Telling the stories of great places

Advocates for smart growth tend to talk a lot about urban planning, street design, and a whole host of technical information related to building towns and cities. But many of the people whose opinions matter most in local decisions don’t think about their communities this way, and this is something we all need to learn from.

Smart growth strategies create interesting, exciting places to live and work, and the people who live in those places benefit most from this. At this year’s Rail~volution conference, which concluded earlier this week in Washington, DC, I heard dozens of people tell stories of the town or neighborhood they love and how smart growth strategies have helped make it even better.

According to a Gallup poll for the Knight Foundation, three main things make people love where they live. It’s not the local economy or a great job, necessarily. People love places that: 1) Have social gathering places, 2) Are inclusive and participatory, and 3) Are aesthetically pleasing to be in. People want places to get together with their friends, feel a part of something, and be in a place where the view feels special.

Smart growth strategies can create all of these things, and Americans are increasingly choosing to live in areas with these features. A May 2011 study from the Urban Land Institute showed that Millennials (those folks 18-32) overwhelming want to live in downtowns because they want places to gather with their friends. A survey from the National Association of Realtors earlier this year found that more than 50% of Americans want to live in neighborhoods where they can walk to shops, schools, and local services. Despite this demand, however, only about 5% of the U.S.’s neighborhoods are in this way today.

Businesses are moving to these places, too. Downtown has become the location of choice for many of the country’s most talented workers, and businesses across the country are relocating as a result. The towns and cities where this is happening – Las Vegas, Detroit, Iowa City and more – are creating engaging, beautiful places that will be able to stay strong and attract a growing base of businesses.

So, remember to tell people your story about why each place is great. People are proud of the places they live, and want to come together in their community to celebrate those places. This is the ultimate mark of success for any type of town or city neighborhood and smart growth strategies are a great way to get there.

Photo of Milwaukee’s Third Ward neighborhood by Flickr user John December.