For those generations prior to the millennials, one’s place of residence was most often determined by factors such as proximity to family and employment opportunities. For this writer, that meant moving to Dayton, Ohio when I was a fresh, shiny new graduate out of college. Nothing against Dayton, as it is a nice area, but the Miami Valley would not have been not my first pick of places to live when measured by today’s placemaking standards. That was just the way things were 35 years or so ago. Back then, those cities with the available jobs in your field were more often than not where you moved.
More recently, college graduates and younger job seekers are first choosing the place where they want to live and then seeking employment opportunities in that city or region. As a result, those places with desirable attributes are attracting talent, while those places which are perceived as less desirable are suffering from brain drain and face potential decline.
Desirable place attributes like beauty are largely in the eye of the beholder, but some of the more common ones identified include active and healthy lifestyle, scenic location, walkability and bikeability, vibrant economy, healthy downtown, cultural diversity, recreational opportunities, mild weather, and potential for exciting job prospects. Those communities that possess most or all of these attributes are succeeding, while those who do not are likely declining.
Granted, not every city can boast a mountain range, coastline, or mild climate, but there are many other attributes that can be enhanced to make it a better place – you don’t need topographical features to make a city walkable or bikeable. In fact, it is less expensive to do so on level terrain. Likewise, promoting healthier lifestyles is not a function of topography or weather, it is a function of good common sense.
Obviously, not everyone can afford to (or wishes to) pull up stakes and move to another community. It is an expensive and stressful endeavor. That is why it is so important to work towards accentuating and improving the positive place attributes of where you already live. It may not be perfect (few places are), but a scenic river valley, lake, or mountain; an historic site; unique architecture features, a cultural vitality, or some other factor(s) could provide the building blocks for building place. In the end, placemaking benefits the whole community.
Dayton, Ohio, mentioned earlier in this post is bisected by three river systems (the Great Miami, the Mad, and the Stillwater) and has topographical features that most Midwestern cities would drool over thanks to these rivers and the area’s glacial moraines. It is also home to two major universities (University of Dayton and Wright State), and it is home to a number of historic sites tied to the Wright Brothers and aviation – all of which are great seeds for growing and enhancing place.
With time, forethought, innovative ideas, and persistence, most, if not all communities have the ability to enhance their overall sense of place. The challenge often is circumventing those long-established silos that restrict so many from moving past their preset ways. It can be done, but won’t happen overnight.
My hometown of Indianapolis successfully transformed itself from the jaded monikers of “Naptown” or “Indianoplace” into one of the most vibrant cities of the Midwest and the whole country. If a city once called “a racetrack in a cornfield” can do it, then other cities can too – it just takes the will and the tenacity. Namaste.