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Tallahassee: Glass Half-full or Half-empty?

Join me for a moment in entering a dream state.  Imagine living in a city in which the vast majority of people say that they live in good health and with enough energy to get things done daily; engage in and enjoy their social, cultural, and natural environments; feel safe; take pride in their community; know they are connected with family, friends, and organizations; like what they do and are motivated to achieve their goals; and, can manage their economic life to reduce stress and increase security.

Imagine, if you will, the effects of that lifestyle on the crime rate, school success, healthcare costs, racial distrust and animosity, civic engagement, and . . . . happiness on personal, neighborhood, and city levels. 

Where Do We Stand?

Let me get a bit wonky here.  Researchers have been looking into those dream state factors and have found that cities vary quite significantly on them.  And, perhaps most importantly, city policies can have a direct effect on how much those factors come into play to boost what they call community well-being.

Recently, social researchers at Gallup-Sharecare surveyed 189 cities and towns across the US on community well-being factors.  Can you guess where Tallahassee ranked?  Gainesville?  What city ranked #1?  Here it is:  Tallahassee #140, Gainesville #108, and the Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island area #1.  Here’s how the cities compared on the well-being dimensions.

City Purpose Social Financial Community Physical
Naples-Immokalee-Marco 1 1 1 2 2
Gainesville 3 2 3 3 3
Tallahassee 3 2 5 5 3

The numbers indicate the quintile of the sample the dimension for a city “falls” in.  Quintiles divide a sample into fifths: 1 = top 20%; 2 = top 21% to 40%; 3 = middle 41% to 60%; 4 = low 61% to 80%; 5 = lowest 20%.  Tallahassee ranks in the second quintile for Social Connections (supportive relationships and love in your life); the third for Purpose and Physical Health; and the fifth (or lowest) for Financial (managing your economic life) and Community Connection (liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community).

Survey Says . . .

What do these results show?  Overall, Tallahassee ranks low on community well-being.  The results make me wonder if we’ve lost our focus on developing Tallahassee in a manner that benefits most of its residents.  The financial dimension shows that despite years of large and small development projects and population growth, the promised benefits have not been realized by the majority of our residents.  Sad as that is, a more telling implication reflected in the low community score, is that for more and more of us we perceive that local government is not working for us.  I don’t want to over-generalize.  But, in my discussions throughout the city, I hear a common chord . . . and that is that we’re throwing away what made Tallahassee such a charming and friendly place to live for the supposed benefit of being the Next Big Thing.  The expressed fear is that this paint-by-number approach to urban planning and growth management results, instead, in our becoming the Next Anywhere.

Where We Got Off Track

I get that there are some benefits to a growing population and encouraging that growth to stay within a compact and defined urban services area.  With thoughtful design and supporting policies, it’s easier to walk or bike to work.  Infrastructure costs are reduced.  There may be more of an urban vibe.  But, Shirley, there’s a better way.  We haven’t done the heavy lifting to find that way; instead, we’re well-being light.  The latest tarbabies we’ve smacked into — keeping or cutting the live oaks and pines in the new Cascades development parcel, the bowing down to FSU to allow its last minute entry to the Gateway extension project, and the general appearance of special deal-making in various Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) projects to name a few – underscore our lack of a clear and shared vision for Tallahassee’s healthy growth.  That is, a growth that targets specified population density increases in appropriate areas, accommodates that growth with enhanced transportation, shopping, and entertainment alternatives, and protects and enhances our community well-being, existing neighborhoods, urban forest, local businesses, and historical and cultural landmarks.

A lack of community-responsive leadership has painted us into this corner.  Not all, but the majority of our elected and appointed city leadership in too many cases have been AWOL regarding healthy growth.  They’ve been too staff dependent or too close to their buddy movers and shakers or simply lack the vision to foster community-enhancing rather than community-diminishing growth.  As a result, they have tended to work for the few rather than the many.  We can do better.  Can’t we do better than Gainesville, at least?

I don’t want to paint a totally negative picture for what’s been happening.  We’ve accomplished some significant city enhancements with the completion of Cascades Park (notwithstanding the amphitheater siting fiasco), an extension of our biking and hiking trail network, the building of necessary sidewalks and signaled crosswalks, and support for local businesses and entrepreneurial start-ups.  Mid-level city staffers can be quite responsive to a variety of citizen and neighborhood requests.  I look upon our situation as doing well on the micro-level, not so good on the macro-level. 

What We Can Do: You and BHNA

Tallahassee has taken its share of hits over the last year, many of those self-induced.  Frequently in these situations, citizens wonder how to make necessary changes and find the effort difficult and frustrating.  That should not be our condition; we’re going to be electing a majority of city commission members this year . . . and the majority of the appointed city staff will change as well.  It’s now up to us to elect the best leaders to direct Tallahassee’s well-being and healthy growth.  It’s our privilege and responsibility to make the most of this opportunity.  In your own mind, identify the city issues that are most important to you.  Pay attention to the various campaigns.  Get to know the candidates and their positions beyond the sound bites.  Let them know your positions on the issues important to you.  When the time comes, cast an educated vote.

Neighborhoods have a role in growing community well-being as well.  The BHNA is committed to that for our Betton Hills residents.  At a recent board retreat, we identified three well-being dimensions we feel are most appropriate:  making Betton Hills even more friendly, safe, and uplifting.  While I could write another article on those, board members will be sharing our ideas on our website, Facebook, and email communications in 2018.  We’ll also be doing our part to learn about the candidates and share what we learn on issues that we see as most important for protecting and enhancing Betton Hills and Tallahassee as a whole.  In Betton Hills, at any rate, we’ll be working to refill the glass. 


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