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The Twin Cities' Openness Problem

In May, urbanist and placemaking consultant Katherine Loflin, a Ph.D. researcher who did a landmark study on 26 metropolitan regions, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, came to town as part of the 2nd Annual Placemaking Residency, sponsored by a host of local organizations.

At ten different events around town, Loflin emphasized that placemaking, which means paying close attention to creating great places in our communities, is central to economic success in the 21st century. “Place has earned a place at the economic development table,” she said at a forum organized by the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation—and repeated in one form or another to audiences of business leaders, public officials, community activists, researchers, arts groups, entrepreneurs, and neighborhood residents.

I did a followup interview with Loflin recently to garner her sense of what the Twin Cities needs to do and where it needs to go to retain and increase its economic vitality as the century unfolds. There’s good news and some not-so-good news.

We’re thriving thanks to our multiple cultural offerings and our grand outdoor opportunities. But in one area—openness—Loflin notes that we have a way to go. And openness, she says, may be the key category in attracting and retaining the diverse young talent we need.

Soul of the Community

Loflin rose to national prominence as the lead author of the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community Project, which broke new ground by identifying “community attachment” as a leading indicator of regional economic success for metropolitan areas. Loflin defines attachment as a new approach to studying local communities that goes “beyond measuring just satisfaction to also take a look at community pride, community optimism, and other emotional feelings about place.”

“The more people love their town, the more economically vital it will be,” she said. “It’s not just pretty things and kumbaya moments. Community attachment is the special sauce that strengthens communities.”  

Her research found that people who are attached to a place are more likely to start a business and buy a house; they are more productive at their work and less inclined to look for a job elsewhere. “There are so many little ways in which love of a place can translate to economic impacts, and these all add up.”

Based on Gallup interviews with more than 43,000 people in 26 regions across the country, Loflin discovered three areas of community attachment that play a decisive role in whether communities thrive or wither:

Social Offerings. MSP residents surveyed in the study see our greatest strengths in Social Offerings, especially arts and culture events. “Social offerings does not just mean restaurants and bars,” Loflin said.  It’s also about public places, “which may be known only to people who live in a particular neighborhood.”

Loflin expressed surprise that our rating of social offerings actually grew from 2008 to 2010 in the midst of a severe economic downturn. “That shows the loyalty and passion people feel for the place,” she observed in a public forum (co-sponsored by the Line) about how to attract talented young people to Minnesota held at a Minneapolis tavern.

Aesthetics: We are deeply attached to our parks, playgrounds and trails, followed by the physical beauty of our communities. “When times get tough, parks, playgrounds and trails are the first to get cut,” Loflin told a community meeting in Minneapolis’s Prospect Park neighborhood. “We don’t realize the values of these places to people. They are part of pride in the community.”

The Openness Issue

And then there’s Openness. This is the category local residents rank as our weakest.  While many feel the region is warm to families with children and singles, only a quarter of us feel we are welcoming to immigrants, people of color, older people, and gays and lesbians. Even more dramatic, less than 20 percent report that we make young college-educated people feel at home here.  

“I hear a lot that people feel it’s hard to be accepted as a newcomer here--even after living here 20 years,” explained state demographer Sarah Brower at the discussion about attracting young people. It's not just interpersonal issues, Brower continued, but a number of factors contribute, such as a transportation system that poses challenges for immigrants, people of color, and young people without cars.

While we ranked higher in community attachment than peer communities of our size in the study--Silicon Valley, Charlotte, and the greater Palm Beach region of Florida--the low score on openness raises serious concerns.  

In my follow-up interview after Loflin returned home to North Carolina, she noted that openness is the most important factor in choosing a place to live among the demographic group seen as critical to the economic prospects of a region-- young college-educated people. Minneapolis-St. Paul ranked 36th among American regions for attracting 25- to 34-year olds in a recent survey, reported Todd Klingel, CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce.

On a bright note, Loflin pointed to the new same-sex marriage law and the burgeoning local food and beer scene as two big draws for recent college grads.  

A "Place Renaissance"

While our standoffishness vis-a-vis newcomers is a cultural issue we probably need to grapple with at a pretty deep level, there are concrete things we can do to make the Twin Cities more appealing to the young demographic we need to attract and retain. Loflin’s recommendation for improving our appeal in Openness (and maintaining it in Social Offering and Aesthetics) is placemaking, which, as  she noted in a breakfast talk to business leaders during her visitis not just a frilly feel-good preoccupation.  

She offered the example of Mick Cornett, Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, who spearheaded a campaign to bring United Airlines’ headquarters to his town.  Cornett offered a lavish package of subsidies amounting to $100 million, sure that would cinch the deal. Airline officials turned him down saying, “we cannot imagine our people wanting to live there.”

“That was an expensive wake-up call,” Cornett remarked, explaining why he’s now working to improve the sense of place in Oklahoma City.  “Today people go where they want to live. And the jobs go where the people live.”

Loflin finds strong evidence for a “Place Renaissance ” sweeping America. Many people now want to “work to live, not live to work,” she observed. They are no longer willing to settle for a dull, ugly or soulless place.

“We’re dealing with the first generation that will choose a place over a job,” she continued, citing the results of a recent Gallup poll.  “Our economic playbook needs to be updated--it clearly needs to have an element about placemaking.”

The first rule of placemaking is, according to Loflin, “You’ve got to stay true to who you are as a place--attracting people who would be happy here and not someone who really wants to be in New Orleans.”

What's Wrong with Snow?

“Y’all got to stop talking about your weather as if was the worst thing ever,” she pleaded in her Southern accent.  “People get that it’s cold here.  People enjoy seasons. People enjoy snow.  How do you make that part of your narrative, something to be proud about? You don’t have to be the perfect place for everyone, just for the people who live here.”

When asked for successful examples of placemaking projects, she pointed to three favorites:

Plans to revive Buffalo’s derelict waterfront had gone nowhere for 50 years until the Erie Canal Development Corporation got the bright idea of setting up Adirondack chairs alongside the canal.  Now it’s the spot to be all summer long, as the whole city gathers there to hear music, paddle kayaks, do zumba, and just relax in one of the chairs.

Like a lot of cities, Raleigh, North Carolina sees more motor traffic than foot traffic. A graduate student founded Walk Raleigh and posted a series of well-designed but unofficial signs informing people how many minutes’ walk it was to major destinations. The guerrilla campaign has generated interest around the world and inspired more local people to walk.

At a time when cities-- including Minneapolis-St. Paul--are vying to attract recent college graduates, many students already attending school in those cities don’t get to know the place very well over four years. LaSalle University in Philadelphia sponsors a popular city-wide scavenger hunt to introduce new students to the city.

Loflin cautioned that the number-one placemaking mistake is “to just start doing stuff borrowed from other towns and neighborhoods. Remember you are the experts on this place.  It’s your history, your geography, your landmarks, your stories.”

“Remember,” she added, “a lot of what you want to do is not big, not expensive, and does not take an act of Congress. But it can have an impact.”  

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, and consults about creating vital communities.

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