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There's No Place Like Home

After two long months and a long, all-hands on deck February, we finally submitted our SBIR Phase II proposal with one day to spare! (Thanks for sticking with us during our Flashback February where we reprised some oldies but goodies, best-of blogs!) And after what seemed like an especially long trek from NYC to Shanghai - perhaps partly because I spent most of my first leg struggling to understand the esoteric language describing the NSF submittal process and ultimately pressed send during my connection in Seattle! - I arrived "home," to Shanghai (last night!)...This got me thinking of the meaning of home. And of course, how place contributes - or not - to that feeling of welcomeness, attachment, and belonging...home

I love coming "home" to Shanghai. Besides getting to reunite with my fiance, there's a sense of welcome that seeing my street provides that's somehow, transcendent. Now, I know that's a strong sentiment to attribute to experiencing a "street," but bear with me. There's no question that part of that feeling is tied to the physical aspects of this street. This beautifully tree-lined, perfectly-sized street is full of interesting buildings, with an energizing eclectic mix of uses, from French boulangeries, Hunanese noodle shops, Cuban "discotheques," Chinese patisseries, quaint copy shops, to a bustling grocery store, and of course, the very dependable scene of Chinese aunties - "Ayis" - dancing the pounds away. There's no question this street would score well on State of Place (I would have scored it for you but...jetlag). Indeed, the places where I have truly felt at "home" all had this similar quality.

So what is the role of "place" in our relationship with place?

During my trip back to the States, I was having a conversation with my friend about her recent sabbatical in Abu Dhabi, Florence, and Shanghai - all world class, amazingly interesting cities. She remarked that it would have been very difficult to have readjusted after her sabbatical had she not been coming back "home" to New York City and instead had been coming back to...hmm...I won't say the example she gave as it wasn't meant to be disparaging, but let's just say fill in the blank random town that isn't quite as "exciting" as the Big Apple! In any case, this got us talking about how where else would we want to come "home" to. For us, there were very few other options in the States that would parallel the experience of coming home to NYC after such an exciting trip.

There's no question that I would love to move back to NYC after my time in Asia. Leaving New York for Shanghai felt like breaking up with someone who you were still madly in love with , but you knew it was "for the best" or the "timing wasn't right." But I was consoled by the fact that we'd "still be friends" and that I would get to see the city on the regular - and of course, that I was moving back to a wonderful city (where my fiance happened to have created a thriving spirits import/distribution business - we drink well!). I realize that may sound like a strange way to feel about a city, a place. But perhaps think about it from the flip side...when that feeling has been hate and not love...

By now, many of you know that I have a fraught relationship with Miami...I don't exactly hate it, but perhaps the fact that it's my hometown negates it as a place for which I could feel pure ire. But that's not the case for one of my dear friends, who is soon to "divorce" Miami and begin a whole new relationship with Toronto. No, she doesn't hate the heat or love the cold. She just could never make it "work" with Miami. It wasn't for lack of trying. She first moved to South Beach, as it was one of the few walkable options. But there's something about living in a place that few people actually call home that despite its built environment "chops" just makes it hard to "connect" with. And honestly, at the end of the day, the way people drove there made it demonstrably (yes, we account for this) less walkable. She then tried Coconut Grove. Another of the city's few walkable gems. But it was just short of actually being walkable. As we've talked about before, the bar for what counts as walkable is set much higher when you're having to navigate streets where sidewalks suddenly end and have no designated crosswalks, when you have a baby or toddler in tow. And she's expecting her second. So after giving it her all, she just had to move on, despite both she and her husband having amazing jobs, a great daycare for their son, and wonderful friends. Think about that. Let that sink in. Place trumped everything else. 

Now, certainly, in this case, it wasn't just about the physicality of place. But that was a very large, contributing factor. She could only walk in the confines of her neighborhood; she had to drive everywhere else. And even then, she had to cover up entirely during those walks (in 90 degrees and 90% humidity) for fears of contracting Zika (remember, she's pregnant and it's Miami). If that sounds unbearable, it's because it was. And so, she is breaking up with Miami. But perhaps some of you are thinking, but I love Miami!

And therein lies the question, can we objectively measure what people love about places?

We of course believe that the answer is, emphatically, yes, given that's what we do! But this is a question we get asked a lot. Aren't you creating a formula for place that will end up making every place look the same? Appeal to the same people? What about differences in preferences, perceptions, culture? Don't the built environment features that matter vary based on the person? These are all valid concerns. And we have thought about them and more importantly, accounted for them. Our algorithm actually is not prescriptive - meaning, you don't have to have all 290+ features we measure to get a perfect score - as that would indeed be formulaic and top-down. Instead, many different types of places can score well. And as we have noted before, all 70s are not made equally. This too is why we break down the Index into the State of Place Profile, to reflect all the different reasons you may love - or - hate a place. It's like when you date someone who's "good on paper" but you just don't click with - his or her "assets" (and not so assets) may have not been the ones that appealed to you. But also, what's good on paper for some may be disastrous for others. That's why we measure our algorithm completely objectively - meaning, we don't weigh it to account for one thing or another. What you see is what you get. Either you do have a feature or you don't. And that's what the State of Place Index reports. It accounts for features that have been linked to more - or less - walking (and other positive behaviors).

As far as assessing what people will or won't like - will or won't make it feel like home - well, that necessitates what we talked about last week - getting out of the building and talking to people to better understand that. And indeed, we've created an add-on tool for this as well (in beta!) that measures people's preferences of and satisfaction levels with place that our software takes into account when creating evidence-based priorities. So rather than to a priori guess what different people will like and embed that into the algorithm, we keep these separate, specifically to account for the fact that people like me and my Toronto-bound friend aren't too fond of Miami but others think it's the center of the universe! 

Place is a powerful thing - and a personal one. There's a reason why our relationship with place can mirror the kinds of feelings we have about people. But just as there are certain universal qualities that basically make a person "good," there are common elements that fundamentally make for great places. And while the feeling these good places - especially those that we call home - give us can indeed be transcendental, we believe they can be quantified (ahem, we have) to help people better understand them, be better equipped to make them better, and ultimately, be better prepared to defend why we must invest in them. Because there truly is no place like home...and no home like (a great) place. 

We'd love to help you tell your (quantified, data-driven) story of place to help you champion your vision - and get your plan approved and funded, faster and affordably! Reach out to us anytime and we'll help you get more people to make your place feel like home!