If you want to follow the crowd, then follow the real estate mantra: Location, location, location. If you want to be happy, then make your mantra: Community, community, community. Whether you’re planning to buy or rent, make community your priority, rather than location. It will ultimately have a bigger impact on your sense of belonging and overall well-being.
What’s the difference between community and location? For our purposes, let’s think of community as the social fabric – the quantity and quality of human interaction – of a place. Location is about the facts and data associated with a specific address. Rankings of “best places to live” include super-affluent places like San Jose, CA, or Boulder, CO; studies have shown that such affluent communities can have higher levels of anxiety and depression.
There is a growing recognition among social scientists that a lack of community contributes to social isolation and a slew of ills including: rising suicide rates, opiod deaths, tribalism, racial animosity, and a younger generation stuck in poverty. Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, brought this idea to the wider public and organizations like the Aspen Institute are working on “repairing our country’s social fabric.”
Why location isn’t everything
If you stick to the conventional wisdom about selecting the right place to live, you’ll try to check all the boxes (rising home values, growing household incomes, shorter commutes, lower crime, higher ratio of owners to renters, great public schools, new construction activity, etc). Unfortunately, the conventional approach ignores the less tangible but important role of community. Stay on the conventional path and you will likely end up, if you have the means, in an affluent community surrounded by people who look like you, socioeconomically, focused on all those things that are purported to keep property values rising and have nothing to do with community – or happiness. Places that score high in locational metrics often score low in happiness.
Look for signs of community
When looking for signs of community, there are both online and offline ways to do it. These are my tricks for spotting community:
- Little Free Libraries are micro libraries that can be found along sidewalks in front yards, parkways, and other creative spots. Most have a placard saying “Take a book. Leave a book.” These structures are a sign that people here value sharing and the world map allows you to see where all the registered libraries are in any location.
- Community gardens and food co-ops. These usually show up in local searches. They’re a very strong indicator that people are coming together.
- Sidewalk Culture. When exploring prospective neighborhoods, look for signs that people spend time in the front/public side of a building. While seeing live sidewalk culture can be weather and timing-dependent, the presence of benches, swings, kids toys, and front yard gardens can be telltale indicators.
Fostering a greater sense of community
No matter what signs of community your online and offline scouting reveals, there’s always ways to build more community. Here are 3 things you can do:
- Spend time in front of your house or building. Put out a couple chairs, read a book, and wait for a neighbor to come along. If you’ve got kids, get them out front with you.
- Help organize a block party. If there isn’t one already, take the initiative. Potluck food is a great way to bring people together.
- Attend your neighborhood association meetings. Find a way to contribute and be a voice for community building as much or more so than property value maximization.
Invest in community
A big part of creating community is putting in the time and making the effort as outlined above. But, there are also ways you can literally invest your dollars- as well as your time. Here are 5 ideas:
- Your local library. Many libraries have a “Friends of” organization that raises money to improve the programming. Libraries are the hub of many communities and can be so much more than just a place to borrow books. See Oak Park Public Library.
- A local nonprofit that builds affordable housing, like Habitat for Humanity.
- Land conservation organization like Lake Forest Open Lands Association
- Food pantries like Lakeview Pantry
- Animal shelters like PAWS or Chicago Canine Rescue
And please, don’t forget that if you are thinking of buying or selling a home, use Investing In Communities to identify agents that are genuinely suitable to handle the transaction that you want to have. Or simply use IIC to sign up with an agent that you’re already considering. Either way, IIC is a great way to generate significant funding for your favorite cause in the community of your choice. IIC doesn’t cost you a penny to use and the IIC funding for your favorite charity won’t cost you a penny of your own money.