Beauty, Culture, and Communities

Beautiful Places-Florida-Mellander-Stolarick 2009As a cultural planner, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about culture and community development, culture and our economy, the arts and culture as community priorities. Heading into the new year, I’ve been seeking new inspiration along these lines. I’ve found that inspiration, and want to share it!

I just finished reading the research paper “Beautiful Places” written by Richard Florida (University of Toronto), together with Charlotta Mellander (Jonkoping International Business School) and Kevin Stolarick (University of Toronto), published by the Martin Prosperity Institute. The three studied the role of aesthetics and beauty in community satisfaction and determined that both beauty and perceived aesthetic character have a highly significant positive impact on perception of a community by residents. They also tested the importance of these so-called “higher order” factors in location choices – for example, how important these might be in selecting a community in which to live, or in a corporation’s selection of a new location and how perceptions of aesthetics and beauty relate to other community elements such as quality schools, transportation, and cultural offerings. Does the aesthetic quality of a community improve civic engagement, and to what degree? (Answer from the study: YES, and HUGE.)

To answer their questions, the trio worked with the Gallup Organziation, which conduct telephone surveys of 28,000 respondents throughout the US.

This extensive level of surveying is rarely afforded within arts and cultural realms, so its import is high. This large sample made it possible to study perceptions of the importance of aesthetics based on demographics and as related to jobs and economic security and positive or negative expectations about the future. The key question they asked was: “Taking everything into account, how satisfied are you with the city or area where you live?” And they asked: “How would you rate the city or area where you live on” a whole host of factors, ranging from the ability to meet and make friends to cultural opportunities, quality health care, quality colleges and universities, nightlife, climate and more.

Here’s one of the really interesting outcomes: they found that there is NO relationship between community satisfaction and life stage factors such as age, presence of children, length of residency and other demographics. This contradicts many other studies that have found community satisfaction increases with length of residency, or that have found young adults to be less satisfied with their communities than older residents.

On the other hand, they found aesthetics, beauty, and culture to have statistically important relationships with levels of community satisfaction. Beauty and aesthetics appear to be the among the very most important factors contributing to community satisfaction, right up there with economic conditions and what I’d call community friendliness – a place to meet people and make friends. Cultural opportunities rank nearly on par with affordable housing, and are more important than climate, job opportunities within the respondent’s own field, and the “urbanicity” of the area. Cultural opportunities did not rank as important as “religious institutions that meet your needs” or as important as outdoor parks, playgrounds and trails. Of note, the respondents rated their own communities “vibrant nightlife” and “quality of colleges and universities” negatively – but but important.

What does this mean in cultural development and planning?

1. Aesthetics, be they natural or built, are obviously very important to community satisfaction, but are often under-considered and stressed within the context of cultural plans, development, preservation, and funding.

2. There is a considerable linkage between community satisfaction and cultural opportunities – remember, on par with or ahead of other critical factors. The authors were surprised that cultural opportunities didn’t rank higher. I wonder if question wording/understanding played a role in this. “Quality parks, playgrounds and trails” is very easy for a respondent to understand and rank. I find most people have difficulty when asked to quickly do a mental sort of “cultural resources” and almost never come up with similar or thorough lists of what these include. That said, culture offerings came out of this study as clearly very important.

The rubber hits the road in cultural planning when the finished plans, complete with aesthetic and cultural development aspirations, reach the desks of community prioritizers – city councils, county executives, key local foundations, and the many other stakeholders who weigh the investment importance of each priority they fund. Many a time I have heard them say flat out that cultural development can’t possibly be as important as affordable housing or job opportunities, but this huge Gallup survey sample shows that they are wrong. Culture matters. And aesthetics and beauty are right up there – ahead of “being able to get from place to placd with little traffic,” quality health care, and parks – in a cluster of the high ranking important factors: 1) current economic conditions; 2) Beauty; 3)quality schools; 4) good place to meet people and make friends.

This means that historic preservation, design regulations, landscape, public art, street scapes, civic facilities that facilitate public gatherings and interaction, cultural districts, and wide ranging cultural amenities are all of demonstrated and tested high order importance to communities throughout the US, with implications for any community, anywhere. It also means that the creators, the artists, the nonprofits, the cultural entrepreneurs whose enterprises create meaningful aesthetics, civic gatherings, and cultural infrastructure are vastly more important than most civic leaders have dreamed.

Our field often uses what can be, and is often dismissed as, a basic level economic justification – the jobs and economic impact of cultural organizations and particiaption. This study finds a much higher economic justification in the elements we plan for in cultural development – the very future of community satisfaction, growth, and choice.

The impact is huge. To every civic leader, every developer, every funder, planner, and prioritizer: beauty matters, aesthetics matter, culture matters.

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3 responses to “Beauty, Culture, and Communities

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  3. Pingback: Beautiful neighborhood = better schools, better cultural centers, better transportation, better…everything « TORONTO PROPERTY REVIEWS

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