When is the last time you took a scenic trip to a suburban strip? Met a friend for lunch in a parking lot? Moved to a town because you loved the vacant buildings? Probably not lately – and that’s no coincidence. Cookie cutter developments and character-less communities aren’t just unappealing, but also uninspiring, unwelcoming, and underperforming.
Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute, a noted authority on the link between successful places and sense of place, says, “If I have learned anything from my career in urban planning, it is this: a community’s appeal drives economic prosperity.”
That may sound like common sense, and the field of placemaking has been exploding across Vermont (and the world) as communities catch on to the power of creating great places. But it’s not as simple as putting up a parklet or decorating downtown with some flowerpots. What actually appeals to people – and drives economic growth – might surprise you.
Cultivating People by Cultivating Place. Vermonters know that building a strong local economy means attracting and keeping people. We need people to start businesses and send kids to rural schools, people to fill jobs and volunteer. Most communities also know that attracting and keeping people means increasing livability – ensuring that diverse residents can find housing and childcare, secure well-paying jobs, and afford healthy foods and healthcare. Those elements are essential, but they’re not enough. We can build livable communities and still find that no one comes (or stays) – after all, there are plenty of other towns to choose from.
If we want to build successful communities with staying power, we need to build lovable places – not just livable ones. And I do mean we: great places need to be built for, by, and with the people who love them.
Cultivating Prosperity by Cultivating Attachment. In 2010, Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation teamed up to investigate what sets apart communities that thrive from those that don’t, and how much of that difference is about attachment to place. In other words, does it really matter if a place is lovable?
Indeed, it does. In the Soul of the Community (SOTC) study, Gallup surveyed more than 1,200 residents in different cities, assessing their level of attachment and which aspects of the community mattered most. Knight defines community attachment as both loyalty and passion. People with strong attachment are proud of their places and more likely to stay, but also more likely to get involved and shop locally. The study showed that communities with the highest levels of “attachment” also had the fastest growing GDPs and greatest population growth.
But what makes people feel attached – and therefore likely to stay, volunteer, and spend money? The team dug deeper and found that three factors had the greatest impact on attachment. It wasn’t the strength of the economy or education system. It was openness, social offerings, and aesthetics.
Here’s a glimpse at how Vermont communities are turning investments in these three areas into stronger places and stronger economies.
1. Aesthetics – physical beauty and green spaces. From parks and playgrounds to historic buildings, aesthetics play an important role in community pride. But great aesthetics aren’t just about being beautiful – they’re about being distinctive, authentic, and memorable.
The Vermont Arts Council’s Animating Infrastructure program is helping communities brighten up their infrastructure with works of art that quickly become points of pride. In Jeffersonville, murals on two old silos connect past and future. In my town, Bethel, a 200-foot long mural instantly transformed a gateway eyesore into a regional landmark.
2. Social offerings – opportunities for social interaction and caring. When people get together, good things happen. They mix and mingle, dream and scheme. Our job is to create the places, spaces, and opportunities for interactions to happen and protect the ones that exist, humble as they may be – front porches, grange halls, and the dump on Saturday mornings.
Rutland’s Winterfest has shown how easy it is to create an instant gathering place and economic draw by turning Main Street into a sled run and setting up a game of human foosball.
Community members are banding together to fill up empty historic buildings with new gathering places in rural towns. Chelsea’s North Common Café and gallery, the community-supported Peacham Café, and Guilford Country Store are filling critical needs for caffeine and camaraderie. Harry’s Hardware in Cabot created a new niche in an old gathering space (“New England’s first and only bar in a hardware store”) where customers enjoy beer and bluegrass while they pick up birdseed.
3. Openness/welcomeness – how welcoming the community is to different people. The strongest factor driving attachment was openness – to everyone from seniors to young families, minorities to flatlanders. While Vermonters are generally a neighborly bunch, we have work to do in combatting racism and the red-blue divide, and embracing new residents and ideas while protecting Vermont’s deeply rooted culture and character.
More than a decade ago, Starksboro used storytelling and an artist-in-residence to help document community values and history in a bid to find common ground and shape new land use plans.
Today, the Vermont Welcome Wagon project is pairing up newcomers with community “hosts” in Chittenden County and the Northeast Kingdom, helping to smooth the transition and welcome people in.
Cultivating DIY Communities. Many communities don’t know where to start. If attachment isn’t yet strong, chances are you don’t have volunteers lining up. If you have limited economic growth, then you may have limited budget for new parks or activities. And if your town already feels divided, then proposing anything at all may feel daunting.
Each of those challenges is actually an argument for cultivating a DIY community – a place where people are empowered to try small, easy, and inexpensive projects to improve livability and lovability. That might mean building a pocket park or sledding down Main Street, painting a mural or just planting a flower. When you’re done, you pick another project and take the next right step. They may not seem like much, but small projects can spark big change and strong attachment if you invite people into the process.
At Community Workshop, we teamed up with AARP Vermont last year to create the DIY Community Cookbook: a do-it-yourself guide to making your community a more livable (and lovable) place. You can download and browse the cookbook for free at diycommunitycookbook.com.
If you’re a motivated community member, just dive in and get started. If you’re a local official, make sure the door is open to others. DIY projects aren’t just great because they’re cheap, but because they empower people to create the places they want to live in and love. And when people take responsibility for creating great places, the sense – and cents – of place will quickly add up.
Rebecca Sanborn Stone
Principal and Senior Planner & Engagement Specialist