynamic places, the important things that are driving a local economy are poorly captured in the numbers- or at least the official numbers.

    I always laugh at people using 5- 10 year old census data to understand NY neighborhoods they could walk around.

  5. Paul Lindemeyer says:

    We lack the language to talk about cities in terms of anything but numbers. The hearts of cities are about undefinables like culture, and unmentionables like class and ethnicity.

  6. @John Morris,

    I think the informal economy is important and teaches us a lot about what we could accomplish if we got some of these regs out of the way. And of course there’s a place for observational surveys. I’ve always said you can tell a lot about a city just by looking around.

    The problem is that when you start doing analysis by anecdote, the temptation to cherry pick in a way biased towards favored outcomes is overwhelming. In fact, I think that when communities start rejecting or challenging government data, that’s generally a huge danger sign. We absolutely need to include hard data, imperfect though it may be.

  7. John Morris says:

    Imperfect “hard data” is often worse than no numbers at all.

    I am not advocating analysis by anecdote, but you rarely even include caveats.

    As you no doubt know, a number like GDP only measures current spending/ cash flowing through an economy which could be based on sustainable investment or government induced mal-investment or transfers. Las Vegas, Phoenix and The Inland Empire looked great by the numbers right up until the bubble burst and they looked really bad.

    More importantly, official data usually underplays really important social changes, new industries and turning points.

    It was the fetish for surface prettiness and easy answers that lead to the destruction of Pittsburgh’s Hill District or The South Bronx. Often urban “renewal” projects gave a “boost” to GNP as would digging a trench or hole to China. Only wise people willing to look at the details saw the disaster in the making.

  8. John Morris says:

    And yes, 10 year old census data in rapidly changing cities is pure garbage.

    Sorry, but the increasing trend of government putting out self serving and willfully distorted figures is too strong to ignore.

    Charles Biderman of Trim Tabs has done a good job at hacking away at garbage data.

  9. John Morris says:

    Here’s Biderman talking about garbage government retail sales data which amazingly is based on very small sample polling.

    “The US Census Bureau mails surveys to a mere 5,000 retailers and from the responses mailed back guesses at the fraction of a percent change in month to month retail activity. Wow! One would think that the Census people never heard of credit, debit and cash cards. Actual cash is much less than 10% of sales these days and I would rather have all the credit and debit card data than a survey of 5,000 outfits, wouldn’t you? Believe it or not, Master Card and Visa sell their data to the public and I am sure all would give summary data to the government, if asked.”

    Other data like the employment numbers relies on “black-box” adjustment assumptions. The BLS still doesn’t show it makes them.

    No surprise that people who believe much of this garbage are shocked when tax reciepts don’t match with official data.

  10. Ziggy says:

    Matthew Hall nailed it – having choices a significant differentiator for cities, neighborhoods and business districts. Communities without the public and private resources to affect meaningful change are at a severe disadvantage from those that do.

    Having choices does not ensure a great place. But great places cannot exist without the ability to choose strategies based on the “tyranny of the marketplace.”

  11. Corrinn says:

    This post has got me wondering…I’m not sure which category Chicago would fall into. I think it is difficult because large cities tend to be fragmented (usually by neighborhoods). So the qualities that may make one area of the city a “great” place to live, may not be existent in another.

    To a certain extent I would like for my neighborhood – which many would consider a not so great place to live, whether you look at it from a horizontal or vertical model – to have both. I want more opportunities for all groups of people to improve their livelihoods. The dilemma is where to start? Do we focus on improving urban communities vertically, hoping that higher income, white-collar professionals will help improve qualities like education, crime, etc.? Or do we start with the horizontal model in hopes of reducing the ills of poverty and violence?

    I know there isn’t any right or wrong answer, I’m mostly just thinking aloud. Good post.

  12. John Morris says:

    I think when this choice comes up in a big way in a large metro area it is failing.

    At what point does the contradiction crack the foundations? NY for example was once both a good place to make art and a good place to sell it. Now, as more artists and grass roots dealers close or leave, it’s only a good place to sell some very established art and more people are wondering about that.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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