Humans are inherently social beings. That is part of why communities exist, and it factors into why and how we are drawn to certain communities over others. Social spaces for casual and structured community interaction is a critical element of a good community. Small communities in particular have special challenges in providing these critically needed social spaces.
So, what makes a community—of any size—a good one? And what makes a small community effective?
One of the best examinations about what makes a good community is a study published in 2010 in cooperation between the Knight Foundation and Gallup. The three-year study, called the Knight Soul of the Community, surveyed 26 separate communities of varying sizes from across the United States. In each of the three years, Gallup interviewed a sample of 400 adults from each community, totaling about 14,000 combined individuals every year.
After the extensive interview, the Knight Foundation and Gallup determined the top 10 factors with the strongest links to community attachment. From strongest to weakest, they were: social offerings, openness, aesthetics, education, basic services, leadership, economy, safety, social capital, and civic involvement. It was the first three key drivers that stood out above and beyond the rest every year—that of social offerings, openness, and aesthetics.
The following were considered:
- Social Offerings – places for people to meet each other and the feeling that people in the community care about each other
- Openness – how welcoming the community is to different types of people, including families with young children, minorities, and talented college graduates
- Aesthetics – the physical beauty of the community including the availability of parks and green spaces
These results aren’t terribly surprising to community organizers and active members of the community. Still, the Soul of the Community data is valuable, especially to communities looking to improve themselves and become more attractive. Since communities are fundamentally just groups of people living in the same area, it makes sense that the strongest link to community attachment is the available opportunities for socializing openly in an attractive physical space.
It makes sense, then, that small communities seek ways to make themselves more attractive and focus their efforts on improving their social offerings, openness, and aesthetics. The trick is how to best accomplish this.
Limited monetary resources and population constrain the width and breadth of offerings small communities can provide. However, communities need not and indeed cannot offer everything to everyone; rather, the emphasis should be on providing offerings that make sense to each specific community. In determining what is important, the conversation must originate around why residents chose the community in the first place. Small communities often have advantages in openness and aesthetics that larger cities lack. As such, even the smallest of communities can be a great community to those who elect to live there.
But how can small communities improve their quality of life? In 2008, the University of North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center released the study Small Towns, Big Ideas: Case Studies in Small Town Community Economic Development. This group of case studies examined 45 communities across the United States, all of which had fewer than 10,000 residents.
In addition to the case studies themselves, UNC revealed specific lessons learned during the course of the case studies. Three of these lessons are particularly important:
- In small towns, community development is economic development
- Small towns with the most dramatic outcomes tend to be proactive and future-oriented; they embrace change and assume risk
- Successful community economic development strategies are guided by a broadly held local vision
To put it another way, economic development and community development are linked, as a healthy economic community is vital to the attachment of residents to that community. In addition, change best occurs when communities make calculated risks powered by a cohesive vision.
One of the most interesting case studies examined by UNC was that of Dora, Oregon, which exemplified the three lessons above as well as the importance of social space as described by the Soul of the Community study. As of the 2000 census, Dora’s population numbered 250. About a 40-mile drive away from I-5 and just under 30 miles away from US-101, Dora’s financial resources as a farming municipality were limited. Dora recognized the importance of having a central facility that allowed residents to congregate and provide key community services. However, Dora’s combination firehouse/library/community center needed significant repair to properly deliver its services and facilitate the important community interaction.
With help from the nonprofit rural capacity-building organization Rural Development Initiatives, the Dora community created a plan for salvaging the building and creating space for additional services. The final $961,000 cost was beyond the funding capability of the community. Undeterred, the tiny town raised $80,000 from its local residents and through hard work and determination eventually secured the rest of the funds through grants and loans. The facility was completed in 2006.
Dora understood the need for social offerings and acted. It also recognized the interplay between community and economic development. Furthermore, it recognized that pursuing a broadly shared vision of what was important to its community allowed it to assume a degree of financial risk that would not have been otherwise possible. As such, the community did what successful communities do in regard to change: they swung for the fences with a unified, determined plan.
Most importantly, Dora proved that a community can accomplish amazing things regardless of its size. If a geographically isolated town with 250 residents raise almost a million dollars to radically improve a core community asset, what can other towns do with more human and monetary resources?
Not every community development item is going to succeed, and some developments are simply bad ideas. That’s just part of life and community organization. Nevertheless, small communities can absolutely be good and effective communities. The most important part, fittingly, is working together to accomplish the projects that improve the community.