July 14, 2016
During graduate school, I was introduced to Robert Putnam, a political scientist, who published his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community in 2000. In this influential work, the Harvard professor argued that what he called “social capital” – the connections that grease the wheels of our society – were breaking down, taking with them networks, trust and reciprocity that these connections advance.
Putnam drew together figures that highlighted falling civic engagement – everything from parents volunteering at their children’s school to churchgoing to dinner parties to citizens taking part in local government – and since I was working in and studying municipal management, I found his research fascinating. Putnam contends that social capital helps drive productivity, health, education, safety and the economy. He argues that we must start reconnecting with each other if we want to build vibrant and prosperous communities in this century.
Continuing Putnam’s research, the nationally recognized Soul of the Community study was completed in cities across the U.S. to research what attaches people to their communities. The methodology and approach to this investigation asked people’s satisfaction with various aspects of community and civic life, referred to as “drivers.”
The study found that the most important drivers create something in successful communities called “residential attachment.” The study’s authors advocated for local government and civic institutions to work toward achieving residential attachment as an important part of successful community and economic development.
Nationally, the Soul of the Community study concluded that the three most important drivers for creating residential attachment included aesthetics, openness, and social offerings. It was noteworthy to me that openness and social offerings, two important ingredients of health social capital in a community, were among the top three results. This begs the question:
How can our local government contribute to creating a vibrant social architecture in our Village and develop a community with strong residential attachment?
This spring, with the help and generosity of graduate students from UW-Oshkosh’s Public Administration program, the Village replicated the Knight Foundation/Gallup’s “Soul of the Community” survey to solicit feedback from Weston residents. In reading through the results of this survey, you will see the majority of responses are very positive.
n 67% of respondents, if they had the choice, would either stay in their neighborhood or move to another in Weston.
n 83% of respondents felt Weston was either as good, or a better place to live compared to five years ago (44% better/much better).
n 89% of respondents felt Weston will be as good, or a better place to live five years from now (54% better/much better).
Respondents were asked to rate on a 5-point Likert scale with 5 being “very good” and 1 being “very bad” the Village of Weston as a place to live for different groups of people, including young professionals, immigrants, ethnic minorities, families w/ young children, and w/o any children, LGBT people, and senior citizens. All categories rated above ‘3’ (The lowest was between 3.05 for young professionals and the highest was 4.11 for families with young children).
However, we must be cautious extrapolating these results as being reflective of the entire community, due to the lack of participation from the community in the survey. Looking at our total population, approximately 1% of Weston residents participated in this feedback effort. Yet, survey participation is not the only way that municipal leaders like myself can measure civic participation and engagement.
n 2010 Census Population: 12,079
n 2015 Population Estimate: 15,051
n Survey Participation: 176
One could argue that other important civic activities, such as voting for example, could be a key indicator in community engagement and participation. This last spring election, we had 58% of registered voters participating in the election.
n 2012 Spring Election (Pres Preference Local Leaders)
q 2,006 total voters
n 2012 Fall Election (Presidential)
q 7,406 total voters
n 2014 Spring Election (Local Leaders
q 731 total voters
n 2014 Fall Election (Gubernatorial)
q 5,829 (Walker 3,465. Burke 2,254) total voters
n 2016 Spring Election (Pres Preference Local Leaders)
q registered voters: 8,591 / 4,998 total voters participating
To summarize, I believe that Weston can increase its level of civic participation and social capital. As part of the Village’s strategic plan, one of our goals is to “Enhance Communications with Citizens, Employees and Stakeholders”. Our three major policy proscriptions for doing this are to 1) implement new tools to maximize communication with citizens, 2) implement new tools to communicate with community stakeholders, and 3) implement a comprehensive communication plan for the Village. Some of the specific tactics are already in progress or we are working on improving them.
We have 758 total members on Nextdoor with 672 of 7,894 (8%). We have over 5,000 likes between our four Facebook pages. Our weekly electronic newsletter, “This Week in Weston” has a weekly distribution of over 1,500 email addresses. Our bi-monthly newsletter, “The Weston Wire” gets delivered to approximately 8500 addresses in the Village every two months.
In conjunction with this effort, I would like to see Weston make more of an effort to build strong neighborhoods in our growing community. Part of building strong neighborhoods is identifying, training, and equipping neighborhood leaders. Are you interested in getting involved more in your community? Do you have a passion for service to your neighborhoods? Would you like to work with Village officials and staff to enhance your corner of the community? If so, please contact us at email@example.com. Our plan is to develop and implement a training program for neighborhood leaders later this year. I hope you’ll consider joining us!
Thank you for your interest in this effort. If you have any feedback or would like to discuss the results, please feel free to contact me at the Municipal Center at 715-359-6114 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Soul of the Community Survey Results
Soul of the Community Questionnaire