The purpose of Knight Soul of the Community is to provide communities a roadmap for understanding what attaches residents to their community and why it matters – not to be prescriptive on what communities should do with the information. However, the findings do point to some general implications and suggestions, some of which the community may be already undertaking, or provide new opportunities for consideration.
Like the other 25 communities studied in Soul of the Community, Columbia’s key attachment drivers are social offerings, aesthetics and openness. However, it is not as simple as identifying best practices in each of these areas and replicating them everywhere. Instead, as the name implies, Soul of the Community encourages a conversation about a community’s soul or essential essence as a place around these key drivers. Some possible questions to ask are: What is it about our aesthetics/social offerings/welcomeness that is unique to our community? Where do we excel or struggle in those areas? Using that information to optimize those drivers to encourage resident attachment—and potentially local economic growth – is what Soul of the Community seeks to accomplish.
Attachment to the Columbia area declined in 2010. The things that most attach residents to the area – social offerings, openness and aesthetics – have remained consistent during the three years of the study. In 2010, aesthetics was rated significantly higher, whereas the other two main drivers for attachment were rated similarly as in 2009.
Two of the three top drivers for attachment – social offerings and aesthetics – are community strengths for the Columbia area. Aesthetics was rated significantly better in 2010 thanks to improved perceptions of parks, playgrounds and trails, as well as the natural beauty of the area. Openness remains a challenge as perceived welcomeness to different groups has fluctuated over the three years of the study. In general, seniors and families with young children are perceived as the most welcome groups. Columbia is one of the few areas studied where young talent is not perceived to be the least welcomed group. Instead, gays and lesbians are perceived to be the least welcome in Columbia.
Additionally, young residents aged 18-34 are the least attached group, and their level of attachment is decreasing. This is not unusual, but it contrasts the unique finding that young talent is not perceived to be the least welcome group (In fact, perceived welcomeness to this group is trending up in 2010). If residents feel Columbia is more welcoming to young talent than some other groups, why is attachment decreasing among 18-34-year-olds? The answer is because the key drivers for attachment are rated lowest by 18-34-year-olds of all age groups indicating that they are not getting out of the community what they need to feel attached. It appears that the community does not feel as welcoming to young people as residents might think. Improving perceptions of these key drivers for attachment in this important demographic is clearly an important to-do for this community.
For attachment to really grow and people want to come to and stay in Columbia, all residents must feel welcomed and cared for. This must become part of the community culture. Provide events as well as businesses and services that are specifically designed for various groups in the community. Mobilize attached groups to serve the community. For example, provide opportunities for older residents, an attached group to the area, to volunteer with other groups in the community. Ask long-term residents, another attached group to the Columbia area, to publicly tell the stories of the community as a place. This may not only improve perceptions of openness to all, but also mobilize attached residents in a meaningful way, while potentially improving perceptions of residents caring for each other and creating an overall sense of place.
Lastly, the Columbia area must improve perceptions of key drivers for attachment in young residents. Identify what older and long-term residents are experiencing in the community with these three key drivers that young residents are not. Replicating that community experience for young residents is critical for attracting and keeping young talent in the area.
Great schools, affordable health care and safe streets all help create strong communities. But is there something deeper that draws people to a city – that makes them want to put down roots and build a life?