Humans seek to belong.  We seek that in our families, in our schools, in our workplaces, and in our relationships.  We also, now more than ever, seek to belong in our place.  Because like all of our other important relationships, place affects every aspect of our lives.  Perhaps then, it is no surprise that we are acutely aware of places and environments where we feel “at home” and others where we feel “out of place.” We know pretty quickly when we are in places where we know we could thrive and places where we know we would struggle.

The search for belonging is so integral to living our best lives that many disciplines recognise this idea.  Sociology, psychology, social work, organisational psychology, ergonomics, human resource development, and many others recognise the importance of humans being connected to their environment.  Indeed, many social ills and problems can be traced back in part to humans not feeling that connection and the resulting isolation.  

Similarly, in Place-making we talk about the quality of life.  But the quality of life is not just about having certain place characteristics; it is also about how you feel in the place.  The quality of life is not just objective metric; it also has a subjective component that comes from our actual experience of belonging when in that space. There are many who could go to “#1 city to live” and not like it.  Why? It’s #1, after all.  Because that city having those characteristics of quality of life is only half the battle.  Those things still must translate to quality of life for you.  You also must experience belonging when in that physical environment.

For all the talk these days about inclusiveness and tolerance in our places, we are still missing a key point.  These concepts are still inherently flawed and incomplete: they are still power-defined one-way interactions: ‘I will tolerate you’… ‘I will include you’… ‘I will be open to you’… ‘I am doing these things for you and isn’t that nice of me’?  Instead, what we should be striving for is mutual belonging: that you feel you belong here as much as I do.  I don’t grant you permission to share my space. Instead, our shared feelings of belonging to this place are what binds us to this place and perhaps to each other.  We all deserve to feel not that we are tolerated, but that we belong in our places.  

Seeking belonging also levels the playing field.  It is a conversation that applies to all of us. None of us are immune.  We all have had the experience of feeling we don’t belong for some reason or another and that relatability should stop us from seeing each other as just primarily one thing or one demographic element.  We are not only a minority.  We also may be the parent of a young child or a new resident or divorced. We are many things in one.  Inevitably, there is some aspect of ourselves that could divide us from each other and push us to outside and the universality of that potential should help to bond us together as we search for belonging in our places.  Wanting to belong is our shared, universal journey.

So how we do create places where people feel they belong?  By letting places be who they are but be the best that they can be. We optimise places.  Because through optimisation places can demonstrate authentically who they are and let people be naturally attracted to that. That resulting compatibility between person and place is the key to belonging and when residents feel that sense of belonging or attachment to their place, they give back to the environment that provides it.

"...when residents feel that sense of belonging or attachment to their place, they give back to the environment that provides it."

One of the key findings of the Knight Soul of the Community Survey (for which I served as a lead consultant and national expert) is profoundly simple yet powerful: Loved places do better.  The data showed that when people are attached to their places, they were also more optimistic about the community’s future, more satisfied in their jobs, and more likely to spend more time in their place compared to those who were not attached.  

The Soul of the Community project also identified the community characteristics most related to creating resident attachment and belonging: social offerings, aesthetics, and openness.  And these three things mattered most in creating belonging and attachment in every 26 of the US cities we studied, for nearly the 43,000 people surveyed, in all three years that we did the study. Pretty remarkable.  That’s why the Knight Soul of the Community is credited as being ground-breaking in forever changing the way we understand great places and why they matter.

Humans are innately social beings.  We require human interaction from birth and throughout the lifespan for us to thrive. It is not perhaps surprising then that opportunities for positive social interaction in a place are most related to resident attachment to place, in all 26 cities studied, all three years of the study.  Social offerings through formal and informal ways are the vehicles through which residents (and visitors) experience the place and meet their need of belonging.  Of course, social offerings look different from one city to the next.  As they should.  This allows places to authentically show off who they are through their social offerings so people can find their right match in a place.

Same is true for aesthetics.  The findings from the project were quite clear that aesthetics is not extra but foundational to great places.  Aesthetics is the first and most consistent message a place sends about itself.  It instils pride and enjoyment in residents, which helps to root them to place and grow their sense of belonging.  We as humans, regardless of our background or income, seek dignity in our physical environments.  To grow belonging and attachment through aesthetics, we must eliminate blight and decay in our cities as we optimise green spaces and the built environment.

"Aesthetics is the first and most consistent message a place sends about itself.  It instils pride and enjoyment in residents, which helps to root them to place and grow their sense of belonging."  

Openness is also a key building block for great places.  The culture of places matter. Whether it’s civility, welcomeness, manners, or strangers simply acknowledging each other when they pass in the grocery store aisle, everything residents do within the place contribute to the culture and climate of the place.  The welcoming feeling of a place should extend not only to historically disenfranchised groups but also to residents across the lifespan. Our goal in places should not be welcomeness to some but welcomeness to all. This welcomeness manifests in expected ways (how we interact with each other in the place), and unexpected ways (the quality of sidewalks and public transportation that are particularly important to particular groups like talent, young families, and seniors). Openness is truly a powerful seed to growing belonging.  Again, not because all are ‘tolerated’ but because they have found the place they feel they belong.

Though our search for belonging is universal to us as humans, our paths to belonging are as a different as we are.  Place plays an important role in filling this basic human need and is the ultimate goal of Place making. Then, even if shared feelings of belonging to a place is one of the few things that connect us, it’s still a powerful place to start.

For more information on Loflin Consulting Solutions or Dr Katherine Loflin’s book ‘Place Match’ ‘The city Doctor’s guide to Finding where you belong’ follow the links.