When we look at America on the national level, it’s clear we have some issues. Politically, we are incredibly polarized. There’s a lot of discontent and disagreement. But zoom in on the local level—where life happens—and you’ll see we have more bright spots than dark clouds.
I’m fortunate to have explored dozens of small and mid-sized communities across America. I’ve talked with hundreds, maybe thousands, of mayors, chamber of commerce members, new entrepreneurs, business owners, and citizens of all ages. I’ve sat down to great meals in downtown restaurants, listened to fabulous bands, and attended some of the world’s coolest festivals. And what I’ve found is that the America one sees “up close and personal” bears little resemblance to the America one sees on the national news.
Every day, as I work to help communities revitalize themselves, I see what our country is made of. I see people partnering with their neighbors to solve problems, working hard and playing hard, listening and compromising, and—quite often—making sacrifices for the good of others. Locally is where we’re at our very best. No wonder communities are making a comeback!
We once formed communities because we knew we needed each other. As I once heard someone say, history is just a series of different human combinations. Then, somewhere along the way, we forgot that essential truth. Now we’re seeing that just because we can have literally everything delivered to our doorstep, it just doesn’t feel good to be so disconnected. We’re back to believing we need each other again. (As it so often does, history is circling back around.)
In Thomas L. Friedman’s book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, he talks about how rapid accelerations in technology, globalization, and Mother Nature are disrupting our lives and leaving people feeling destabilized. He says these forces are like a hurricane, one in which the winds of change are swirling so fast that families can’t find a way to anchor themselves.
Friedman makes the case that the only answer is building healthy communities, ones that are flexible enough to navigate this hurricane and provide stability for the citizens within them. He quotes the words from a ballad by Brandi Carlile, “You can dance in a hurricane, but only if you’re standing in the eye.” Our communities are that eye. They provide a firm place to stand and find stability while all this change is swirling around us.
In big cities, small towns, and every size of community in between, I see people working to create that stability. We are realizing the value of having deep roots and personal connections with our friends and family. We want our children and grandchildren nearby (with good jobs to keep them there). We want lively downtowns with great restaurants, funky stores, cool living spaces, and plenty of fun things to do. And we’re making it happen.
Here are just a few reasons why creating vibrant communities is more important than ever:
Investing in our communities fits our deep human needs. Living disconnected lives goes against human nature. We crave meaningful ties with each other and a sense of belonging. We just can’t be truly happy without these things—without a group of people who know us, “get” us, and help us make sense of our lives. Vibrant communities bring people together. They’re filled with opportunities for civic engagement and social interaction.
It naturally cultivates a “sense of place” that attracts people and opportunity. Vibrant communities are cool, unique, quirky. This matters because difference, not sameness, attracts people who want to visit and settle down. Today, companies go to where the talent is rather than asking talent to come to them. Communities need to do all they can to become places where people want to live and work.
It encourages start-ups and helps locally owned small businesses thrive… According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses create two out of every three net new jobs in the private sector. Plus, over half of all Americans own or work for a small business. Small business is the engine that powers communities. This is why vibrant communities not only make it easy for entrepreneurs to get started, but also provide leadership and skills training to make sure they can survive and succeed over time.
…which in turn keeps local economies strong. Besides providing jobs, having lots of strong small businesses is good for the economy in other ways. Small businesses provide tremendous tax revenue. They keep dollars recirculating inside the community. Plus, their owners have a vested interest in the community and can be galvanized to help you solve larger problems and drive positive change. (Click here to learn more.)
It may literally make us healthier. There is lots of research showing that social isolation is terrible for our health, both mental and physical. One statistic I’ve seen a lot is that loneliness and social isolation can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Vibrant communities are great for combatting loneliness. Plus, the emphasis on walkable downtowns and green spaces encourages exercise, which is great for our health.
It makes us better, more compassionate people. Too much focus on individualism makes us indifferent to the suffering of others. Civic engagement is the remedy. When we get engaged, we see the struggles of others who are our neighbors. Then we can be part of the solution.
It’s better for the next generation. Vibrant communities care about their children and build ways to help them thrive. To give just one example, they deeply care about education—and more and more are realizing the importance of early brain development to a young person’s future success. And of course, strong communities are likely to have more job opportunities so young people can come back home after college if they want to.
Finally, investing in communities just creates better places to live. Vibrant communities have more places to go, more opportunities to socialize, more people to meet. There’s always something going on: a street fair, a holiday festival, a fun run. There’s local color, character, and a distinctive sense of place. Neighbors care about each other and look out for the well-being of everyone. Who wouldn’t rather live in a community that “gets” this?
Of course, no community is perfect. We’re all flawed individuals who have decided to group together. We’re all works in progress. But what matters is realizing that our communities can get stronger, more vibrant, more prosperous, and more livable. We have a human responsibility to invest in the places we call home. We do need each other after all—and we can work together to make life better for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and everyone.
by Quint Studer (originally published on StrongTowns)