We think of city infrastructure in a particular way – sort of like bones and connective tissue in a body; the major structural components that support our existence. Beyond the bones, we need to include key pieces that nourish our higher selves- our minds and spirits. If cities are merely paved surfaces and police and fire service, there is nothing that distinguishes one place from another. But this isn’t the case: The Gallup Soul of the Community survey from 2008 to 2010 found strong correlations between peoples’ emotional attachment to the communities they lived in, and higher levels of local GDP. They also found a link between passion for and loyalty to places, and the health of the local economy.
These results should not be surprising — we all recognize that when children, pets, plants or even objects are loved, they thrive (yes objects – just look at the car of someone who loves it). So this emotional dimension to infrastructure should not be seen as superfluous. Not long ago, the medical community discounted the idea that sunlight, plants, laughter and human proximity were inside the serious discussion of medicine. Today, the best hospitals like the Mayo Clinic employ design teams to incorporate gardens, social activity rooms, and more to improve patient outcomes. These elements do not take away from the core science and technology, but rather provide a necessary compliment to our overall approach to health.
So why is it so hard to think about these elements for our cities today?
Politics has played a key role in this dilemma. Politicians don’t want to appear frivolous and insensitive to fiscal challenges, so they say “no” to things that make a city fun, like the arts, culture, design, landscaping and events.
Instead they fill potholes, because when people are polled, they typically cite potholes as their chief concern. But filling potholes wins the politicians and cities very little love. There is no emotional capital in return for that investment. At best, people will say that the roads don’t suck quite as bad.
But invest in a little emotional infrastructure like a dog park or a piece of public art that kids can actually play on, and you get love and emotional engagement in spades.Or do something symbolic that reinforces the emotional connection people crave with their communities.
Look at Durham, North Carolina. In early 2011, a group of private citizens, with no official city support, created the “Marry Durham” event which they described as the largest “civic union” in history. On March 19th, 1,600 brides and grooms married not each other, but the city of Durham. Their vows included promises to keep the streets clean and safe, to shop local, to protect their environment, to support their city’s arts and culture, to cherish diversity, and to elect responsible leadership. The event, done entirely by volunteers, raised over $25,000 for local charities.
Yes, we need to pave our streets and fix potholes — but there is more to a city than that. My worry in the current economic/political climate is that we will fixate only on these traditional “essentials,” and in doing so undermine the very thing that is keeping many communities going – the love, affection and loyalty that people have for their places. We need to expand our expectation of “essentials” and include that which speaks to our higher selves, and invest at least a little in beauty, fun and engagement. This does not take lots of money — it takes creativity, imagination, and an awareness of its importance.
When I ask people what they love about their cities, the answers always involve small things that often cost little or no money — a comfortable place to people watch, a favorite street corner, a local dog park, a street festival or outdoor movies in the park. These things are like a handwritten note that accompanies the formal gift — the note is just as important as the actual gift, because of the thoughts and emotions conveyed within it. The cost is incidental, but their impact is significant.
Cities today need that emotional connection with their citizens. City authorities have to make hard choices, and those choices will no doubt anger some. But this anger is a function of the level of emotional capital the city has put in the bank over the years. Cities that have emotionally-connected citizens will see those same citizens do extraordinary things for their cities. Take the Durham example. Emotionally engaged citizens were the source of this event, and in the coming months/years, our cities will need engaged citizens to fill the widening gaps between the communities we desire and the communities we can afford.
Ultimately, we need to invest in the “infrastructure of love” because emotions matter. They play a critical role in our decision-making process since they tell us what to value. If we are not emotionally attached to our cities, it shows. And things we don’t value become disposable, so we feel free to walk away from them without a second thought because we have little emotional or other investment in them. When we love someone, we are willing to do more for them, to make sacrifices — we forgive shortcomings and fight for them. Emotions are contagious, and our cities need them now more than ever.