The art of building community attachment

Local leaders look to balance growth with residents' quality of life

The rapid growth of the Austin metropolitan area is redefining the social characteristics of the surrounding cities.

No longer able to consider themselves bedroom communities, city leaders in Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto are trying to create connections with their residents that go beyond an abundance of jobs and an affordable cost of living.

The key determiner, in fact, of cities' long-term stability may be the attachment they are able to build with their citizens.

"The community you live in can be like your housing choice," Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw said. "Are you just renting an apartment temporarily, or is this my home where I am raising my family and working and getting an education?

"We are trying to provide a quality of life to citizens where they can enjoy things right here in Round Rock. You can shop here, you can have a nice lunch. [So residents] have a connection to this community and want it to be [their] home."

Community equals economic health

Beginning in 2008, the nonprofit Knight Foundation launched a study to determine what the leading factors were in building emotional attachments to cities. During a period of three years, Knight researchers, in collaboration with Gallup Inc. polling consultants, interviewed more than 42,000 people in 26 U.S. cities.

"We wanted to see why people love the places they live and why they choose to be there," said Jeff Coats, Knight Foundation strategic initiatives analyst.

"There were three things we saw as drivers to attachment. There were aesthetics—how beautiful the place looked; openness—how welcoming is the community to outsiders; [and] social offerings—are there places for people to go and meet?"

The Knight researchers also noticed a correlation between residents' attachment to a community and the city's economic health. When cities neglect the aesthetic and social offerings of their communities, they are more likely to see an exodus of residents when times are hard, he said.

"You are actually building a community and not just a tangible neighborhood," Coats said. "You want people to interact and socialize, and through that people will invest when times are tough, invest in their local community because they know there is that interdependence. They know John who operates the local hardware store, so they choose to go there instead of the national chain."

Starting small

According to the U.S. census, the population of Hutto in 2000 was 1,250. The population has grown more than tenfold since, and according to estimates, it could reach 40,000 by 2020.

Despite the population surge, the City of Hutto has suffered from a stagnant housing market and limited tax sources. The challenge is finding methods to develop the community's social and aesthetic offerings without breaking the bank.

"We would love to be able to have more amenities here for our citizens so they can stay here to socialize or be entertained," Hutto Mayor Debbie Holland said. "We get frustrated some of those things aren't happening fast enough but understand that it all takes money."

City Council launched two programs in 2012—Hutto Has Heart and Hutto Matters—designed to encourage community outreach and networking through churches and civic engagement.

"For Hutto, the majority of the people have lived here 10 years or less," Holland said. "In a lot of ways we are creating the tradition of Hutto. By creating these kinds of organizations now, people are going to spread the word and take [new residents] under their wings."

Holland said the city recognizes the value of promoting its downtown as a community gathering place. The city created a Downtown Incentive Plan to encourage business growth in the area and recently began hosting "Second Saturday" events to bring residents together.

"We want people to move here and to stay here," Holland said.

Chicken or the eggs

The cities of Round Rock and Pflugerville are approaching future development from contrasting perspectives.

Dell Inc. established its corporate headquarters in Round Rock in 1994 and forever altered the composition of the city. The challenge for the city since then has not been the economy, but how to manage the resulting population growth and avoid becoming a suburb without an identity.

Pflugerville's city leaders, on the other hand, are aggressively encouraging business development through incentive deals—an approach they believe will draw and retain residents, Pflugerville Mayor Jeff Coleman said.

"Our base philosophy is that it's the government's responsibility to create the right environment for growth to occur," Coleman said.

Coleman said Pflugerville also offers residents quick accessability to Austin, an affordable housing market, a small-town feel and quality schools.

"At the end of the day, they come here because Pflugerville offers more value than other communities," Coleman said.

McGraw said city leaders' eyes are open to the need of developing a unique character for Round Rock. High on the list of wants is the continued development of the downtown area, and sponsoring community events such as Family Christmas Night and the Chalk Walk.

"It takes work, and it certainly doesn't happen overnight," McGraw said. "Part of what we are trying to do is the different events to create a community that gives you a sense of attachment to this place.

"It used to be dead as a doornail downtown. Now there is music and there are people, and that is exactly what you want."

McGraw said he would also like to see the city reserve land for recreational use.

"It always comes down to money," McGraw said. "We own a couple of large properties west of [I-35] that I would like to see developed into trail parks—not soccer fields and baseball fields, more of a low-impact experience. I want a place to go hike. That goes back to quality of life."