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Rebuilding a Culture of Togetherness

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When Communities are Engaged, Prosperity Follows–Economically, Socially, Culturally and Soulfully

By Jodie McLean, CEO, EDENS

Community is the foundation on which we all exist. It’s where we connect, collaborate and come together to create our lives. As curators of experiences, we at EDENS believe our everyday offerings must transcend the ordinary to enrich and engage the communities where we have a presence. We have always believed in creating places that breed a culture of togetherness and human familiarity, where people are naturally inspired to gather and communicate.

This type of meaningful interaction—feeling a part of something bigger than ourselves—depends on inclusive design, thoughtful curation, authentic engagement and respect for a neighborhood’s unique character and history. We envision shared experiences in our places as warm, intimate and familiar, while also taking into consideration one’s basic needs and desires. This is more important than ever in the post-COVID era.

Consumer preferences continue to evolve at internet speed but our role in bringing people together remains fundamentally unchanged. We pay closer attention to behaviors that are more complex coming out of COVID, such as fluctuating emotions and increased self-awareness, in an effort to meet the consumer where they are on any given day and make sure our places respect people’s desires to engage safely and comfortably.

Retail is well-positioned to play an important role in post-pandemic economic revitalization. Spaces and places that are welcoming and inclusive have the greatest potential for re-enacting communities in the next normal.

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Place-based experiences that engender belonging and participation will spark the exchanges that ultimately create new opportunities for authentic connection, prosperity and wellness.

The Post-Pandemic Persona

We are curators of community experiences in more than 110 places in the U.S. As our country re-emerges from prolonged social isolation, we must balance a wide range of scenarios—from pent-up desires to lingering concerns for safety and financial security. As such, our research and innovation team(s) closely monitor social trends and behaviors, and what we’re tracking represents a broad spectrum: on one end, the possibility of a new Roaring 20s and on the other, simply reclaiming joy in everyday life.

Every day we think about how we can best partner with communities and retailers and we do so by continuously responding to developing trends and customer sentiment. More than ever, understanding the temperament of people we are welcoming back is as important as the experience and physical environment to which they are returning. We ask ourselves: what is the post-pandemic persona and how will design, curation and engagement aid in renewed prosperity?

In thinking about emotional recovery in the same way we focus on physical and financial well-being, we’ve created this simple process map to understand our role:

  • Something bad happens = a global pandemic
  • Treatment = isolate, social distance, cover up, vaccinate
  • Effects = mental and emotional strain, loneliness, isolation and concern for safety
  • Recovery = stretch our social muscles to get back to ourselves, small moments of surprise and delight
  • Curative = sense of belonging and connection through shared experiences, bigger moments of joy

The consumer mindset has shifted during the pandemic to focus more on essentials and basic needs, with a clear preference for digital, contactless options for transactions and for obtaining goods. Though it is too early to completely understand what the post-pandemic norms will be, we are already seeing a strong desire to return to shared spaces coupled with a demand for convenience and safety.

The retail experience must be inclusive and barrier-free, and tap into people’s heightened self-awareness, social conscience and expectations for transparency and accountability:

  • 66% of Americans miss shopping in stores, yet 75% remain concerned for their safety and loved ones when leaving home to run errands.
  • 75% of consumers expect to stick to new behaviors that were developed during the pandemic; they’ve learned how to spend money while doing more of what they want to do with people and communities they care about.
  • Young people, in particular, care about retailers’ ideals, ethos and how companies protect the health and well-being of their workforce, give back to communities, and promote ambitious sustainability goals*.

Not all of us were affected as severely or negatively as others, and it’s difficult to separate issues of equity and diversity from this equation.

In an economy where 68% of GDP and most economic growth comes from spending, the contribution of consumer spending from all socio-economic groups is important in driving the U.S. recovery. Yet, moderate-to-strong impact pandemic scenarios projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest notable long-term downside risk for many low-wage industries, particularly in retail trade, leisure and hospitality.

In a Harris Poll conducted earlier this year with the American Psychological Association, nearly half of Americans (47%) said they delayed or canceled healthcare services since the pandemic started; nearly half of parents said the level of stress in their life increased compared with before the pandemic. Black Americans were most likely to express concern about the future, followed by Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans. Gen Z adults, capping at just 24 years-old, were most likely to say their mental health had worsened.

A sense of well-being is now at the forefront of almost every consumer decision: food choices, mental health, stress reduction, fitness, environmental consciousness, emotional connection and greater happiness. While this is not a new trend, it has been greatly accelerated by the pandemic. Beyond a personal choice or desired lifestyle, for most Americans, health and wellness is essential and the single largest trend driving retail and design decisions at our places.

Stable and Supportive Communities

Communities thrive when people are more deeply connected. Local economies expand, businesses succeed, education grows, support systems become more efficient and a pride of ownership is instilled. People lead happier and healthier lives when they feel a sense of belonging, and strong, enriched communities create a stable and supportive society.

This has never been more relevant as physical and emotional well-being continues to dominate our collective conscience. We are slowly re-entering society with a stronger sense of compassion for ourselves, for each other and for communities who are most vulnerable. We want to feel better, be healthy, take care of each other and safely convene in welcoming environments that invite recreation at all levels.

Dr. Christine Runyan of the University of Massachusetts Medical School describes compassion as neurologically challenging for humans. Because we are hard-wired to simply stay alive, pleasant conditions are more profound when we consider that we must intentionally create joyful moments, or we would otherwise be closed off in survival mode—where much of society has been languishing for too long.

“Most things that are even neutral become pleasant, because they become fascinating. But we do have to create those conditions. And it’s so worth it, if we do,” said Dr. Runyan in a recent interview on the popular radio program, On Being.

Our places can serve as the canvas for social interaction, for conversation, for culturally and socially relevant programming, and as a platform for amplifying the breadth and diversity of the business owners and entrepreneurs who are often the lifeblood of their communities. We believe we can leverage the design of our places to welcome people back safely, comfortably and with a little bit of play.

Summer has arrived in the U.S. It’s the natural time of year for coming together, and warm weather accommodates more opportunities for social interaction out-of-doors. While we acknowledge that the pandemic is not fully in the rear-view mirror, we are already seeing that communities are eager to reconnect.

EDENS’ advantage is that our places are open-air, designed with wide accessible sidewalks, green spaces and minimal barriers at street-level. Outdoor dining, flexible gathering spaces, outdoor fitness sessions, drive-in movies and public art are engagement elements we have always implemented.

Now and for the rest of the year, we are rolling-out music, events, visual cues and activations across our portfolio that encourage the public to safely interact and have some much-deserved fun.

Finding Joy in Third Places

When living in a cluttered world of so many options, we only notice what feels different. We choose to invest our time, money and emotional energy where we feel trust and like-mindedness.

One thing we’ve all observed during the pandemic is that place really matters. If we were able to safely leave our homes, our neighborhoods became our entire world. We found a renewed sense of appreciation and pride for our immediate surroundings, our community, parks and green spaces, and our favorite local shops.

A few years ago, the Brookings Institute examined the importance of “third spaces,” crediting sociologist Ray Oldenburg for the concept of “joyful association in the public domain,” as crucial to the economic and social vibrancy of neighborhoods. Alli Volpe’s April 6 article for Bloomberg CityLab picks up where Oldenburg leaves off:

“Apart from the economic ramifications, living without third places can have social consequences. Because strangers and acquaintances aren’t typically invited to the Zoom happy hours and Netflix watch parties that have dominated the pandemic social experiment, we lose the diversity of experience and point of view offered by informal interaction between people from different backgrounds.”

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Our places can serve as the canvas for authentic connection that is also transformational for the soul—places where we are encouraged to convene around a shared sense of gratitude and purpose.

Transformative placemaking is about community building. Yes, increased engagement drives commerce, but EDENS’ ultimate goal and mission is to enrich communities and the businesses who serve them—economically, socially, culturally and soulfully.

 

 

*Sources: Retail Dive, McKinsey & Company, The Wall Street Journal