Is emotional attachment to a community directly related to economic growth? If so, what are the most important factors defining that emotional attachment?
The John F. and James L. Knight Foundation, based in Miami, has been looking at those questions for the past three years and the results of their findings are not only quite remarkable, they may also provide some insight into just how we can keep Toronto livable and economically successful in the years to come.
The Knights made their money from newspapers and this research by their foundation also serves a practical purpose. The continuing success of most newspapers depends on the continuing growth and success of the communities they serve. Find out what drives growth; persuade communities to adopt those factors and chances are you may still be in business and profitable a decade from now.
The foundation's findings are especially relevant for cities like Toronto that are going through massive change. We are building up instead of out. That means public spaces like parks and condo terraces are replacing private spaces like backyards. Increasingly, we are making our homes in the heart of cities and not in bedroom communities on the fringe.
We have to make high-density neighbourhoods of concrete and glass so attractive that people take pride in them and so comfortable and relaxing that they want to walk, entertain, work and shop within walking distance.
For three years, the foundation has commissioned the Gallup organization to do a phone survey of 43,000 people in 26 U.S. cities for what it calls The Knight Soul of the Community Survey.
It found that cities whose residents expressed the greatest civic pride also had the highest growth rates in gross domestic product. The more the residents loved living in a city, the faster it grew and the more it prospered financially.
The three main factors determining love for community were: openness, social offerings and physical beauty.
"Those three were the top of the list in almost all the communities we surveyed that were growing economically," says Paula Ellis, vice-president strategic initiatives for the Miami-based foundation.
"This is an area where little research has been done and we hope it can be a starting point for much more."
When you think about it, the survey does indeed make great sense and does have great applicability to the GTA.
Openness means a welcoming attitude not just to new arrivals but also to minority groups. It means having programs and the infrastructure in place to ensure existing residents a sense of belonging and to welcome new ones. Growth and economic prosperity go hand in hand with a community's ability to find social and economic inclusiveness for existing residents and to act as a lure for new ones.
Cities compete for new businesses and for new residents. Openness is a powerful lure.
Social opportunities go hand in hand. They can range from great schools, universities and colleges to simple neighbourhood activities such as cub and brownie packs, little league sports and social clubs for seniors. What many of them share is support from local volunteers.
It makes sense that the more residents are engaged in creating a thriving social life in the community for people of all ages, the greater their commitment becomes to making it a great place to live.
The final point is beauty. Not every city can claim Vancouver's mountains and sea or Toronto's lakeshore and acres of green ravines and parks. What they can do, however, is make the most of what they have, says Ms. Ellis.
She talks of working with the city of Wichita. As she explains it, the city once had one magnificent street sheltered by old leafy trees. Disease, however, killed all those trees and the city decided money would be better spent in other areas.
"After talking with us, however, and looking at the research material, they decided to replant that boulevard and restore it to its former beauty. The result drew praise from locals and visitors alike," she says.
Indeed, you can see similar things happening in areas of the GTA. In Yorkville, the local business improvement association is spending millions to improve the streetscape and make it more welcoming to shoppers. New condo projects of any size downtown are required to spend money on street art.
The foundation's survey is an important document and suggests a path to the future of livable, successful communities. But will anyone pay attention to it?
"The next big challenge will be getting the message across," says Ms. Ellis.