The first time I went to West Virginia, I learned that where people choose to live and work and raise families is really a total mystery.
Not long after I moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, in 2012, I got a writing assignment that took me to Lorado, West Virginia, so tiny it’s not on Google Maps. Gertie Moore was my guide to the area. Mind-blowing fact: I have lived on this street my entire life.
That blew my mind, because here’s a map of all the places I’ve lived in my adult life. The average American will move 11.7 times in their lifetime, and I was on fast-track to that number. Chronic mover. Restless.
And people like Gertie, who have stayed put for most of their lives. I imagine that this room has a similar kind of mix. Raise your hand is you were born and raised within 20 miles of the city where you live now. Raise your hand if you’re a transplant.
We’re an odd mix of searchers and restless souls and people who can’t imagine anything better than staying put for a really long time. And both of those groups are probably interesting to economic developers.
This demographic mix is echoed all across the country. The sociologist Richard Florida, who wrote the book The Rise of the Creative Class, divided the world into three kinds of people when it comes to geographic mobility. First, Mobile. Second, Stuck. Can’t move because of jobs or finances or family responsibilities or what have you. Third, Rooted: You are happy where you are.
I was always in the mobile category b/c had magical thinking that a new place would dramatically improve my life.
Five years ago when husband got job offer at VA Tech in Blacksburg, I expected Mayberry. Wasn’t at all what I imagined. Bleaksburg. Lost. Small. Nothing to do. Very Southern. Began fantasizing about hitting Realtor.com and moving again. But we’d just moved. Feared therapy bills for me and my daughters. I was going to be stuck for a while. There is nothing as dispiriting, lonely, and discouraging as having a hometown that doesn’t feel like home. Right around then that I met Gertie Moore, in Loredo WV. Began asking this question:
You settle someplace, and sometimes it just clicks for you. This place fits me. A sense of belonging. At home-ness. Is it you? Is it the place? What has to happen? Isn’t that the question you’re all trying to answer. As women who work in economic development, you have seen the statistic that
Young talented workers are looking long and hard at places, and picking cities and small towns they love, where they think they can thrive. Places are starting to come first. How do people make those choices? What are they looking for? I was not thinking about econ dev when I first started thinking about these questions. I was thinking about myself, semi-miserable in Bburg. I could see that people around me loved it. Just wasn’t feeling it. What did they have that I didn’t yet? Turns out there’s a term for it.
Signifies the emotional bond we have with the place where we live. That there’s no place like home feeling. I belong here. I want to stay. This is my place.
It’s this touchy-feely concept with concrete benefits. People who are place attached have higher levels of social capital—more connections socially that help them accomplish goals. Studies show they have higher levels of self-esteem. When you’re place attached, your well-being increases. You feel more content about almost every aspect of your life. One University of Michigan study shows that knowing your neighbors, one of the products of place attachment, dramatically decreases your risk of heart attack and stroke. Japanese study show that people who are rooted and like their communities live 6 percent longer. Good for community too! Residents volunteer more, who care about the community and protect it, who work together with neighbors.
What I learn from all this is that places that we’re attached to have meaning for us. For many researchers, that’s what defines a place, period. It’s somewhere we’ve given meaning. And when we’re place attached, that meaning is deep and positive. It’s life-affirming. It becomes part of how we identify ourselves. We don’t just live in Charlotte or Raleigh or Winston-Salem. It’s who we are.
When places become meaningful to residents, whether new or long-term, young or old, they are far more likely to stay. They’re far more likely to become invested. To start businesses. To become champions for their places. I think of it as becoming a superfan of your city.
A couple weeks ago went to family reunion, and after a few days I noticed that my niece was wearing Star Wars shirts. Not just once. Oh no.
Every. Single. Day.
I’ve pretty much outgrown my pop culture t-shirt years, but this is the era of the superfan, where what you’re obsessed with equals what kind of t-shirt you wear, and what kind of t-shirt you wear says a lot about you. Sometimes everything about you.
Whatever you love most, Whatever you care about, whatever you do in your spare time
Whatever you talk to your friends about and fangirl over, there is a t-shirt for that.
The t-shirt you wear says, THIS IS WHO I AM. THIS IS MY THING. THIS IS WHAT I CARE ABOUT. THE PEOPLE WHO CARE ABOUT THIS TOO ARE MY TRIBE. What t-shirt you wear says, THIS IS MY IDENTITY.
Last year, went to a conference in Greensboro, and one of the presenters was the founder of a company called Home State Apparel. Make all kinds of stuff—t-shirts primarily, but also keychains, mugs, necklaces, you name it—emblazoned with an outline of a state and the word “home.” Companies that have made a business out of getting people to wear t-shirts with where they’re from That’s what they do, and they’re very successful at it because they’ve managed to tap into the zeitgeist around, not just t-shirts, but places. Increasing pride in where we’re from. Increasing sense that where we’re from is who we are. You put your place on your t-shirt because that’s where you live, where you work, what means the most to you.
So we have two questions: Are you wearing the t-shirt of your town? And how do you get others to want to wear it too?
Quick survey to find out. I’m going to give you an abbreviated version of a place attachment survey so you can see how attached you are to where you are. Ten items. Yes or no. Ten fingers. Keep track of all your yeses.
How many got 8 or above? Perfect 10? 3 or below?
If you did poorly, don’t feel bad. Had I taken this quiz when I first moved to Bburg, would have scored a zero. Moving around can be an obstacle to place attachment. So can landing in a big city when you really think of yourself as a small town girl, or moving away from friends and family, or ending up somewhere that’s not the beach. But here’s what I’ve learned, and what I hope will be helpful to you both personally and in terms of the work you do.
It changes over your life span. It even changes over your life span in a particular city.
Studies have shown that it can take 5 years after moving to a new town before place attachment peaks. Honestly, your levels of attachment—your sense of connection to and affection for the place you live—may roller coaster for any number of reasons. My interest was, What affects place attachment in positive ways? Because the corrollary to the “place attachment is malleable” hypothesis is that you can change your own place attachment. You can make yourself feel more attached by doing things that produce attachment.
That was my hypotheses. I could change this. Best way: if I wanted to love Blacksburg, I had to act like the people who loved Blacksburg acted. Simple way to I believed that action would precede emotion, and if I changed the way I acted, I could also change the emotion that went along with it. So my plan was to take a look at behaviors that studies, and sometimes anecdotal evidence, correlated with place attachment, with loving where you live, and I would do it. I ended up coming up with 10 broad behaviors that would, I suspected, change how I felt about my community.
I called these my Love Where You Live Experiments. Turns out, these things that made Blacksburg more lovable for me, made me fall in love with it a bit more, also made Blacksburg more livable. For instance….
Spoiler alert: My hypothesis was correct. I could make myself feel more connected, joyful, and attached in Blacksburg. And I wrote a book about how others could do the same thing where they lived.
Here’s probably my main takeaway from these LWYL experiments. Our towns are what we think they are. No singular Blacksburg or Charlotte or Durham that everyone in this room experiences in an identical way. Our towns contain multitudes. They are both good and bad. Whether we love them depends in large part on how we see them, and what we choose to focus on.
I’m guessing most of you have seen the Soul of the Community study, the work done by the Knight Foundation and Gallup. So they launched a 3-year study called Soul of the Community. Over 3 years, they interviewed 26,000 people and asked them questions that got to their deepest feelings about where they lived. Miami to Milledgeville, Georgia. They came up with 3 factors that most deeply influenced place attachment, and they weren’t what anyone expected.
First, social offerings, or whether there are things to do in your city and people to do them with
Second, aesthetics, or how beautiful you think your place is.
And third, openness, or how welcoming your city is to all kinds of people, and how many opportunities there are for them. When residents rated their towns highly on those three factors – social offerings, aesthetics, and openness – they showed the highest levels of place attachment, and so they were more likely to stay put.
A couple interesting things about the Soul of the Community study. First, everyone was surprised to find that social offerings, aesthetics, and openness came out on top. This isn’t local school quality or police force effectiveness or city government responsiveness, although those things matter too. These are soft qualities. Malleable qualities. The things you think probably shouldn’t matter, and yet they do.
Second, the Soul of the Community didn’t measure actual levels of social offerings, openness, or aesthetics. Measured perceptions. Grand Forks, North Dakota, tied for the highest ranking on place attachment. Residents in Grand Forks were happier with their social offerings than residents of much bigger cities like Miami, and Charlotte. They had no huge sports stadiums. No fancy museums. No beaches. WHAT WE BELIEVE ABOUT OUR TOWNS IS WHAT MATTERS HERE. Let me give you an example.
I saw this graphic online. Since I’m a huge reader, and I also know I can’t afford Boston, I tweeted “Resisting the urge to move to Cleveland.” And in response, my friend quickly sent me this video.
You’re laughing. That’s because you’re not from Cleveland. I made the mistake of showing this video when I did a presentation in Cleveland a few months ago, and it did not go over quite as well.
The reality is, every city has this problem to a certain extent. Someone could make a video like that about Blacksburg. But choosing to see the good in your city is POWERFUL.
There was also a rather astounding connection between how place attached people were and how well the city did economically. As place attachment went up in towns, so did local GDP. Towns did better financially when the people who lived there loved it.
Virtuous circle. When people love their place more, they’re more likely to start businesses there. Anecdotally, that’s what Crystal Morphis found. She told me that she added a line in the standard survey she gave to business owners in communities where she worked as she tried to discover why they started a business there. It said, I have a hometown connection. (Code for, I’m place attached.) And immediately, that became her top survey answer. That’s why people start businesses. They want to live in this place.
Question becomes: How does place attachment become an economic development strategy? When you have a $5,000 budget, what can you do to make people love where they live more? And how do you translate that into attracting and retaining young talent—convincing them that this is where they want to live and work in the first place?
Traditionally “social offerings” means stuff to do, people to do it with. But if we had to distill that into action items, it might look like this: What the heck is collective effervescence?
Want to tell you a story about this place. Fargo, ND.
Not the mental image you want people to associate with your city.
And when Greg’s friend Joe said, “You know what? I think I’m going to start an alley fair,” Greg and all their friends said, “Let’s do it.” Fargo = place where the whole town has an entrepreneurial mindset, where good ideas get the go-ahead and everyone has good ideas, and where the good ideas aren’t just about making money in the place but the place itself.
Doug Burgum’s son Joe Red River Farmers Market.
City commissioner told me that Nurturing these kinds of social connections matters, not only because it creates positive experiences that make people want to stay, but because it nurtures trust, cohesion, and collective efficacy, the qualities that encourage people to work together to solve probs and make more cool stuff happen in your community.
According to SUNY Buffalo research. Akron Ohio’s Innerbelt Freeway was being torn down. So before that happened, Hunter Franks of League of Creative Interventionists (check it out) developed this program, 500 plates. Brought together 500 community leaders on the freeway itself. Fed them a simple dinner. And encouraged them to think about what could happen to the space where the freeway was. Wrote on paper tablecloths. Now the tables are being reused for neighborhood dinners. Can you imagine the feeling of community you might get from this kind of experience? The collective effervescence? Community fizz?
“When I attend a wedding, I feel a connection to the other people there” and “Having giant blizzards or other events that close down a city or area are bad, but the feeling of connection to neighbors and even other strangers going through the same thing almost makes them worth it.”
Big Car Collaborative in Indianapolis. Look for ideas that are creating collective effervescence, bringing people together for meaningful experiences.
Inexpensive experiences of togetherness that create joy and belonging.
Second, aesthetics, or how beautiful you think your place is. And we’re going to take a broad view of the world beautiful.
Traditionally we think of aesthetics as this. Nature. I walked and hiked more as a way to increase place attachment. LWYL experiment. We can’t affect that much. But we can create beauty in our towns fairly simply and inexpensively.
Or to support a Grow Your Block Project like sisters Emaleigh and Aine Doley did in their blighted Philadelphia neighborhood.
Floraffiti. Carter Hubbard started this project in Raleigh in 2013, using carefully placed seeds and mulch to create words. Why does this make people love their place? It creates delight? Excitement. Thrill of discovery.
In Brookings, South Dakota, started a project call Urban Canvas. For very little money, maybe a thousand or two thousand dollars a pop, they hired local artists to create murals on downtown buildings.
Even more effective is involving the local Brookings Community in projects that double as art and engagement. It’s hard to quantify the effect of art in your community, but what I think it does most effectively is telegraph to outsiders that this community is loved. That people are attached, they care about it, they want to see it succeed. Consider what it might be like to experience something like this:
And he started putting them in public places in the city, on mailboxes and
And trash cans and things. If you see this in your town, what does it make you feel? Delight, right? Joy. The best placemaking makes us experience joy in our city.
Googly eyes are not going to solve any big issues. Intractable, deep-seated problems like poverty, racism, joblessness and homelessness. Maybe some of you are thinking, why is she talking to us about micro-placemaking and googly eyes instead of stuff that really matters? On purpose. Big probs are so big and overwhelming they can leave us feeling really small. Who am I to do anything? Nothing I could do will help. It’s too big. Micro-placemaking is doable. That’s better than huge urban planning overhaul that never happens because it’s too expensive and onerous. Microplacemaking’s ability to build place attachment and change how we perceive our towns is incredibly powerful.
Challenge #5: Write down one idea you have for making your city better.
Is it natural? What about manmade things? Are there some of those too? Who put them there?
Openness means welcoming to all kinds of people, opportunity for all kinds of people. I want to translate that into feeling like you can make something happen. Empowerment.
It used to be you moved to a city and just sort of waited around for government to bestow its services on you. If you got involved, mostly it was to complain. Now the vibe has completely changed. Regular people want to have a hand in shaping the cites where they live. Improving livability. Turning their cities into what they want them to be. This process of DIY citizenship to create a sense of community and place is called placemaking. And the #1 thing that communities can do to make their residents feel rooted and to draw newcomers who themselves will put down roots is to open themselves up to this kind of individual investment.
Hurricane Irene in 2011 came through Prattsville.
We never felt like there was a place for us. Nancy = outsider who found an open enough community that she was able to get support for creating a kind of weird idea. Openness is about creating a sense of belonging, a sense that there’s something here for me, and a sense that I can be a part of it. Remember those items on the place attachment quiz: If something is going on here, I want to be a part of it. Do our communities welcome that kind of participation? Do we want people to make our community their own?
According to a Portland State University study in 2016. In some cities, like Dallas, number more like 6%. How do we get people to want to get involved in shaping their community if they can’t even be bothered to turn out to vote for their own mayor? People need to feel that their voices have an impact.
Get residents to share their stories. Stories matter because it’s tapping into that sense of place attachment. Why did you end up here in the first place? Remind people of their sense of ownership.
My friend Lindsay Zier-Vogel lives in Toronto, and she started writing love letters to her city of Toronto, extolling the city’s virtues. Dear Toronto, I love your swimming pools. Dear Toronto, I love your library. Woman found one of Lindsay’s letters in her bike tire. Recent transplant. Lindsay’s letter changed her mind, not because of the letter itself, but because someone wrote the letter. She stayed.
We’re writing love letters to our town all the time. Or can. Examples of love letters.
Provide resources. Impact Alamance and the Cooperative, a nonprofit that supports community development in Alamance County, give out small grants to support projects that benefit the community. This last round, Love Graham won $4,000 It’s just a group of business owners and residents who want people to fall in love with the town. With that money, they created a slick website, and then they created a couple different logos, which they give out for free.
In fact, on their website, they offer all kinds of ideas for putting the logo to work. For free. That’s exactly the kind of DIY, bottom-up branding that works best, IMO. Engages citizens, encourages them to make something their own.
Constantly amazed at the people who turn their ideas into action. Joe Burgum. Nancy Barton. I realized that every good thing I enjoyed in my town, every bit of beauty and friendliness and social offerings, came because someone made it happen. Someone put it there. That’s the ultimate expression of wearing the shirt. You want to make good things happen in your community.
Spoiler: It worked. I’m a superfan of Blacksburg. I wear the t-shirt, metaphorically and sometimes literally.
Melody Warnick WEDN 2018 Rise Of The City Superfan
THE RISE OF THE
How Places Build Them—
And How You Can Become One
NUMBER OF MOVES
THE AVERAGE AMERICAN
COMPLETES IN A LIFETIME
PERCENT OF AMERICANS
LIVE IN THE TOWN
WHERE THEY GREW UP
HOW LONG IT TAKES FOR PLACE
ATTACHMENT TO PEAK FOR A
RESIDENT OF A NEW TOWN
If you want to love your
town, act like someone
who loves your town
1. Walk and bike
2. Buy local
3. Befriend your neighbors
4. Enjoy your town’s assets
5. Explore nature
7. Eat local food
8. Become politically
9. Start something creative
– D A V I D G I L B E R T
D I R E C T O R , D E S T I N A T I O N C L E V E L A N D
CLEVELAND’S BEEN AT A TIPPING POINT FOR YEARS IN
TERMS OF CHANGING THE NARRATIVE ABOUT WHO WE
ARE IN THE EYES OF AMERICA, AND THIS YEAR WE’VE
BEEN GIVEN A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY TO RE-
Our theory is that when a
community’s residents are highly
attached, they will spend more
time there, spend more money,
they’re more productive and tend
to be more entrepreneurial.
Deputy World Director,
Create opportunities for
How could you
to make good ideas happen.
The cities that succeed are the
ones that allow people to help
create them. That’s how they
become better places, but also
how people are going to become
more attached to them.
Senior Vice President,
Project for Public Spaces
AVERAGE PERCENTAGE OF
RESIDENTS NATIONWIDE WHO
VOTE IN MAYORAL ELECTIONS
in your town?
How can you
GET IN TOUCH OR SUBSCRIBE
TO MY NEWSLETTER!