CITY/STATE: What Makes A Great Community?

Monday, June 17, 2013


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Top ten lists and such are a staple of web sites. I am a data junkie and I myself frequently rank cities according to various criteria like job growth or incomes. But while many of these ranking articles describe their methodologies, what they seldom do is articulate the underlying concept of what makes a great city or community that informs the methodology.

There appear to be two fundamentally different views of what makes a successful community, the “horizontal” model and the “vertical” model. The horizontal model focuses on quantitative metrics like population and job growth. The vertical model emphasizes qualitative ones like per capita income or GDP.

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Unsurprisingly, cities tend to fall into one or the other of these categories. And the partisans of the different models tend to be very vocal about their “team.” Vertical success cities include Boston, New York, and San Francisco. Horizontal success cities include Dallas, Charlotte, and Nashville. (Washington, DC is sui generis, as it is the only large city in America that is both a horizontal and a vertical success – thanks to your tax dollars.).

There are also two other types of cities. One is sadly all too common in New England. That is the group of cities and towns that have found neither vertical nor horizontal success. Unfortunately this includes both Providence and Worcester. A final group consists of “on the bubble” cities that could tip either into one of the successful categories or into decline. This would include a place like Indianapolis.

I tend to be of the view that the best city is one that offers opportunities for self-improvement and upward social mobility to both singles and families across a broad spectrum of the community. This tends to lean towards horizontal success. Vertical success cities tend to be more oriented towards the elite. This works for some places – and America absolutely needs places like New York and San Francisco – but success on that model is not something most other places can aspire to.

For the average city, workaday items like cost of living (especially housing costs), job growth, public schools, and public safety play a huge role. Even for the most elite places like New York, they were not attractive places to live until crime was brought under control.

Unfortunately, New England struggles here. It’s expensive. Housing prices are high relative to incomes. Taxes are high. Job creation is anemic. Some areas, such as the public schools in certain states and towns (Massachusetts is a standout), are bright spots. This is also true of various lifestyle factors like the region’s geography and the arts.

Data: Only Part of the Story

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However, the data only tell part of the story. Despite economic challenges and the cost of living, lots of people passionately love their New England city or town. That actually makes total sense. We can all evaluate any product based on “features and functions” but most of the time our purchasing decisions are emotional. We don’t just buy cars because they have the right gas mileage and such. We care about those things to be sure, but the styling and feel are probably more critical.

The people, culture, and lifestyle, things that are difficult to quantify and capture in ranking systems, are what distinguish most of New England. But exactly what it is about these can be frustratingly difficult to articulate. I have found this to be the case almost everywhere. For example, I am from the Midwest. Most of the Midwest has a rather plain vanilla reputation and most cities there find it almost impossible to describe themselves other than with platitudes like “a great place to raise a family” or “big city amenities without the price tag and hassles.” But go to say Ohio and visit Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland and you will experience three radically different places. Yet is hard to really describe the uniqueness of each one. I know it when I experience it, but it’s hard to articulate.

I have found this similarly to be the case in much of New England. Where I live in Rhode Island, I hear people describe its best assets as the coast, the food, the fact that everything is close, and the historic architecture. The coast is very nice, I agree. But to be blunt I don’t find the other three items very compelling. They are nice things, but not overwhelming distinctives.

Yet clearly there are amazing qualities. It’s just hard to tease out what they are. Various groups of people have tried. For example, a group of Providence folks recently got together to brainstorm on this and Tweet the results from the @OurPVD account and #ourpvd hash tag.

This is a difficult problem. Not because of anything unique to the community or New England, but because it’s a hard problem generally for places that are not used to being introspective. Lots of places struggle with it. Almost everyplace struggles with it to be honest. It requires digging deep into the local soil. It’s like going on an anthropology or archeology expedition.

So while I think the numbers are important and places should definitely look to both celebrate where they do well and focus on improvement where they don’t, a community is not just statistics. Getting a better understanding of each places’ unique character – and even its quirks – and figuring out how to articulate them compellingly is equally as important. That is what creates the emotional connection to place. And I don’t know anyone who picked a place to live based on a bunch of numeric criteria in a spreadsheet.

Aaron M. Renn an opinion-leading urban affairs analyst, entrepreneur, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive in the 21st century. In his blog, The Urbanophile, he has created America’s premier destination for serious, in depth, non-partisan, and non-dogmatic analysis and discussion of the issues facing America’s cities and regions in the 21st century. Renn’s writings have also appeared in publications such as Forbes, the New York Times, and City Journal. Renn is also the founder and CEO of Telestrian, a data analysis platform that provides powerful data mining and visualization capabilities previously only available in very expensive, difficult to use tools at a fraction of the cost and with far superior ease of use.


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