Civic Engagement


Puzzled by what causes people to care enough about the people and place where they live to become engaged in it, we launched the Soul of the Community project at the Knight Foundation with the Gallup organization to see if we could find answers.

What we found offered a new way of thinking about “community engagement,” introduced a new vocabulary and helped citizens and leaders reimagine how they could foster greater resident involvement. Most notably, it demonstrated that the degree to which people are attached to their community matters a lot — and in measurable ways. 

The study identifies some of the main factors that reflect whether or not people in a community feel attached to a place and each other. At first glance, the factors are not what you expect. It isn’t, for example, the quality of local leadership, basic services, civic involvement, safety or the local economy. All of these are clearly important, but they don’t create the ties that attract and bind us to the place we call home. 

What does create the kind of deep psychological and emotional attachment that motivates people to care about the place in which they live? In communities large and small, the answers were remarkably consistent: openness, social offerings, and aesthetics. By openness, we mean how open and welcoming the place is. Social offerings include places where people can meet, like entertainment venues or parks, and generalized caring for one another. Aesthetics includes the natural environment and that which we build.  

So what? And who cares? 

Here’s the kicker: the study found that cities and towns that had higher percentages of mentally and emotionally attached residents generated higher rates of GDP growth. While we didn’t correlate the results to other standard measures of well-being, one could hypothesize that it could also be true of them. 

These findings resulted from three years of listening to the voices of more than 43,000 people in the 26 communities that the Knight Foundation serves directly. 

As I traveled around the country to talk with groups of business leaders, civic organizations, community developers, government officials, and many others about the results in their specific communities, it was fun to watch how this new, tangible, and measurable way of thinking about engagement ignited possibility. 

I’ll never forget a breakfast meeting with business leaders in Wichita where I jokingly said we were going to start the day by talking about love. Once it was clear that we were talking about loving where you live, the conversation took off. One hospital leader talked about the challenges of competing to hire top talent. And, as had often been the case in other cities, people began to realize that they had to tout the attributes of the place in addition to the job because more and more people were choosing where they wanted to live first. During an ah-ha moment, the group realized that they should have preserved rather than destroyed a well-known tree canopy – an aesthetic enhancement. 

The Soul of the Community continues to influence talk about community engagement across the country. It invites people from all walks of life into a conversation once reserved for social scientists. Civic engagement no longer seemed soft, fuzzy and filled with unproved assertions to data-driven professionals. 

Why did I call it Soul of the Community? Why not heart? 

A thoughtful chat in Charlotte with a university president who was also a theologian affirmed the choice. The soul represents the whole of a body and, he explained, it is a source of learning and growth from which change happens.

I’ve barely touched the surface of the potential for learning and growth that the Soul of the Community study offers. I encourage you all to go and look at it. 

For more on the Soul of the Community study, check out the video.