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.
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.