Photo provided by The Times Media Co.
Much attention has been paid over the last week to the new 2010 U.S. Census data showing a 22 percent population decline in Gary over the last decade. The painful reality is that the City of Gary is hemorrhaging and has been for several decades. And, while conversation is raging about the factors that are causing people to leave, it is also important to think about what is keeping people in Gary and how we can build upon the factors that tie residents to the community. The John S. and James S. Knight Foundation is exploring that very question with Soul of a Community, a three-year research effort in partnership with Gallup to identify what attaches people to their communities, with Gary being one of 26 communities being explored.
The study shows common factors that fostered attachment in the 26 communities include: social offerings, such as entertainment venues and places to meet; openness, how welcoming and receptive a place is to other cultures and backgrounds; and, aesthetics, an area’s physical beauty and green spaces. While Gary has some work to do on these fronts, the insights from this research helps identify where to start. Education is cited as another important factor of community attachment on which Gary rated fairly well given its colleges and universities. According to the study, young families with children felt most welcome in the city,and yet young people,ages 18-24, felt least attached. Another interesting finding was that higher-income earners were the most attached group to the city of all income categories.
MPC, as it embarks on the Gary and Region Investment Project, is working to bring regional attention and support to a discrete number of transformative investment projects in and around Northwest Indiana’s urban core communities, including Gary. Soul of a Community helps us think about how transformative efforts such as the beautification and reclamation of the region’s lakefront can stem population loss by connecting residents to these improved natural assets and using them to spur development around the lake. These findings emphasize the need not only for job creation and economic development, but diverse and interesting activities and ammenities, like cultural venues, entertainment, and unique retail options. The study also emphasizes the need to engage young people in developing solutions that will keep them in the city and suggested opportunities for interactions between established high-income earners and young people. MPC’s Placemaking efforts that center on engaging residents in taking ownership of public spaces could be one of many approaches to facilitate this type of interaction while also improving aesthetic and social offerings.
The first step in revitalization is stabilization; focusing on keeping residents rather than spending energy on those who have left. While City officials and others are questioning the accuracy of the U.S. Census population count results, the insight provided in this study helps shape how the City of Gary and others can focus efforts to keep existing residents committed to and invested in the future of the city. Soul of a Community shines a spotlight on why the City of Gary is still one of the most populated in Indiana and focuses needed attention on how essential it is to engage residents in needed solutions.