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Changes in American Communities

Last week's TLG conference was about more than the many innovative case studies I heard. The event also featured keynote speakers who gave local government leaders new perspectives on how our communities have changed, and what we can expect for their future. Social research Rich Luker and the urban economist and demographer Joel Kotkin each made strong connections between people and places, but their presentations had different implications for local governments.

Senior Prom

The Senior Prom

Rich Luker argued in Wednesday's keynote that it's time to bring community back to the forefront of American life. Pointing to a number of trends like the growth of the service economy, telecommunucations, a consumer culture, and the generation gap, he fears that we are losing connections to our families, friends, and neighbors, a situation he outlines in his books. The presentation was filled with illustrations of strong community life based on person-to-person relationships, shared recreation opportunities, and the rituals large and small that help form collective identity. Luker is especially interested in the power of sports to build community, and much of his professional work is with minor league baseball and college athletics.

Interestingly, he is cautious about the role of volunteering in community building. Volunteers serve others because they feel a sense of duty, he explains, but in a close community, people serve each other because of the personal relationsips they have with their neighbors. One example he shared was of a "senior prom" in which college athletes took senior citizens to a dance. Unlike a volunteer service with a provider and a receiver, in this event both the students and the seniors came away with a new connection in their community.


The heartland rises

While Luker has studied the changes in community over recent decades, Thursday's keynote speaker, as the author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, was much more interested in the coming decades. Joel Kotkin also focused more on quantitative economic and demographic data as opposed to Luker's more qualitative interest in community. Jobs and the economy will of course enormously influence our future, Kotkin reminded us.  Aging Baby Boomers, high- and low-skill immigrants, and adult Millenials are also changing the composition of the American population already, and the next decades will see these goups become even more influential.

Translating these major economic and demographic trends to the changes we can expect in our cities and towns, he sees a future that is far more concentrated in the suburbs and the heartland than the "back-to-the-city" trends urbanists are observing today. In his view, the places that will succeed in this environment are those that are family-friendly, and families prefer the suburbs. Immigrants too are increasingly moving directly to suburbs rather than to center-city neighborhoods. However, the suburbs Kotkin sees in the future are different than most of those we see today. They will be more ethnically diverse and have a greater mix of office, retail, and entertainment activity. In addition, telecommunications technologies in the service economy will enable businesses to relocate to small and mid-sizes cities farther away from the largest business centers, a trend already underway.

So after two keynotes giving a coast-to-coast tour of the past present and future of American communities and economies, what does it mean for local governments? Luker may have put it best when he started his presentation by saying "thank you" to all local public servants for keeping our communities running with little recognition. Local governments have major responsibilities relating to all of the issues the speakers brought up, from housing and public works to economic development and community services. And it's the local government that often sees these changes first, and has the first chance to respond to them. Here are just a few thoughts on where local governments can go from these keynotes.

  • Luker's description of the importance of special events and shared recreation opportunities reminded me of a recent In the Know post on citizens' emotional connections to their communities. Whether directly or indirectly, local governemnts are often behind the fun and informal ways people connect with their neighbors.
  • Kotkin anticipates the growth of exurban and rural communities. But how can this growth happen in a way that's environmentally sustainable? ICMA's Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities is a good place to start.
  • Many local governments are already adjusting to aging population. ICMA helped produce a report, The Maturing of America, on how communities are responding to this shift.
  • Roseville, California's Volunteer Handbook is just one of many resources on volunteering you can find in the Knowledge Network's document library.

Look for more on these issues and more on the Knowledge Network topic pages. Kotkin and Luker gave TLG attendees a lot to consider, but it's the local government professionals that will decide how they can respond to these changes.