Summer of Branding: Pt. III


This past week I participated in a Media Training Seminar in High Point for local leaders sponsored as a free event by the High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau and Visit NC.  First off, brilliant idea for the local CVB to help local leaders and business owners get training in such an important area, especially for places that are going through a transition or change of sorts. And because of the access of the sponsors of the event, they were able to attract some big and experienced names to provide that training. Truly a great service to the community.

But what was I doing at a media relations and messaging training? Well, I have an extensive history working with the media and in the newsroom pre-Knight Soul of the Community. But also because there is big overlap between place brand, messaging and strategy. Knowing your place brand and talking about place brand are two different things. And while knowing it is important, it is not enough. You have to be able to effectively talk about it to the press and others to activate the brand.

So last week I talked about the reasons why place brand is important: it gives you the context that should be informing every place-effort in the community and keeps you focusing on your strengths as a place and activating them to protect you from mission drift and selling out. As I also said last week: place brand is the authentic representation of who you are as a place and what you are striving to be.

Therefore, when you are talking about your place brand, there are basically 3 messaging buckets:

  1. Why place brand is needed,
  2. What is the place brand, and
  3. The “so what” of place brand.

Here’s example brand statements for each:

1. Why Place Brand:

“Today we see a new paradigm.  It’s no longer: People go where the jobs are. Today people go where they want to live. And the jobs go where the people are. ”

-Mayor Mick Cornett, Oklahoma City

Sometimes the hardest things for place leaders to do is admit change and a course correction is needed. We struggle to admit our “bless your heart” moments in a place, but we shouldn’t. They provide the justification for why a new direction is needed or a crossroads stands before us. When our personal relationship is having a moment, we can either stick our heads in the sand or face it. Facing it can be harder, but ultimately is the best choice.

We have to be able to say why place brand is so important these days, even if we admit mistakes or outdated thinking to justify why we are here. Mayor Cornett, to his credit, went even further in vulnerability to explain what ended up being a highly successful placemaking initiative in his community:

“Despite the city dangling $100m in incentives, United Airlines told Oklahoma City: ‘At the end of the day, we can’t see our employees living here.’ 

That was an expensive wake-up call on why place matters that led to a sea change for us.”

Place branding can’t seem out of the blue, because it feels gimmicky. Messaging effectively about the why of place brand grounds it in context and understanding, making it a critical first step.

2. What is the Place Brand:

“No matter the size of your dream or the scale of your ambition, we are the Land of the Possible. ”

-Mayor Foxx, Charlotte

This should be the fun part, but it can be challenging too. This is where all the elements of your place narrative I identified last week come together to illuminate your place brand.  It has to be uniquely your place.  It has to move beyond the “live, work and play” language.

It’s personal and has elements of your narrative infused:

“We embrace diversity and welcome newcomers and businesses that seek to do well and do good.  We are not afraid of change; we embrace it, a tenaciousness we have shared for many generations…ever since Charlotte was a hornets’ nest of the rebellion for the American Revolution.”

-Mayor Foxx, Charlotte

Place brand ties it all together. It touches on your spirit as a place and what you have endured to help make you who you are. It tells people what they can expect from you as place and what you as a place expect from them as residents. It’s actual and aspirational.

3. The “So what” of Place Brand:

“It is (the best way) to align North Carolina’s brand vision with consumer demand…(so people) know before they go.”

Brand matters because it connects place offerings to consumer demands, from an economic theory standpoint. It lets people know who you are so they can be naturally attracted to create an authentic foundation, from a relationship standpoint.

Place brand is a powerful tool in today’s world. But like most things, there is a right and wrong way to develop them.  Authenticity, resident voice, strength with vulnerability, and competitive advantage are all aspects of a powerful brand that will optimize your place and maximize your Place Match.

Summer of Branding: Pt. II

One of the things we teach our children is to know who they are and be true to what that looks like. We teach them never to give up who they are, their identity. Also, to always look for ways to better themselves while still holding onto who they are. Basically the message is this: be who you are, and be the best “who you are” that you can be. Developing a healthy sense of identity is a key developmental milestone – and a never ending process.

We now know that this is also true for places. A place needs to understand its identity: the authentic representation of what it is and what it is striving to be. At the heart of creating a great place should be a keen awareness of identity, narrative and staying true to that as the place continues to evolve in a smart and sustainability way. It is also the first step in creating place brand.

Knowing place identity and narrative also creates these other added benefits:

1. Highlights the strengths of your place. What is the competitive advantage of your Place? What is it getting right as a Place? When people come to visit your city, what do you show off about your Place? A vibrant downtown? Unique social offerings? Historic preservation? Welcoming culture? Often enough, community strengths are the best leverage point for starting to address challenges. Many places actually know what they are getting right, or deploy a strength-based strategy, in addressing challenges.

2. Instilling love of place and shared vision. A shared place identity helps build love of place. And we’ve already talked about how important resident love, attachment and belonging is for both people and place. In terms of a brand, having love of place also helps provide a useful starting point for having a shared vision and brand. Though residents can disagree on how they move forward, what bonds them together is the shared love of place that has roots in the shared place identity.

3. Keeps places from selling out. Today places are competing with each other like never before. When that happens, there is a lot of looking on each other’s paper. When a development, downtown, or amenity does not fit with the narrative or essence of that place, residents can feel it and it may fail as a result, leading to disconnection from the place itself. This, in turn, can have negative consequences for people and place from economic development, job satisfaction, optimism and other characteristics of a healthy place. The biggest reason why a placemaking idea works in one place and fails in another is simply dragging and dropping the idea from one place to another without considering adaptation for alignment with the place narrative.

Unfortunately, many places don’t know their narrative and identity, yet it is clearly foundational for place success.

So, where to start?

Place narrative is cultivated from a variety of sources including history, geography, industry/resources, anchor institutions, landmarks, and culture/spirit of its people. But a place’s narrative is not just one of those things – a place is not just its history or industry or anchor institution – but is comprised of all of those things. How does each of these areas inform who you are as a place and what you are aspiring to be?

Knowing your place’s narrative and developing it into a place brand, that is demonstrated regularly through place offerings and dynamics, is key to a place’s success in today’s world. It helps to bond us to the place and to each other. So we can’t skip this step. Similar to humans, places having a consistent grasp of what they are is a critical piece for places (and the people within them) being joined in the right Place Match.

Summer of Branding: Pt. I

Looks like this will be the “Summer of Branding” for me, as much of my work over the next couple of months. Therefore, I thought I would do another series focusing on the idea of place brand, why it’s important, and how it’s created and sustained.

Admittedly, my relationship with the concept of place brand has had its ups and downs. I was really first introduced to the idea when I was knee-deep in the rollout of the Knight Soul of the Community project. I was often asked my thoughts on place brand and how the Soul findings could inform a local emerging place brand. I have to admit, most of the place brands I was exposed to during that time seemed gimmicky and certainly not uniquely reflective of that particular place. So my first reaction was generally not a positive one.

Yet, over time I understood of the importance of a place brand. It’s a way for a place to identify and hopefully differentiate itself. Like a flag or other symbol of common understanding about something, place brands (when done correctly) should not only unify residents, but also send a message external world what that place is all about.

So over the next few blogs, I will continue to explore place brand and use my work currently happening on-the-ground in places to develop and champion place brands.  But in this intro blog, I thought I would start by identifying three ground rules that should govern any place brand development, evolution, and sustainability:

1. Place brand must be grounded in place narrative. If you don’t know who you are, you certainly can’t communicate it effectively to others. So going back to the old dating and marriage comparison, when you are out in the dating world, you have to know and be able to communicate who you are, your likes/dislikes, strengths/weaknesses, aspirational goals/real life realities to someone else. One thing not to do is just simply say: “Oh, I like whatever you like. You tell me what you are looking for and I can be that.” And unfortunately many places did just that in early place branding endeavors. By trying to be everything to all people, they really showed a hollowness and generalization to their brand that left them practically meaningless. This is an easy trap to fall into when you don’t do the work in owning who you are and want to be, using it as a basis for your place brand.

2. Place brands should follow the 80/20 rule. My general recommendation is that place brands be 80% actual and 20% aspirational. Most of your place brand should reflect who you think you are today (actual), but should also include where you’re heading as a place (aspirational). Unfortunately, again, many early place brands didn’t get that quite right in that they flipped the formula. They were 80% (or 90-99%) aspirational and not reflective of current reality  (plus they often phrased it as not even aspirational but as current reality. That’s a double whammy.)  So the brands wound up being somewhere along the lines of “there is no better place than ours in the world and there never will be”.  Again, come on.

3. Place brands should be based on resident perceptions and input. Don’t let a PR firm or even a consultant like me tell you what your place brand should be based on “what’s playing well in the market currently”.  Look inward, ask your residents. That’s been our approach in Lethbridge that we will be expanding upon this summer and the results are already well-received . Now, I will say, place brand development needs a placemaker, or a place-based scientist, on (or leading) your team.  I’m seeing through my own current practice that places are starting to turn to people like me rather than just working with a PR/ad agency when it comes to place brand development and that’s a good thing.  Still, a good placemaker should create a strategic, empirical methodology for learning resident perceptions about a place by focusing on key areas and cultivate them into an organic brand.

There’s a lot more to say here, but this hopefully gives you a good foundation. Next week I head to High Point to help conduct a training on place brand and messaging where I will focus on the “why” of place brand and how it should inform effective place brand development. Coming off that training, in my next blog I will focus on that “setting the stage” aspect of brand cultivation.

Until then!

Placemaking DIY: Pt. III


In this final edition of Placemaking DIYs, I focus on new solutions to old problems. Indeed place provides an important vehicle to address problems, often entrenched, in various aspects of our lives.  With a little creativity and a slight shift of the place kaleidoscope, new and innovative solutions can present themselves.

Hug What You Love

A few years back, St. Louis was embarking on a strategic planning process and noticed that even from the outset, the conversation was very deficit-driven. “We need to fix this.” “This a real problem.” These statements predominated the early conversation. So already at the beginning of planning for the future, folks were feeling perhaps a bit defeated before they even started. Until a counterargument emerged that pointed out that there were lots of great things about St. Louis and those things couldn’t be lost in the conversation in visioning the future. So St. Louis GroupHug was born.


Residents were encouraged to “hug what you love about St. Louis and post it” to a designated site. These pictures were then exhibited around the community and the favorite was voted on. (The lady “hugging” the bike lane won.) But this hit an important reset button for changing the initial conversation of future planning from deficit-based to strength-based which, in turn, created more engagement in the process (often a chronic issue for places).

Let the Love Grow

Urban community gardens are not a new idea. But I think we can sometimes fail to see the systemic impact they can have. Take for example the Camden Street Learning Garden. This program, as many urban community gardens, was established to do something about vacant lots, dearth of fruit and vegetable access, isolation of people from place, while teaching marketable skills and instilling greater pride in place.


Today many residents are proud graduates of the Seeds to Supper course taught by the local Master Gardeners and the garden serves as a positive gathering place in the community where people can receive locally grown produce. It has turned what was once a vacant lot into a model of environmental stewardship, learning, and social cohesion.

Planes, Trains and…Kayaks?

Lately, we are also seeing more innovative transportation problem-solvers. Carpool lanes, biking to work, and public transportation are nothing new. But how about taking advantage of nearby waterways and kayaking to work or skating to work?

placemaking-diy-3-3 placemaking-diy-3-4

Indeed, I’ve done the Ottawa shuffle with the best of them, but we have to remember that water is a year-round mode of transport. Finding new ways to use (and enjoy) our place effectively can not only solve old problems, but also bring us closer to the place as we learn to appreciate it even more.

Digging for Innovation

Finding new ways to tell our narrative as a place is a frequent topic of conversation these days. What’s our place brand? Our competitive advantage? And I have been among those working on those issues on-the-ground in places. So I’m always on the lookout for new ways to do that effectively. If you are a subscriber, you already know about my work in the original production, “Finding Patience: The Story of Holly Springs.” In a previous blog, I’ve mentioned the burgeoning Graveyard Gardeners program in Raleigh’s Historic Oakwood Cemetery.  The Raleigh program is actually a replication of a program in Philadelphia.


What a great way to learn about the individual histories of people who were in your place before you and the contribution they made to making it what it is. It also provides a great family-friendly community service activity, while ensuring that historic spaces are maintained and well-cared for.

What’s Old Can Be New

And lastly, in wrapping up the Placemaking DIY series, I have to give a shout-out to another of my favorites. Often, when I work in places, I see the constant push and pull between development and preservation that can truly immobilize places: “This is part of our history and we must hold on to it no matter what.” “We have to continue to grow and evolve and this is just too expensive to maintain.” I get both sides. What’s at the heart of the conflict is a fear of loss of place versus a fear of stagnation and stunted economic development. That’s why I’m increasingly a fan of the salvage industry and the third option it provides in these conversations.


Black Dog Salvage, pictured above and also stars of the very popular show on the DIY Network, Salvage Dawgs, is a field leader in this important work. Proper salvage allows you to save the specific things that make the structure meaningful for display or repurpose. Not only does it provide the needed third option for places, it also provides a new opportunity for the meaningful elements and symbols of a place to be seen and appreciated by the larger community. It is also a powerful tool in translating place narrative and brand. In essence, these guys allow places do to both: honor their history while enabling them to move forward. In my opinion, they are among the placemakers’ (and place leadership’s and developers’) best friends. But doing this work often requires expertise and technical training, so not something we can all go DIY, but certainly learn to appreciate, support, and turn to when places finding themselves at the development crossroads. Which is inevitable today.

Placemaking DIY: Pt. II

Welcome to the second installment of my blog series on Placemaking DIY. This week I focus on the DIYs that work equally well to benefit residents and visitors alike and present the place in a way that inspires love and economic growth.


Walk the Walk

Walking Tours of the place are popular with both residents and visitors. Jane’s Walk is an example of one such Walking Tour program that has grown in international popularity. In honor of Jane Jacobs, a pioneer in urbanism, these resident-led walks happen every year the first week of May. It’s a plug and play program – residents volunteer to lead a walk through an area of a their place, highlighting one particular theme. New residents, long-time residents, and even children have led walks to talk about some aspect of their place they want to share and discuss with fellow residents (and leaders).


What I love about this kind of program is that it is very easy to implement, practically free to produce, and yet can make a real impact in people getting insight into their place. It also combines all the main community features most powerful in deepening attachment: a social opportunity, often in an aesthetically pleasing setting, where anyone and everyone is encouraged to come along. When I brought Jane’s Walk to Raleigh, I was amazed at how much engagement we had from the community and the hunger people had to do this kind more often—some suggested weekly versus annually.

Show Us The Money

Similarly, Macon Money was a program designed to bring people together in an innovative way to learn something new without feeling like they are being “taught.” The idea was simple. In Macon, Georgia, special monetary denominations were created with specific locally-significant symbols printed down the middle. Then the “money” is cut in half and distributed to different areas of the place. Then the goal of the game is to find your other half, matching the symbols. Once you find your match, you meet someone perhaps you didn’t know in the community and then spend the Macon Money in a local business.


This program was so popular in Macon and so brilliant in its simple, yet affective approach that it won an international gaming award. Although we all know that more than the game was going on in Macon through this program.

Immerse Yourself: People First Tourism

Another great idea growing in popularity takes advantage of the new trend in tourism towards place-immersion experiences.  People First Tourism provides truly local authentic experience to visitor (and residents!).


Although this program started recently in my area in Raleigh, NC, it has already become an international program. The appeal is easy to see: one of the best ways to get to know a place is to get to know its people and what matters to them so that common ground can be established with place as the facilitator for the experience. It is a win-win for place and people.

Sharing stories with others has been the go-to way to relay our history and narrative since we were scratching it out on cave walls. It persists because it’s powerful and effective in sharing understanding, and the journey so far to keep us focused on what’s ahead. Every place’s people fears a loss of their narrative at one point or another. In fact, often when places get mired in discussions of pro/anti-development, it is the really the push-pull of progress at the loss of place which is the true issue beneath the disagreement.

HearSay or HereSay?

Storytelling and oral histories help keep the narrative and identify of places alive for residents and tourists.  There are many programs that see to it – from oral histories kept in local libraries, from designated community storytelling days, to programs that combine technology and “old school” to convey the story.  HereSay out of Newfoundland is one of my favorites. Along the streets of St. John’s and Torbay are pink signs that encourage people to “hear about here” with a phone number and a code. When the number is called and code is entered, the caller hears a recorded story told in a local’s voice about something significant that took place at the very place the listener is standing.


The stories are powerful, poignant, humorous, or heartbreaking – sometimes all in one. And to hear them being told by the people it happened to—in this case in the beautiful Newfoundlander accent versus a polished voiceover—make them even more so. Also, if you aren’t going to make it to Newfoundland anytime soon, you can go on their website and listen to all the stories there by clicking markers on the virtual maps posted. I love them all, but my favorite may be the “Suck His Nose” story.

Your Turn

I hope you find these ideas inspiring and show you how easy and accessible placemaking can be. New and powerful placemaking ideas are created every day! What’s yours?

Placemaking DIY: Pt. I

I’m kicking off a new blog series: Placemaking DIY. I love DIY (do-it-yourself) ideas as you’ll see in the months to come. So to officially kick off Summer, I thought I would combine two of my favorite summer activities in this blog series – placemaking and DIY.

I wanted to share some easy to implement, inexpensive, yet effective ideas that you can explore and maybe even do this summer to strengthen your own Place Match as well as help fellow residents with theirs in all stages of their relationship with their place.

Now remember, these ideas are for inspiration not necessarily direct replication. That is, take the essence of the idea and customize it to the narrative and identity of your place to reflect that context.

DIY Dining

One of my favorite ideas that I have seen replicated in various forms is large scale outdoor community dinners that highlight farm to table, support local, and provide social cohesion in an attractive iconic location for the place. This work is exemplified by the organization, Outstanding in the Field, but there are others who do this work locally.

What I love about this idea is that it combines all the community features discussed in my Soul Searching series of aesthetics, social offerings, and openness in one powerful event. Sometimes the dinner is to raise funds to sustain a local landmark, as is the case with the Iron Bridge Dinner. Other times it serves to just honor local farmers and businesses or simply bring people together for one meal.

DIY on the Hunt

It’s important, and easy, to get the kids involved in facilitating belonging and love of place this summer. One such idea is a twist on the popularity of Pokemon Go and geocaching. Locally to me, it’s called Raleigh Rocks or 919 Rocks, but check and see if you have a similar group growing – or start your own! The idea is simple: Paint rocks with characters, symbols, nature, or even sayings and then “hide” them in local public spaces in your area. Take a picture of the rock and a hint of where the rock is hidden and upload it to the designated Facebook site.  Then when the rock is found by others, they take another picture and post it.  Then decide to rehide it or keep it!

What’s great about this idea is that it gets folks out and exploring place this summer with the kids (or even just the adults), with a craft built in! Hints posted on the Facebook site may be intriguing by the location or just the opportunity to seize a beautiful piece of free art! People often end up in public places they’ve never been or had forgotten about – what a great excuse to (re)discover your place both by hiding and searching.

DIY for the Bookworms

Another great Placemaking DIY idea perfect for summer is the Free Little Library. Again the premise is simple, the idea is cheap and the impact for place and residents can be powerful. Small, library hutches are established in downtown, outside businesses, in parks, even in front of your house, where families who pass by are invited to “take a book and leave a book”. Pop in a reading bench nearby or a reclaimed tree trunk and you’re up and running.

This is a great offering for areas where the local public library isn’t walkable or to simply create a sharing site in your place. The idea is very popular: millions of books are exchanged each year in over 50,000 Free Little Libraries in over 70 countries around the world. It also serves as a great service project or business sponsorship opportunity for a little place-based philanthropy.

DIY Wayfinding

Wayfinding in your city is a great Placemaking DIY project. And my friend, Matt Tomasulo, who I wrote about in Place Match, has done all the heavy lifting for you. Matt’s idea, Walk Your City, allows residents to post well-made, professional signs around your city reminding (or informing) residents and visitors alike how walkable their place is.

With a sign that says, “It’s a 10-minute walk to the Capitol from here” and a QR code map built in, it helps change the perception that driving to the hot spots of your locale is necessary. Add in the health benefits of walking and place experiences you’ll have along the walk, Matt has come up with a real winner. Which is why Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Knight Foundation funded the replication of Matt’s idea beyond where it started in Raleigh, to around the world.

DIY Ya’ll Come

Lastly, when you love where you live, one of the best things we all can do is invite people to visit you there. If you think about it, the things we show off about our place is what inspires our attachment, belonging, and pride about living there. So sometimes having visitors in town allows you to reconnect to your place while giving your guests a real authentic place experience, which is exactly what visitors want these days.

Some places have used postcard campaigns to encourage residents to invite friends and family to visit. Again, a super easy and inexpensive idea that can have great impact for place and people. Of course, tourism, economic development, and local businesses love the idea.

Similar postcard campaigns have been used to keep connection with young talent who left the area to attend college. These tokens send the message that they are missed, valued, and welcomed to return when their schooling is complete. When I was touring the country talking about the Soul project, the no. 1 thing young talent told me that predicted whether they would “boomerang” back to their place of origin was simply being asked to return where their talents are needed. So never doubt the power of “the ask”.

What’s to come in Placemaking DIY?

I’ll be sharing more of my favorite Placemaking DIY ideas. But I would love to hear some of yours too! Make sure and share them with me in the comments or on social media, and I may just add yours to my Idea Portfolio that gets shared around the world.

Aspects of Place Review & Homework!


So let’s review some of the headlines from Knight Soul of the Community project that I’ve covered in the last three blogs. The community features most associated with a loved place are social offerings, aesthetics and openness.  Basically people most love places where they enjoy the opportunities for positive social interaction, in an environment that they find attractive, where it feels easy for them and others to belong.  And when people love their place, the place grows better economically—just as with people, loved places do better.

When reviewing the community features most associated with the loved place, an easy parallel can be drawn between people with places, and people with people. When we search for a partner, we prioritize someone who we enjoy doing things with and have fun with, find attractive, and feel a sense of belonging and acceptance with.

It was that parallel that, if you’ve read Place Match you know, occurred to me live and on-stage during a keynote in Ottawa, that inspired me talk about place science in terms of finding and keeping the right partner. The more I applied that framework through the book, previous blogs, and talks, the more I found that the application was an easy to digest one.

In recent weeks, I have been beta testing a new, very short quiz that diagnoses your current relationship status with your place and produces a customized prescription for navigating that particular stage. At the end of the quiz, there are six possible outcome relationship statuses with your place:


  1. First Dates
  2. Exclusively Dating


  1. Newlywed
  2. Old Married Couple


  1. Looking Around
  2. Starting Over

You can probably guess some of the meanings, tasks, strengths, and challenges of each of those statuses – because we have all been through some version of each in our interpersonal relationships! My goal with the quiz is to help you better understand what your current relationship status is in your place so you can be more cognizant as you continue to manage that relationship. From there, you can better know where you are, what it means, and the potential impact your status is likely having in your own quality of life so you can be more deliberate in the relationship.

I’m excited to officially launch the quiz today! It’s very short, simple, and user-friendly, so give it a shot below. And though it does not necessarily have the scientific rigor of my research on the ground in places, the beta testing did reveal that users reported it as being highly accurate in predicting their perceived relationship status and the resulting prescriptions as being validating and useful to them.

So what are you waiting for? See what you get, ask your friends and family to take it, share your results on social media, and tag or share with me so I can see too.  Soon, I want to start engaging with you in our own online community and social media chats, so your results can serve as your invitation to discuss this more and go even further in the future!

Openness & Placemaking

In this blog, I discuss the final top community feature most associated with the loved place: openness. Openness as we measured it in the Knight Soul of the Community project is really about how anyone could make a life for themselves in a place.  The sense of welcomeness and belonging they and others feel in that place.  Because we wanted to take a comprehensive look at openness, we measured perceived welcomeness of certain demographic groups, but also at different stages of life.

For me, this is where Place Match most directly happens: the place providing an environment that inspires your sense of belonging to it. In the local historical stage production I’m currently in, “Finding Patience: The Story of Holly Springs”, the tagline is “sometimes you don’t choose a town, a town chooses you”. And that gets to what I want for everyone: for people and places to actively choose each other. Openness and welcoming produces the environment and culture where belonging can seed and thrive.

It is a very important part of the place equation, but it can also be the hardest. We found in the Soul project that many places struggle at being open and welcoming to some groups more than others.  And that’s not terribly surprising on the surface.  But what groups were perceived as more or less welcomed were.

For example, in almost all places all three years of the study, young talent was perceived to be the least welcomed group in places, much less welcomed than historically disenfranchised groups. This finding undoubtedly was partially the product of the economic climate at the time—the job market wasn’t great for many at the end of the last decade. But that’s not the whole story.

When I would ask residents their mind process in answering the question: ‘How welcoming is this place for young talent?’ I discovered something interesting. When people 35 years old and older answered that question, the first and biggest factor they considered was the availability of jobs. But when people 35 years old and younger answered that question, the first and biggest factor they considered was the place itself. So there was a generational divide in mindset answering that question that showed up in the findings as differing perspectives on the same place.

Inevitably discussions on openness – whether we are talking about a demographic group or phase of life – turn to conversations about tolerance. Which I actually shy away from. Let me explain. Tolerance is about how well one group puts up with another group. It replicates the power differential where one has control over the experience of another: “I’m going to put up with you and isn’t that nice of me?”.

Instead, our goal in places on openness should be belonging. That you feel you belong here as much as I do and it has nothing to do with whether or not anyone allows it, but more about our common bond of love for this place. By engendering belonging instead of tolerance per se, we finally make openness about what it should be: the relationship people have with their place and how that makes them feel.

Now of course our fellow residents do contribute to the culture of the place through openness. In fact, residents play a role in all the top features of a loved place. Through social offerings, residents create those opportunities for social interaction through government or the private sector, but they also shape the quality of the social offerings in how we treat each other in those interactions. Through aesthetics, residents contribute to how the place is built, preserved, and honored in its upkeep.

But for openness, residents carry more of the responsibility in creating the community culture and the “feel” of a place. Fellow residents finding that sense of belonging is key to openness. You can make that easier or harder. Which will you choose?

The higher the quotient of people who feel they belong in a place and love it – regardless of their age, background, or status – the more the place and the people within it will thrive.  Soul of the Community showed us that empirically.  And shared love of place is a great common denominator and common ground from which diverse relationships can authentically grow that only make us stronger as a whole.

Courtesy Nick Arnett

Aesthetics & Place Match

Last week in this series, I discussed the importance of social offerings, the opportunities for positive social interaction in the community, for both people and places. This week, I turn to the second most important thing in creating loved places according to the Soul of the Community: aesthetics. Aesthetics was found to be the second or third most important thing in creating a loved place in all 26 cities, all three years of the study.

Looks Aren’t Everything (But Close)

Two general areas help comprise aesthetics: what was there when humans showed up (natural beauty) and how humans built it up (created beauty).  Unfortunately, before the Soul findings were released, it was common for some in community to see aesthetics as extra/a value add. In fact, when budgets get tight in places, aesthetics are among the first to get the red ink and a lot of exactly that happened at the time of the study. Of course, hard choices have to be made, but there does seem to be a consequence when aesthetics are cut. It’s seen as extra, when in actuality it’s foundational to the place.

A subsequent study I did in Charlotte found the need for aesthetics remains high in creating a loved place regardless of socioeconomic status. In other words, the need to feel dignity and pride in your environment remains regardless of personal income and wealth.  Luckily, aesthetics is highly scaleable depending on those factors. In fact, even a little (such as simply maintained properties/no blight and common spaces with minimal landscaping) can make a difference in creating aesthetics.

So why are aesthetics so important? First off, aesthetics is the first and most consistent message a place sends about itself to residents and visitors. Place aesthetics are everywhere. When you are creating a loved place, you have to view your entire place through that aesthetic lens. Again, it can be scaled – and should be depending on the narrative of your place (that law still applies). Some areas may look better than others, but it all matters and sends a message to us as its inhabitants about the pride we should feel in being in that space. And pride is related to our attachment and love of that place.  Pride also matters in not only how we feel about a space, but also translates to how we feel about ourselves. If we look around and see negative reflections of our environment coming back to us, it can affect how we care for the place and also how we perceive ourselves. Pretty important stuff.

Your Homework

So look around your place today as you go through your daily life. What messages is your place sending about itself and how does it make you feel about the place, and even yourself? Do you feel a sense of pride and optimism? Or…not so much? We often see lifestyle magazines and health experts advocate for your bedroom, your bathroom or your home as your castle, your sanctuary. True. But the place (outside of the home) is the kingdom where many spend the majority of their day.  And at its most basic level, having a partner we find attractive is critical to the Place Match.

Social Offerings & Place Match


Last week, I started the Soul Search Series, focusing on the findings of the Knight Soul of the Community Project. To review: the purpose of the project was to understand what made people love where they lived and why it mattered in 26 US cities over three years (2008-2010). The study was considered groundbreaking because it presented, for the first time, empirical support from a large sample over time that emotional attachment to place can be measured, the qualities of a loved place could be identified, and that feelings about a place were associated with hard outcomes for the place.

I also shared that we found remarkable consistency each year of the study to the community features most associated with the loved place: social offerings, aesthetics, and openness.  It’s hard to ignore the parallels of place match and partner match.

We look for someone we have a good time with, that we find attractive, and who is accepting. When we find that in someone, it creates feelings of love, loyalty, pride, and optimism that inspires us to support the partner and sustain the relationship.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

The community feature most strongly associated with the loved place – in every year of the study – in all 26 places – was social offerings.  Reread that last sentence. And it wasn’t even close in comparison. Social offerings was more highly associated with the loved place than any of the other 10 features we studied about those places. It was much higher than safety, higher than leadership and the local economy, and higher than infrastructure.

The fact that we found it to be #1 each year in each city may seem like a boring finding to some, but to researchers it points to something important: replication and validity of a finding. It means you are on to something important in the way we understand something. And since Soul concluded, others including myself have reconfirmed the finding that it is job #1 in creating a loved place.

Why is social offerings so important in the creation of a loved place? Well, I gave you a hint last week: we are only human. Humans are, by nature, social beings. From the time we are born until the day we die, we need human interaction to thrive. One of the first things that happen when a baby is born is skin to skin contact with the mother.

Further, what is consistently one of the roots of many of the social ills we face today? Isolation. Recent studies report social isolation is as harmful for us as smoking and obesity and can affect our bodies as badly as high blood pressure, cancer or heart disease.

It matters. For so much.

Our place is often the first go-to in meeting our human need to be social. If we love how our place provides opportunities for social interaction and it’s a positive experience, we seem to love our place a little more and seek to sustain the environment. If we don’t like the social offerings provided, or they are not a positive experience for us, we withdraw from our place, love it less, and are generally more apathetic about that environment.

This, in turn, is bad news for us and the environment.

What Makes It Great?

So what makes a good social offering? The unsatisfying answer: it depends.

Our social offerings have to match the place. New York City’s social offerings may not do as well in Macon, Georgia. Nor should they. That’s why knowing your narrative and place brand is so important. It is the basis from which you build the loved place. Therefore, you have to do your homework.

Formal Social Offerings

Social offerings often fall into two categories: formal and informal. Formal social offerings are things like the nightlife, theater shows, sports games, festivals – the things the city (through the private and public sector) provide to the residents for their enjoyment.

Cities spend a lot of time and money trying to anticipate the desires of its residents and visitors by providing the social offerings they think they will enjoy. They use marketing research, focus groups, local competitions, and so much more to try and anticipate the needs of its resident and visitor populations to then provide those social offerings. But as I often say to cities, much to their relief I might add, it’s not always the place’s job to come up with all the ideas to be successful mind readers.

Informal Social Offerings

This brings us to the informal social offerings, or the “choose your own adventure” social opportunities in your place. The place provides a menu of options and residents piece together the social experience they would like to experience, often with the help of way-finding tools around the city or on an app. This is a great strategy for cities to let the Free Market system loose in their place. Offer a variety of options and see which become the most popular and support that momentum, while still trying new things, events, and businesses.

Final Thoughts

Social offerings in a place must be a positive experience. Often places create social infrastructure without considering what the experience of the offering is like. If there’s no parking, or no easy way to get to it, if it’s not well-managed, or people aren’t pleasant (or worse are committing crimes and preying on others), or in other ways a complete nightmare, then people will be less likely to do it again. In fact, we found in Soul how people treat each other in those spaces is as important as having the offering in the first place. Of course, some of this is dictated by community culture. A social offering in Philly will feel different than a social offering in Charlotte. But we go with an expectation based on the place of what that experience will be like from a civility standpoint. And if it doesn’t meet that expectation, then the place overall takes a hit.

So it is really finding the perfect balance of social infrastructure (both formal and informal), and the civility and ease within those spaces that fit the place brand and narrative that create the perfect social offering.

And to love our place, we need it to fulfill that need if we are to thrive and grow our Place Match.