Monday, July 14, 2014

The Meaning of Ideal Community

While discussing what makes Durham, North Carolina so textured and real recently with a Raleigh friend and native of East Jerusalem, I touched on the fact I had a friend in “DERM” who is Jewish and married to a Palestinian Christian.

During my now-concluded career, my job was to differentiate Durham in every way possible, not only because that is a “best practice” in community marketing, but because that is what surveys showed Durham residents wanted, especially the cohort showing as most attached.

This, of course, meant carefully moving Durham out from under Raleigh’s shadow while ensuring bonds were left in place.

Differentiating is a much more effective way to help visitors, including newcomers, make decisions that are best for them rather than blurring distinctions as a means to try and appear to be all things to all people as so many in my former field try to do.

I can still tick off two dozen ways Durham and Raleigh are inherently different, e.g. sense of place, architecture, authenticity, business climate, geology, diversity, tree cover, climatic zone, activism, attachment, distance and visitor/newcomer origins, lack of overlap, etc., etc.

Another I spotted recently is by its largest non-Christian tradition. Durham’s is Judaism, Raleigh’s is Islam. In this way Durham even differs from other counties actually in its metro sphere, e.g. one Baha'i, another Hindu.

One of Durham’s biggest challenges to differentiating was convincing businesses predicated on appearing the same no matter the location (formula businesses) and those whose fortunes were built on on erasing distinctions that:

  • The advantages of congregating just to give the illusion of size has far fewer advantages than distinguishing community brands.
  • Communities can constructively compete at the same time they are cooperating.  Businesses often fail to grasp that things in the “commons” don’t have to be cutthroat.
  • More than 8-in-10 residents prefer to characterize where they live by a distinct city, town or county.  Next comes neighborhood and a sliver who don’t care.
  • Differentiating creates much more tourism appeal and more “bites of the apple,” especially in polycentric areas.

For many years now Gallup has drilled down to isolate the ingredients that make some places more ideal than others, now one of five indices that feed into its overall well-being index.

Community has a lot to do with resident pride and liking where one lives as well as clear air and water and being able to walk alone in neighborhoods.

Almost two-thirds of Americans are not satisfied with where they live, although 4-in-10 who live in the South and West are, as are half of people my age, 65 or older.  At the extremes, the satisfaction ratio nationwide is about 2.5 to 1.

Durham residents hover at 80 to 1. Making that even more striking is that the ratings North Carolinians give our state rank it 38th out of 50 as a place to live, 12th from last - the bottom quartile, in a state where 7-in-10 residents are natives.

Instead of lobbing pejoratives, some in high state office would do well to examine what it is that makes Durham worthy of this affection.  Gallup provides some clues.

While honing the index, Gallup uncovered what makes a community ideal to Americans.  First comes aesthetics, trees, parks, trails and playgrounds.

Another key differentiator for the “ideal” community is having “ places where people can meet, spend time with family and friends, and enjoy nightlife.”

The third quality that “distinguishes near-perfect communities from the rest is a general openness to all types of people, regardless of race, heritage, age, or sexual orientation.”

“Durham isn’t for everyone” as a popular saying goes, but Gallup’s findings confirm why annual surveys here show such a high percentage of residents here consider it ideal for them.

Of course, these ingredients are always at risk.  Local governments, both officials and administrators, are a critical line of defense if it isn’t too late, as is a community’s destination marketing organization, if its takes seriously its role as guardian of sense of place.

Far too many, though, fall into the categories that sense of place experts label as “boomers” (Berry,) “raiders” (Stegner,) or simply “scary people” (Kunstler.)  Others listen carefully to “stickers,” only to surrender sense of place for fear of losing when threatened by developers.

Many developers are “stickers,” which is far more than just tenure, a reference to a state-of-mind.”  Far too often those with attachments to communities fail to make that distinction and paint them with the same brush as “boomers” and “raiders.”

In his wonderful 1996 cover essay in The Atlantic entitled “Home From Nowhere,” John Howard Kunstler argues that the year America won World War II is the year that marks when we began the wholesale surrender of sense of place in our communities.

Three years earlier, I had devoured his book The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, which earned a place on my sense-of-place bookshelf with Stegner, Berry and Sanders.

In 1927, Durham was the second community in North Carolina to develop a comprehensive plan for development, but it would be some time before communities began to rely on municipal ordinances to preserve sense of place.

Kunstler reminds us that for the previous 300-odd years, Americans had relied instead on “cultural agreement,” an inclusive consensus so firm that it didn’t have to be reinvested every few years because gatekeepers had forgotten what was agreed upon or had given way to special interests.

He sums up that - “Community is not something you have, like pizza. Nor is it something you can buy.  It’s a living organism based on a web of interdependencies- which is to say, a local economy.”

Kunstler continues that community “expresses itself physically as connectedness, as buildings actively relating to each other, and to whatever public space exists, be it the street, or the courthouse or the village green.”

Studies abound confirming the economic importance of being “real and authentic” to a community’s ability to engender resident affection, draw talented newcomers and attract visitors and related cultural and economic development.

Kunstler reminds us that “a land full of places that are not worth caring about will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending.”

“Authenticity” of community is an ever-evolving “cultural agreement.”

To adapt a process identified by the late Vanderbuilt sociology researcher Dr. Richard A. “Pete” Petersen, community authenticity emerges from the interplay in a historical context between affectionate residents, visitors, government officials, environmental science and the development industry.

Kunstler is no fan of zoning ordinances, making the case that like the so-called Highway Beautification Act did by enabling billboards, these regulations often become a pretense to undermine sense of place while giving a false sense of security.

He also argues persuasively that the idea of Americans being able to do whatever they want with their land and that “impediments are somehow un-American,” is a fallacy, “the result of a propaganda campaign from the promoters of suburban sprawl and the real estate industry.”

According to Kunstler, “we actually have a long history and a fat body of law for land use and the regulation of things we can do on it and with it.”

“Community,” he concludes, “is foremost a “public service.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just browsing the web for ideas on how to improve my community. My town is located on a Texas Interstate, about 40 miles from Houston. Suggestions on how to improve race relations, build community pride, and just make the town a better place? I will be reading your articles. Thanks.