Telling the Placemaking Story With Data: Two Simple Tips

Thank you, first of all, for at least clicking the title and being willing to read this post.  I know data presentation strategies may not light you up with excitement.  But if you are in the placemaking field, it’s an area that you have to be pretty sophisticated about if you are going to tell a placemaking story effectively, whether you like it or not. So in return for you agreeing to read this, I promise to try to not get too convoluted and detailed.  Just two quick tips that you can use today to prep for your next place talk tomorrow.

First and foremost, the word “causes.”  Don’t use it. Any academic – and many journalists these days – will seize on you using it and make you pay.  Because I guarantee you, no matter how great your placemaking research is, you are not justified in saying it.

When you say “causes” using social science data, you are saying that you are able to prove that one thing (or a number of things) causes another to happen. You have:

  • rejected other explanations,
  • identified all the things that make the other happen,
  • studied the phenomena with enough people that you can generalize the finding with relative certainty, and
  • this is a biggie for us placemakers – accumulated enough data over time to know the temporal ordering of the relationship – that is, what comes first to make the other happen.

No, you haven’t.

We will never really establish causation in the real world, only in the laboratory if we are really, really lucky and follow the strictest of guidelines and even then some will be dubious of your causal claim. We don’t work in a lab anyway—we work in the real world of place.

Most of the time, especially when we are early on in the research discovery process, we start with correlations.  Simply stated, a correlation is a relationship between two things – where you find one (say, community attachment), you find another (say, local economic growth).  Does that mean attachment causes growth? Nope. Could there be more to the story? Undoubtedly. Other things about the place could be also be (read as: will likely be) affecting that relationship.  For example, cities that have high attachment that are also innovative may experience even higher levels of local economic growth than those that don’t have that combination. Testing this would require more sophisticated research models than a simple correlation.

And we always have to get more sophisticated. We have to remember that correlations should only be a starting point in research. It’s an important step, but a first step just the same.

Yet, even with the most sophisticated models (to find all the variables affecting the relationship) and with years and years of data (to establish temporal ordering of events with enough numbers of people), the best we can really say is that one thing (say, attachment) is the leading indicator to another (say, local economic growth).

We are not there yet.

So if the word “causes” is out, what can you say when you find a correlation? Well, many things.  Using the Soul of the Community example, “attachment is associated with local economic growth”.  Or “there is a relationship between attachment and local economic growth”. Or “where you find higher levels of attachment you usually find higher levels of local economic growth” (depending on the strength of the correlation).

But as former VP of Communications at Knight Foundation once told me, “That sounds so much more wordy, jargony, awkward and well, frankly, disappointing than just saying attachment causes local economic growth.”  Yes, it does.  But stand firm. It’s always a balance in what social science research rules say we can say (and not overstate our case) and our exuberance over an exciting new finding in a developing field, when credibility is key.

Secondly, sometimes no change in findings from one year to the next is a huge discovery.  Having a finding stand the test of time means you have been able to replicate the finding, even if it’s just a simple, yet all important correlation.

In 2009, when the Soul findings showed that social offerings, aesthetics and openness were most related to resident attachment AND the average attachment levels across the 26 places held, I was thrilled.  When we had our team meeting to discuss some asked, “what’s newsworthy about this story when it’s the same as last year?”

Don’t fall in that trap of thinking that something you already told ‘em last year isn’t news this year.  Considering what happened to the economy in the places we studied, the fact that those main things held AND that attachment levels didn’t plummet in every place was very important.  It provided further evidence that attachment to place was not as much about local economies, but instead these “softer” things about a place.

Gallup said that the 2009 economy gave the Soul of the Community model “its biggest test” and the findings held and held again in 2010.  And because we framed the findings as no new news is big news, the story was huge and got a lot of play.

Data presentations in any social science field can be tricky.  As placemakers, we have more eyes on us lately as some of our discoveries can be counterintuitive to some and groundbreaking to many.  Having a balance of orator, researcher, practitioner and public relations skills helps – so do multidisciplinary teams to provide the checks and balances needed between proper scientific discovery and just shouting “Eureka!”

Us and Them: Thoughts on Placemaking and Tourism

I’m often asked if tourism and placemaking can really coexist in a place. It’s an important question as many destination cities and wannabe destination cities depend on visitors to supplement or as the backbone to their economy. But often building place for “them” comes at the expense of place for “us.”

Indeed tourism is ALL about a sense of place. People can get generic attractions in a lot of places so the question becomes why would they come to your place to vacation OR is building all those features just happening at the expense of place? Visitors want a place experience these days, not just attractions. And best tourism strategies are capitalizing on that trend.

There are places that have realized they sold out their sense of place for tourism. We all could name some. Now residents don’t use the amenities that bring the visitors there, like the beach for example, because that’s for visitors and it’s an atmosphere that residents don’t really want to be a part of. But at the same time, they don’t know who they are without those defining amenities. Yet, they certainly don’t want to bite the economic hand that feeds them. It’s a tough spot.

This is what happens when you do old school tourism at the expense of place. Now they have to work hard at keeping the visitors coming, getting local talent to stay and stop residents from leaving. They are getting hit on all fronts. And there is deep regret that is hard to undo.

Fact is the staycation is probably one of the few bright spots in the economic fallout. Many people can’t afford to go somewhere else for vacation and have to rediscover their own place. Cities that are placecentric are reaping the rewards of this and the attachment of their residents often increases. (“Hey, I didn’t know we have this. This is great! Beats the TSA line…”). Not only that, attached residents are asking others to come visit them there so they can show off their place. Realize this trend and focus on the staycation as a new economic revenue stream. But remember, doing it right means complementing the place, not working against it.

If you know your narrative, capitalize on it through the physical landscape and culture of the place and communicate that effectively and broadly, you inherently become a more interesting place to visit in today’s market. Remember, today people seem to want more of a full place experience, not just attractions. Take a look at the comments on Trip Advisor page for any place and you’ll see people evaluating destinations much more comprehensively these days.

Just as your narrative is the basis from which all good placemaking ideas come, not seeing the connection between tourism and place will be a critical flaw from which all bad ideas will come. Not to mention the pushback from residents if development primarily for tourists jeopardizes sense of place and to then add insult to injury, it does not necessarily mean tourists will be more attracted to come. You will have just felt like you sold your place’s soul for not much return. And nothing good comes from that.

Why Don’t I Love Living Here (When Placemakers Say I Should…)?

Recently, I was asked to weigh in on the current conversation sparked by this piece that called into question Richard Florida’s Creative Class Theory and the subsequent response from Mr. Florida.  One of the underlying issues the interaction brings up is how a place can have all the right things on a placemaker’s checklist and people show up there and still not love it.  As Mr. Bures states in Thirty Two:

“…this brought us to Madison, Wisconsin. It wasn’t too far from our families. It had a stellar reputation. And for the Midwest, it possessed what might pass for cachet. It was liberal and open-minded. It was a college town. It had coffee shops and bike shops. Besides, it had been deemed a “Creative Class” stronghold by Richard Florida…”

Here’s the thing.  I’m going to say it, because it’s a critical point.  You can go to a city that you should love and find that you just don’t.  Just because the city is welcoming, invests heavily in public art, has a great downtown, prides itself on its parks, and innovates to attract young talent doesn’t mean that everybody that shows up there (even a placemaking disciple) is going to love it.

Because all places are not, should not, and cannot be the same.

The Knight Soul of the Community Project found that social offerings, aesthetics and openness matter most in attaching people to where they live.  But just having those things is not enough.  It is the city’s unique interpretation of those aspects of a place that draws you in and connects you (or not) to the city’s soul or identity as a place. And you just know when it happens for you.

Take me for example. I just moved from Miami back to my home state of North Carolina.  I lived in Miami for 10 years.  I gave it every shot, but I couldn’t sustain attachment to it really.  And no one could argue that Miami doesn’t have all the requirements on paper to be a great place to live by the placemaker’s standards: social offerings, openness and aesthetics out the wazoo.  And goodness knows I want to live in a place that adheres to the placemaking best practice model.

Yet, it didn’t work for me, especially now, as the parent of a 5 year old.  I needed a different take on social offerings, openness and aesthetics.  I needed less high-rise building living and more neighborhood for my aesthetics. I needed less party all night on South Beach and more farmers market for my social offerings.  I needed not as much 10,000 languages being spoken and more hometown civility for my openness.

Which brings me to this.  Even when you are attached to the place, it doesn’t mean you love everything about it or you love everything much more than other residents who aren’t attached to it.  In the Knight Soul Project, we found the difference between attached and not attached residents is their ratings of social offerings, openness and aesthetics.  Both groups rate safety, for example, similarly. So in that case we are pretty comfortable in saying that perception of social offerings, openness and aesthetics about a place drive attachment versus when you’re attached you just love everything about the place – because that just doesn’t seem to be the case.

I’m always asked for examples of what other places are doing, and I keep a ready supply.  (Keep me posted of what I should know about by emailing me here.) But I always start by saying: “These ideas are for inspiration not replication.”  We just can’t look on each other’s paper in doing placemaking.  We have to do our own work.  Because unless a placemaking idea is adapted for our particular place, it can feel, well, out of place (pun intended) to residents.

Instead ask the question: what is our city’s unique take on social offerings, aesthetics, or community culture of openness? And to do that, you need to know the identity and narrative of your place.  But that’s another blog…