So many cities and seemingly so little validity

A community’s social offerings, its physical beauty and its openness to new and different people are most important to making residents love where they live, according to  a Gallup study of 26 U.S. communities completed last fall.  It found that the worst economic crisis in decades is not a key factor in attracting and retaining residents.

After interviewing close to 28,000 respondents over two years, the study learned that social offerings such as entertainment venues and places to meet were the top factor in 21 of 26 communities.  That quality was followed by how welcoming a place is and the area’s aesthetics – its physical beauty and green spaces.

Access to quality education, whether at the elementary, secondary or college level, was also an important factor.

The top three qualities remained strong over two years of polling, unaffected by the national economic crisis, Gallup said. The levels of residents’ emotional attachment to their towns also remained steady.

Examining how passionate and loyal people are to their communities and local economic growth, researchers saw a significant relationship between the two. For example, from 2002-06, the most attached communities had the highest local GDP growth.

Commented Warren Wright, managing partner for Gallup, which conducted the study with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation:

“While the pain from the recession is deep, other factors far outweigh economics when it comes to determining how emotionally attached people are to their communities.”

The following communities were included in the survey: Aberdeen, S.D., Akron, Ohio, Biloxi, Miss., Boulder, Colo., Bradenton, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., Columbia, S.C., Columbus, Ga., Detroit, Mich., Duluth, Minn., Fort Wayne, Ind., Gary, Ind., Grand Forks, N.D., Lexington, Ky., Long Beach, Calif., Macon, Ga., Miami, Fla., Milledgeville, Ga., Myrtle Beach, S.C., Palm Beach, Fla., Philadelphia, Pa., San Jose, Calif., St. Paul, Minn., State College, Pa., Tallahassee, Fla., Wichita, Kan.

When I look at the cities that are not included, I have to wonder about the validity of the findings.  In my layperson’s view, it was a mistake to exclude a metropolis the size of Los Angeles, Chicago or New York.

I could be wrong, but I have to believe people who inhabit the cities that were studied think and act differently from those in other cities.  Arguably, the ones in the survey are more like each other than they are like the biggest urban centers.

Does the omnipresence of Starbucks level the playing field in terms of social offerings?  Does the relative paucity of community swimming pools in New York give the smaller areas an edge?  Doesn’t the social conservatism of many cities rule them out?  Does a verdant landscape trump urban vistas?

Wouldn’t Census figures tell us more about what people want from where they choose to move than a study like Gallup’s.  Of course, as I’ve said, I’m no expert, but the research somehow smacks of trying to prove a foregone conclusion with sweeping observations.  A big lie?  Yet the researchers and sponsor are credible.

I could be wrong in my skepticism.  It happens.

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Malcolm Carter
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Charles Rutenberg Realty
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One thought on “So many cities and seemingly so little validity

  1. Thank you for your comments.

    We have had lots of interest in the study from the real estate market (see:, for example). Many real estate professionals tell me that this study is quite useful to them because there are so many houses on the market now, they have to learn how to better sell “places” — not just houses.

    The communities were chosen not based on trying to get a representative sample of all city types in the country, but rather because they represent the 26 communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers and the foundation has historically had funding interest. Because Knight has done grant making in these communities for many years, these are the ones we wanted to focus on for the project — no other reason than that for what communities were included vs. not.

    Nor are we trying to make sweeping generalizations that these findings are representative of the country at large. Although I should say that in other places (and countries) where Gallup has conducted similar research, social offerings, aesthetics and openness consistently rise to the top of the list of community qualities that most attach people to place.

    To your other point: the difference between what the Census offers is that Census provides mostly administrative data whereas the SOTC provides insight into resident perceptions. From the field of behavioral economics, we know that people’s decisions are not always based on rational data but feelings. So, even in place like Detroit, that has had many challenges when you just look their statistics (or what the Census would tell you), residents report in our study feeling much more optimistic and attached to the area then they have in recent years. Perhaps a community turnaround starts first in the minds and hearts of its residents? It’s these insights into communities that we are seeking to explore in SOTC.

    Lastly, keep in mind, we are just trying to understand what community qualities most emotionally attach residents to where they live. So it is a very specific aspect we are measuring. Think of it as when you go to a place and think to yourself “I could live here” or when you’re showing off your community to friends visiting — what are the community qualities that come to mind? These are the ones that build emotional attachment of residents to where live. And, thinking in that context, perhaps you would agree it is the beauty, social offerings, and general welcomeness of a place that make it most feel like home.

    Thank you again for your comments.

    Dr. Katherine Loflin
    Lead Consultant, Soul of the Community


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