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Originally published Sunday, November 28, 2010 at 12:25 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

For city well being, money is not everything

Syndicated columnist Neal Peirce notes that cities' rich tax bases are not automatic lures for affluent workers and businesses. A Gallup poll finds that community, openness, esthetics and education are very important.

Syndicated columnist

Could there be smarter ways for cities to bolster their economies and tax bases?

We know the old, familiar way — grant tax subsidies or special favors to nail down new office or factory prospects. Tax bases take a hit and all taxpayers end up subsidizing the favored businesses.

But to draw both investment and talented individuals, cities might focus more intensely on the qualities that most prominently build residents' attachment to their communities.

That's the key finding emerging from polling in which the Gallup organization has queried close to 43,000 people on commission from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Notably, the usual suspects — jobs, the economy, safety — don't register as the top drivers. Rather, the surveys indicated that loyalty and passion are most powerfully formed by "soft" factors.

First, it's social offerings — places where people can meet and mix, ranging from social events to vibrant night life, all contributing to a sense that people of a community care about each other.

Second, it's openness — a substantial share of residents feeling their communities are good places for older people, young singles, families with young children, or racial and ethnic minorities.

Third, aesthetics — parks and attractive watersides, tree-lined streets, playgrounds and trails — contribute to feelings of attachment.

Finally, education — especially having colleges and universities in town — is nudging up in the surveys.

The significant point is that communities scoring well on these soft factors also have higher economic rates of growth than jurisdictions that offer less "quality of life" assets and presumably stick with "hard" growth strategies like direct subsidies to business.

Gallup's polling for the project covers 26 cities where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers. They range from such big urban centers as Philadelphia, Detroit, Charlotte and Miami to small cities such as Lexington, Ky., and Aberdeen, S.D.

Not surprisingly, some of the lowest levels of citizen attachment were found in such economically hard-pressed cities as Detroit and Gary, Ind., and some of the highest in cities both university-rich and relatively affluent, such as Boulder, Colo., and State College, Pa.

But the significant "takeaway" of the survey is "to design interventions to increase residents' attachment to the place they live" — regardless of the city's size or current complexion — notes Paula Ellis, the Knight Foundation's vice president for strategic initiatives.

"Our theory," says Jon Clifton, Gallup deputy director, "is that when a community's residents are highly attached, they spend more time there, spend more money; they're more productive and tend to be more entrepreneurial."

Gallup's poll runs in the flow — and may well be the global leader for cities — of a growing trend to measure citizens' sense of well-being and satisfaction by other means than cold fiscal reckoning.

The groundwork was laid by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz's criticism of standard GDP measures, which gauge levels of production and money income but ignore what easily matters as much or more — the safety and quality of people's communities, social inclusion, educational opportunities and health, and controlling greenhouse gas emissions and other unsustainable burdens on the natural environment.

In today's GDP world, the auto body work and hospital bills following a car wreck qualify as GDP gains — but not a cleaned-up brownfield turned into city park.

In response to Stiglitz's findings, French President Nicolas Sarkozy last year announced he would include happiness and well-being in France's measure of economic progress.

In Britain, the new prime minister, David Cameron, appears poised to initiate nationwide measures of citizens' psychological and environmental well-being.

Gauging peoples' well-being, Cameron has declared, is one of the "central political issues of our time."

If he's right, it's as important for cities as for entire countries.

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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