The need to need

“Hanging out.” That’s an answer with one more word than the typical response I get from my teenage son. It was sufficient enough, however, to know what he meant.

I had asked him what he was looking forward to most during his summer break from school. He has four buddies among his “squad,” and what he wants to do most in these dog days of summer is “hang out” with them, which is pretty much what he wants to do most the rest of the year as well — just spend time with his friends.

Many of us can relate. We are social creatures, after all. There is something deep inside of us that longs to connect with others. That need for connection is one of the reasons why we live in communities.

Communities emerged as places were people could interact with one another. On a recent visit to downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, I learned that the intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets was once where two Native-American trade paths met and began trading with one another.

Trade and commerce was the primary reason many cities and towns are located where they are. That’s why so many of our great cities are built on the water – ocean shores and riversides. The water helps connect people and the things we make to the rest of the world and the rest of the world’s people and goods to us.

The next great way we connected was by rail, and then the remarkable concrete and asphalt network of our roads, highways and interstates. Of course, we can’t forget air travel and our telecommunications systems. All of these help us connect with one another.

There’s growing evidence that well-connected places boast greater levels of prosperity. A recent study done by economist Michael Mandel looked at several U.S. metropolitan regions to see how connected they were and the relationship between that connectedness and job growth.

He looked at connections within these places – the relationships between the people who live there. He measured this connectedness by how densely LinkedIn members who live in that community are connected to one another.

Mandel found that the more connections there were among the people who lived in the cities, the higher the levels of job growth in those cities. In fact, when he looked at 275 U.S. cities from 2010 to 2014 the rate of job growth among the most connected cities was over twice that of the least connected cities.

On the surface, commerce seems to be our primarily motivation to connect – native American’s trading, barges, train cars and semi-trailers moving goods, Linkedin members looking for the next customer or collaborator.

But maybe the need is deeper than that. What if personal connection is what we really need and commerce is merely a means to do that. Consider the best salesperson you know, which in my life is someone who really loves people. Sales are just a way he’s found to get paid to connect with others.

So, that begs a question: What would it look like if we designed (and redesigned, when the opportunities arise) our cities, towns and neighborhoods primarily to encourage connection?

Do we build civic institutions – schools, libraries, parks with connecting in mind? Imagine if “How will this better connect people?” was the primary question that guided our elected officials and civic leaders in their decision-making.

The philosopher-farmer Wendell Berry tells us that a proper community meets a need. That need, he says, is the “need to need” each other. My son and his friends might think they are merely hanging out this summer, but I’ll know there’s more that’s going on; they’re making meaningful connections.

They are building community. They are meeting a need – a need to need each other. Don’t worry, though, I won’t spoil their fun by letting them in on the secret.

Scott Hutcheson is assistant assistant program leader for Community Development, Purdue Extension and senior associate for Purdue Center for Regional Development. He works with local and regional communities across the U.S. and abroad, helping civic leaders implement strategies to grow their local economies and ensure quality of life for residents.