Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Local Public Radio Network Celebrates Places

Our local public radio is running a series on places in their coverage area. WCMU Radio is travelling around to towns in central and northern Michigan and producing on-air stories about them. They haven't made it above the bridge yet, but I expect they will. Take a listen to learn some of what makes some of the communities in northern and central Michigan special. Go to http://www.wcmu.org/radio.asp and take the 'On The Map' link.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sustaining a Place

Sustainability has specific meanings for different people, but in all cases it’s about doing things in a way that you can keep doing that way over a long time.

For fisheries managers, it’s about staying within the system’s abilities to produce fish, i.e., not taking fish faster than the system can restore them. Likewise for forests, grasslands, wetlands, lakes and streams and agricultural systems – it’s all about using the resources at a rate that does not imperil the future of the resources. Sustainability is not a new term for managers of biotic resources. Sustainable multiple use has been a guiding principle for generations of fisheries and wildlife managers, foresters, rangeland managers, and farmers. In the same way, environmentally minded people talk about living within the ability of our local and global ecosystem to continue to provide the resources we want and need.

For not-for-profit organizations, sustainability is specifically about keeping the stakeholders engaged and thinking positively about results so that donors and volunteers keep donating their time, talent and money and so that new donors and volunteers can be recruited.

For a business, sustainability is making sure that cash flow is reliable over the long term. (Selling $20 bills for $15 is not a sustainable business model). Likewise for a family it’s about not depleting the bank account faster than it can be renewed.

For an urban planner, sustainability is about creating neighborhoods that last. To a rural planner, it’s about building rural communities that last, which often means keeping current residents (including youth) and recruiting new residents.

My training is in biotic resource management, which also involves rural sustainability. Vibrant rural communities are more likely to want to conserve their local biotic resources and sustainable use of biotic resources, as opposed to boom and bust, helps sustain local communities.

Sense of place ties into sustainability. Recent research confirms that development of a sense of place serves all the dimensions of sustainability described above. People with a strong sense of place are more likely to volunteer for local conservation projects (but see Sidebar, below). Likewise, volunteering helps them build their sense of place. In that regard, sense of place builds social capital which helps make the place more sustainable. It’s a positive feedback effect. Local businesses benefit, too. One research project showed that people with a strong sense of place are more likely to support local businesses. I haven’t seen any research on the converse, but I would think that people with a more positive attitude about their place may be more inclined to engage in entrepreneurial activities there. I don’t think it takes research to show the negative of that. Clearly if a place is not seen to have a future, few people would invest in a new enterprise there. Nor would anyone encourage friends and family to invest there.

In my reading informal research on rural sustainability projects tied to place-making, I ran across a very cool project in South Dakota (see www.reimaginerural.com). They’re helping youth re-imagine their community.

Two recent newspaper articles give me reason to be optimistic. The agricultural economy has seen growth through this latest economic downturn and youth volunteerism is up with youth feeling connected to their communities. There’s some dots to be connected there. Perhaps one example of connecting those dots is the growing farm-to-school lunch programs. It supports local ag, but it could be a good placemaking strategy, showing young people that there is a future in the local economy.

It’s about letting youth know they have a choice. They don’t have to leave to achieve. The Re-Imagine Rural project, as do other rural development groups, makes a case for rural schools including encouragement of rural entrepreneurship. Tapping the imagination of youth, along with local support for entrepreneurship should help make rural communities more sustainable. It won’t work if we just think ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we got some more entrepreneurship going.’ Communities need to actively support it. Michigan State University is helping communities do that with the Creating Entrepreneurial Communities Project (http://www.landpolicy.msu.edu/modules.php?name=Pages&sp_id=484)
Two communities to the south of us signed on to that program. I’m eager to see how it works out.

SIDEBAR: Awareness alone is not enough.
While a strong sense of place may spur people to volunteer in local projects, such awareness is not enough. Potential volunteers may need further support. Becoming a volunteer is a change of habit and people sometimes need to follow a process in changing a habit.

By analogy, think of public health efforts to get people to exercise more, to eat better, or in other ways to make healthier lifestyle choices. These efforts often use a state of change model that recognizes that people need information, but then need to contemplate making the change, then plan to make the change, then try the change, and then maintain the new behavior. To enhance the success of people trying to make that change, public health agencies provide support at each step, including fostering a general sense of community support for the change.

Research shows that volunteerism can be enhanced by providing support at each state of change someone goes through while becoming a volunteer. If you're trying to increase volunteerism, you need to foster a positive attitude in the overall community towards volunteerism and let potential volunteers know that there is a whole community that will help them along the way.

Monday, December 6, 2010

local authors

You can tell you live in a desirable place by the fact that people want to write books about the place. In our case, a steady stream of good books about the Great Lakes/North woods continue to come out by nationally distributed writers in works of non-fiction, poetry, literary fiction, and category fiction.

Along with the nationally distributed writers are the local authors. Maybe there's something about our place that just brings out the desire to share a story.

This past weekend, our public library held a local authors' bookfair. Works of history, natural history, anecdotal accounts of life in the area, childrens' books, literary fiction were all represented by a dozen local authors. Only a few are nationally distributed authors, at least so far. Writing is not their primary source of income. Rather they are motivated by their desire to share their stories of our place. Thanks to the library staff and program committee for providing this opportunity to get to know our local authors better and thanks to our local authors for their labors of love. I've read most of them (and bought one I hadn't) and appreciate the points of view they bring.

S don't limit your reading just to the bestseller lists or just to what network TV talk show hosts suggest. Get to know your place better through your local authors.

Friday, December 3, 2010

let the wild rumpus begin

just got in from skiing at least part of the campus loop thanks to the 10" or so of snow we got in town yesterday. (I declared it too windy yesterday for me to go skiing -- what's nice about having reliable snow is that one can wait for the better conditions of a tomorrow. When I lived in kansas, we had to go out that very day for snow fun because that particular snow wouldn't be there long.)

i was crowded by appts before and after so could only do the first 2/3 of the loop. but it seemed like the full 3/3 in terms of workout. guess it has been about 6 weeks since the end of running season, and let's see ,thanksgiving eat fest was still in full swing just a week ago, so OK i have some getting in shape to do.

monday i'll have the 40 minutes it takes me do to the whole loop in trail breaking mode.

last summer, the students put up a disc golf course that matches up in several spots to the xc ski loop. we should have a biatholon but with disc golf instead of rifle shooting. any takers?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

still waiting for the first ski-able snow

We had a few inches of snow on the ground the other day and I was tempted to ski the campus loop. But the campus loop has a few short but steep downhills that can be tricky to stay upright on. It hurts to fall when there's not enough snow so I chose not to try it. I also rationalized that the snow wasn't cold enough and would make snowballs under the skis. Then it rained and the snow went away. That's about the third time I found myself saying "we'll be looking at snow now" only to have my hopes dissolve with the rain. Tonight we're supposed to get a good snowfall and it's supposed to stay cold next week, so soon enough it will be ski season. Otherwise, it's the stationary bike which is really not much fun at all.

Snow is nice where people know how to live with it. I think most of us up here see snow removal as a legitimate role of local government and don't gripe about paying taxes to support snow removal. I know I'm always glad to see the snowplow come through and when I get a chance I tell the snowplow driver that. We've even been known to give the driver cinnamon rolls, just to thank them, not to try to get better service. I'm glad there are still people willing to get up in the middle of the night and go out in the cold to clear the roads just as I'm glad there are still people willing to go out in a storm and climb a utility pole to restore power.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

big placemaking sites

i enjoy writing up my views of the sense of place concept and how it applies to our local community. i see that every now and a few of you out there take a look at what i have to say.

but if you're interested in a professionally done site about placemaking, i recommend http://www.pps.org/placemaking/blog/
from project for public spaces out of NYC
it has a wealth of stories about how communities have developed special places and the benefits that have resulted

for a michigan slant, try michigan state university's new great place network designed to encourage local communities to rebuild themselves into vibrant places

Friday, November 19, 2010

it's just a little thing really

I see that our neighbors in Northern Ontario will soon be going through the adding-an-area-code process. Soon they'll have to dial all 10 digits of a phone number.

I've lived in two different places that had to add area codes and in both cases the more populated parts of the region kept the old area code and the less populated regions had to switch.

Maybe adding area codes should be thought of as progress -- that so many new devices are being connected to the phone network that you need to add a new area code. But to the curmudgeonly types, it's not good progress. (I lived in a place as in the 1970s in which we only had to dial 5 numbers since there was only 2 prefixes and some people didn't like the new nuisance of dialing -- and this was when it really was 'dialing' -- all 7 numbers.)

Unless I'm totally out of touch with such things, I don't think we are facing an imminent addition of area code here in the UP. The entire UP is 906 and only the UP is 906. I think we still have plenty of room in 906 for phone devices so I think (hope) we'll all get to stay 906 for some time. I like that consistency. I guess I'm maybe a bit of a curmudgeon that way. (Could we make money selling space on 906 for people who don't want to face an area code change? But then we'd get so many that we'd have to add another area code. So on second thought, let's not sell space on 906.)

Numbers can represent places. Unfortunately I cannot help but know what place has the 90210 zip code. In the same way, could 906 stand for the UP? In a previous post, I mentioned the Euro-style, two- or three-letter oval stickers people use to show off their attachment to their place. I have a UP sticker on both our vehicles. Would 906 stickers be too obtuse?

Monday, November 15, 2010


With milder fall weather hanging on, we're trying to finish up some construction projects. In our case, that's an extension to one of our sheds. We called a friend to help, but he was busy with his own shed extension project.

It's not that unique to our place that we have people who are always building something. It's typical of any of a number of rural places that I've lived. But maybe there is something special about it.

Mike "Dirty Jobs" Rowe has filmed several segments in Michigan and has taken an interest in our economic woes. In a recent interview he did with a local paper, he talked about the importance of people having the skills to and being willing to do odd jobs to help make ends meet. Rural areas I've lived in meet both of those criteria. That kind of resourcefulness helps household economies and in turn the local economy.

Discussions of appreciation-of-place and place-making tend to revolve around providing public places in which people can interact with each other and their environment in positive ways. Perhaps those discussions need to include general resourcefulness of the population. So as part of place-building strategies, let's do place-based education, let's also continue our high school shop classes.

I saw on one of the network news shows this past weekend a story about a small town cafe that had a kitchen fire. The town came together and rebuilt the cafe only to have it burn to the ground due to arson. The town again came together and is rebuilding the cafe. Clearly, that 'third-place' is quite an important part of that town. I'm sure there was a lot of resourcefulness involved in that project.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

in general, it's about being mindful

Many things can make a special place special. One of those is unique dining opportunities. Wait, that sounds a bit pretentious. Maybe a better way to state it is "a place to eat that isn't like every other place to eat," since when you hear "unique dining opportunities" you might think only of a restaurant that serves up its fare on china plates in a quiet dining room. To me, unique dining includes the BBQ place I like that you stand in line to get your pile o'meat and a few handfuls of fries on butcher paper on a tray.

We were recently in a neighboring town on business and stopped at a favorite restaurant in a neighboring town. It occurred to me that instead of just gobbling up this nice burrito, I should take even a brief moment to appreciate the presentation, the colors, the aroma, the initial flavor... then gobble it up. One need not make any kind of display of all that. It really only takes a flash of time to appreciate what makes it special to you in the moment. At my favorite local burger stand here, I do take an instant to appreciate what we have in that place that one wouldn't find in a suburban strip mall. But I would appear a bit strange there to make a fuss of it.

It's about being mindful, whether it's a favorite local restaurant, a quick view of a natural feature you go by on your way to work (or maybe even travel a few blocks out of you way to see), an interesting cloud formation, the sound of a freighter horn on a foggy morning, a whiff of the river's aroma. Even in an instant, you can appreciate the special and unique features of your place as part of your daily life.

I'm currently reading "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace. One essay is about a day at the Illinois State Fair that certainly captures the sense of place of the fair (that's not the supposedly fun thing he'll never do again --the title essay is about a seven night Caribbean cruise on a megaliner). It takes Mr. Wallace about 100 pages to tell us about his one day at the fair, but it's all good stuff.

Friday, November 5, 2010

subtly advertising your place

Have you seen the M22 stickers on people's vehicles in northern Michigan?
It replicates the Michigan State Highway 22 highway sign, which in Michigan is white letters on a black diamond on a white square. I've seen the stickers and wondered about the significance of M2 but never really looked into it.

I saw one of those stickers on a colleague's desk this morning and asked about it. So now I know. M22 is the highway around the Leelanau Peninsula, indeed a very cool place. So, unlike the Route 66 nostalgia, it's not so much the state of mind of the road, it's the place the road goes through people are celebrating by adorning their vehicle with the M22 sign.

There's also a similar for M119, tunnel of trees highway north of Petoskey (in an earlier post I had referred to 'the tunnel of trees highway north of Traverse City, and while Petoskey is north of TC, 'north of TC' is Old Mission Peninsula -- another very cool place indeed.)

I think the EUP is a pretty cool place and I have a subtle statement to that effect on my vehicles -- the oval "UP" sticker based on the Euro vehicle tags. That format has become pretty popular for any number of places. An EUP oval would be better, but I haven't seen them for sale at our tourist shops. My other choice would be the "Say yah to da UP, eh?" which I do appreciate but maybe isn't exactly as subtle as I'm looking for.

What similar sense-of-place tags do people in your place use?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Marking the Seasons

What season is it in your place? Other than ‘autumn,’ would you reply:
a. high school football playoff season
b. deer archery season
c. in-between tourist seasons
d. putting-up-produce season
e. make-room-in-the-garage-so-I-don’t-have-to-scrape-frost-off-the-windshield-in-the-morning season
f. other (specify)_____________________
g. All of the above.

How do the people in your place mark the rhythms of the year? What’s special and unique about the seasons in your place?

A mundane chore is to make sure the snowblower starts and to get the covers on the shrubs in front of the house so that the snow sliding off the roof doesn’t break the centers of the shrubs. There’s fun chores as well such as canning the late season produce. Applesauce is surely one of life’s simple pleasures.
The season offers some unique scenery as well. Now that the he arboreal showoffs have cast their red and orange leaves, it’s the golden age of tamaracks. The leaf off season also affords longer sight distances in the woods. It’s a treat to see the bright red berries of the Michigan holly. It must have been a good year for Michigan holly; it seems like they’re everywhere.

Get out and enjoy the season. It’s good for your mental and physical health. Some communities capitalize on each season to encourage visitors to come and spend money. Here, other than hunting season, it seems to be an in-between tourist time – past the fall colors, not snowmobile season yet. Harvest festivals such as Oktoberfest have past, The Holiday Season hasn’t really started (the national retailers notwithstanding). I haven’t seen any towns offer a ‘First Frost Festival,’ so maybe it’s the catch your breath season with respect to tourism.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Red Sky in Morning

This isn't something special to just our place, but after seeing the special sunrise this morning, I did feel compelled to write about it. We've had impressive winds as a low pushed through the area with overcast skies and driving rain. But this morning it was clear in the east which let the sun's rays in under the overcast on the remainder of the sky. That made for a gorgeous sunrise with the ceiling lit brightly red and some scuddy clouds in the east adding additional interest. More wind but not so much rain forecast for today. The late fall storms are a special part of our place (gales of November and all that...)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Being transported - with a nod to steven wright

A work of art, a piece of music, a dance, a story can take you from the hub-bub of where you are to, at least in your mind, a more serene place. From the ordinary to the extraordinary. Performances can be moving. We may say of a less satisfying performance, ‘it did not transport me.’

I was driving through town the other day with a van of students heading toward a field site. The scene was not at all hub-bub-ish, just an ordinary drive through town, but the radio caught my attention with a piano rendition of one of the Brahms symphonies. I kept my mind on the serious business of driving, but listened more closely to the music and found that it put me in a different frame of mind, in a different place.

Since we were on the way to the Monacle Lake woodland, one of my favorite field sites, I thought about the feeling one gets when viewing a favorite landscape. Can we say it takes you away like art takes you away? Where does it take you? Aren’t you already there?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lake Owners' Associations: Neighbors joining forces to protect their place

One way some people interact with a favorite place they visit is to own a piece of it. Welcome to cottage country. For us year around residents, knowing that others want to own seasonal homes in our locale helps us remember how special our place is. The economic planners love seasonal residents and the economic vitality they add to a place.

One particular entity within cottage country is the Lake Owners’ Association. I was not familiar with this concept until we moved here several years ago. Until then, I had not lived in places that were so desirable to visit that people owned seasonal homes there.

Property owners around lakes form Lake Owners’ Associations to protect the value of their special place, the lake. For some lakes, anyone owning property on that lake must belong to the Association. Part of the dues paid to the Association go for environmental stewardship of the lake. Invasive species management, fisheries management, use regulations (such as horsepower limitations on motorboats) are handled by the Association. Some Associations monitor water quality (e.g., sampling aquatic macroinvertebrates) and species of concern (e.g., loons) in partnership with local conservancies or other environmental organizations. That type of lake owners’ associations are not to be confused with a homeowners’ association that promulgates restrictive covenants to regulate the minute details of life in the suburbs. I’m referring to associations that protect the environmental values of the property owners’ shared resource.

Such associations are not limited to lakes, there are terrestrial versions as well, but the lake versions are common up here on the inland lakes of Northern Michigan (and I imagine elsewhere in lake cottage country).

Last week I had the pleasure of assisting a local lake owners’ association by completing an invasive plant species survey of their lake. I didn’t find any big trouble, just a few pesky plants in a few spots that can be managed. Some lake owners’ associations don’t get too concerned about invasive plants until they start fouling propellers, so it’s nice to know that some are proactive about potential problems.

Imagine puttering around with the association manager on his low horsepower pontoon boat on a beautiful fall day on a beautiful lake after most of the property owners have left for the season. A few property owners were still there, and were out enjoying the day. As we passed, they caught up on news and arranged appointments for the manager to do various chores. I don’t know if Lake Woebegon has a Lake Owners’ Association, but if it does, I rather imagine it would be like what I saw.

Public access to lakes is great, but not all lakes can be publically owned. The ones that are privately owned do well if they have a Lake Owners’ Association looking after them. So here’s a shoutout to the associations that are out there keeping their places special in positive ways.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Real, Local Adventure

The area in which I live is sometimes referred to as ‘geographically isolated.’ Although we have a town of 70,000 right across the river/international border, it is some distance to even a medium-sized US town. A few villages are 20 to 30 minutes away. There’s a lot of open space, much of it public land. It’s easy to get yourself some distance away from others.

This ability to get away from others factors into our sense of place. There’s something about knowing that you’re some distance from potential rescue that lends a true sense of adventure to even an afternoon’s outing. The wise adventurer is prepared for most eventualities, but things happen. Many of us have stories about how we’ve found ourselves in some predicament or another, but I do not wish to regale you with such tales at this time. Suffice it to say that a recent event involving an colleague’s experience led me to realize that one of the ways in which we interact with our place, one of the ways in which our sense of place informs our lives up here, is the fact that a trip into the woods and fields can become a real adventure.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Next time you're in Munusing...

One of the ideas of this discussion is how we interact with our places, and one of the ways we interact is in gathering-place businesses. Local coffee shops and cafes, bookstores, and other businesses invite us to linger and socialize. It's good for building community and it provides a livelihood to the owners and workers. The business supports the town and the town supports the business. It's a place to slow down a bit and have conversations with each other. It's good for our mental health as well as business.

One such business is Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore in Munising, Michigan. A friend suggested that it was worth a stop and it surely is. A large selection of new and used books along with coffees, teas and treats nice people. So I forward the recommendation on to you. check it out in person or http://www.fallingrockcafe.com/

I stopped briefly late one evening on my way to Marquette. Although it was officially closed, they invited me to come on in and get some coffee. Coffee was good, book collection looked interesting but I didn't have time to browse. Steve Riekki was there promoting U.P., his coming of age novel set in the UP.

You know you live in a cool place when it's the setting of many books.
What's your favorite UP-placed book? What's your recommended gathering place businesses that we may not know of?

Monday, September 20, 2010

One more thought about west and north

I like the mountains. I like the north woods. It's a different kind of appeal. The mountains demand your attention; the north woods invite your attentions, invite you to sit back, listen for the loons, take a canoe out, sit in the Adirondack chair.

report from the west part 4 and wrap up

Snoqualmie, Washington
Just east of Seattle is the gorgeous Snoqualmie Falls. As nice as it is, how do you attract a steady stream of tourists to a somewhat out-of-the-way area in the middle of so many other great tourist destinations? The beauty of the waterfall is not sufficient. There's lots of other great spots. Thus, Snoqualmie has taken a combined approach to attracting tourists.

Many years ago, a power company installed a hydro plant at the falls. It did not destroy the falls in doing so. The hydro plant is not really even noticeable. But the company that runs the hydro plant is either voluntarily helping maintain the park around the falls or has been convinced by the town or the regulatory agency to do so. I’m not sure which is the case, but the result is a very nice, well-kept, very inviting park around the falls. And there’s no entry fee.

A fancy hotel on the falls actually adds to the charm of the park. It’s not a wilderness experience, but neither is it tacky like the area around some other famous waterfall that will remain nameless.

For those interested in the history and culture of the area, a series of interpretive signs provides that information.

The park is a few miles off the freeway, but a very attractive boulevard invites people to make that drive.

So even if you have what should be a good tourist destination, you can't be successful by sitting back and letting it attract on its own. You still have to do some placemaking.

Dubois, Wyoming
Coming back from Yellowstone National Park and on the way to Ft. Collins, Colorado, we stopped overnight in Dubois, Wyoming. Dubois is in central Wyoming on US287. We lived in Ft. Collins for several years in the mid 80s to mid 90s and often went to Yellowstone via US287.

My recollection from back then was that Dubois was a small ranching town slowly drying up. Either my recollections are incorrect or Dubois has successfully transitioned to a more prosperous town that takes advantage of tourism. It’s a nice, small town that incorporates the traditional economy with the newer economics of the west (i.e., recreationalists) . We stayed in a nice motor court and had breakfast at the café next door. A Prius still sporting an Obama bumper sticker was parked next to a dual-axle F-250 with a bumper sticker that made a decidedly more conservative point. In the café, I cannot say that retired ranchers and kayakers were necessarily chumming it up, but there did seem to be a more welcoming atmosphere than one sometimes finds in other small towns that don’t like tourists for some reason.

As Dubois seemed to show, blending the traditional and newer economies is not about turning the place over to newcomers and forgetting about the existing economy. It’s about making room for both. I think back to when I lived in Colorado and sympathized with the resistance to the Californians. In the late 80s there was an influx of Californians. Prices of property soared, places were becoming gentrified and those Californians and their attitude!

The west has changed, in some places beyond recognition even from the early 1990s. One can fight change or one can be in a position to have to adapt to change. Sometimes change can be made into something good. (Indeed some places that could use some invigoration have been bypassed.)

Just as there’s been a change from Old to New West, up here in the North we're seeing a change from Old to New North. Some places up here have worked to bring out the good features such a change can bring while conserving the good features of the Old North. Other places still need to reach out to facilitate some of that positive change and not be left behind. Other places where the New North economy isn’t coming any time soon have another direction to take. Some planners have studied the transition that occurred in the west and offer lessons for us to learn. We just need to pay attention to them.

SIDEBAR: How many New Wests have there been?
Let’s see…I’m not a historian, but it seems to me that there was the transition from an Old West of trappers and traders to a New West of the railroad, mining, timber and ranching barons. Then there was a transition to a New West of families and more permanent towns and the amenities that come with that (with the Native Americans losing at each of these transitions).

Most recently there was the transition to the New West of affluent recreationalists, knowledge workers, and strong environmental regulations. As things changed, some economies prospered, other economies and the towns they supported faded. Can we from the past and figure out how to adapt to change and incorporate change for broader prosperity?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Report from the west Part 3. Wallace, Idaho

We made our way south to pick up I-90 just east of the Montana – Idaho border. For dinner we stopped in Wallace, Idaho and found a very nice dinner and a town that’s capitalized on its history as a mining town (http://wallace-id.com/). Wallace also figured prominently in the Big Burn of 1910, a fire that covered 3 million acres of forest in Idaho and Montana.

I have to admit that we stopped because our GPS receiver showed a cluster of local-sounding restaurants in Wallace and we were specifically looking for a local restaurant. Those GPS things do come in handy sometimes.
Wallace seems to be working, as shown by a critical mass of restaurants and shops, a nice visitor’s center and other interpretive features and, when we were there anyway, a steady stream of customers.

Wallace has the advantage of being situated a) near ski resorts on the east and west sides (which brings well-heeled tourists through), b) situated in a narrow mountain valley right on I-90 (which makes it very visible) and c) an economy that benefits from a still-active mining industry.

The latter point has its drawbacks, though. Just east of Wallace is a sign on the river warning people not to come in contact with the stream due to the legacy of mining discharges into the stream. According to a sign posted on a business in Wallace, EPA has a plan to remediate the legacy pollution but some locals are opposed to the plan due to its potential impacts on the mining industry. The present mining activities are not adding pollution to the river, according to a flier I read in the restaurant. The flier stated that the mining activity is now environmentally sound (maybe the ore doesn’t contain sulfur and, reading between the lines, the environmental sound-ness may be due to the fact that the ore is shipped off for processing elsewhere).

Wallace seems to have succeeded in mixing extractive industry and tourist industry (and in a more sensible way than trying to make the Berkely Pit in Butte MT sound like a tourist attraction).

Monday, September 13, 2010

Report from the west. Part 2. East vs. West of Glacier National Park

We traveled through eastern Montana (M200, M24, US2) to East Glacier, MT. Lots of nice, wide open country, but lots of towns that prosperity has either never found or has departed from. Sustainability means something different in small towns in the plains than it does in sprawling suburbs. The suburbs worry about becoming too similar to everywhere else, the small towns worry about staying alive.
On the east side of Glacier National Park is the Blackfeet Reservation, which has not been smiled upon by prosperity. According to the tribe’s website, 2009 should mark a turnaround toward alleviating the crushing unemployment rate the tribe has been suffering from. I hope so.

The town of East Glacier is a nice, small resort town. We have a new-found appreciation for the old-school motor-court motels one finds in such places.
Comparing the east and west side of the park demonstrates the economic advantages of being close to a major destination. Because the closer, major population centers are to the west, more more park visitors come in from the west and thus the communities to the west of the park are prospering. Lesson: if you get to pick which side of a destination your town situated, pick the side through which a greater number of affluent visitors travel.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Report from the west. Part 1

I write this as we’re driving across eastern Washington. Don’t worry, I’m not driving just now, someone else is. I’m a passenger. I don’t text and drive let alone write on my laptop while driving. Not even on straight, low traffic western interstates with long sight-lines.

From the Soo, we followed the south shore of Lake Superior to Duluth, went across northern Minnesota and central North Dakota, across Montana (whew! That’s a big state E to W) to Glacier National Park and on to the Olympic Peninsula. Except for the north side of eastern Montana, it was familiar country. My academic training conditioned me to observe the natural environment; my more recent interest in sustainable, place-based economic development led me to look for what seems to be going right or not so right in the communities we visited. I saw examples of both. I won’t comment on the large, famous places. Instead I’ll comment on smaller, out-of-the-way places that may hold some placemaking lessons for the small, out-of-the-way place in which I live and work.

Medora, North Dakota
This former ranching community has capitalized on being the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park (http://www.nps.gov/thro/). Teddy Roosevelt isn’t the most popular tourist destination in the country but it has its fans (including me). The park shows off the scenery and ecology of the Little Missouri River Badlands. A pull-off from the freeway offers a view of the badlands without having to enter the park. I think that the view entices people into the park and does not siphon people away from the park entrance gate (and the park entrance fees), but in any case, one lesson is that you’ll do better if you’re right on the freeway. But another lesson is that you need to convince people to slow down and get off the freeway.

The buildings in Medora’s business district all follow a unified architectural theme that suggests old west. The park and the town seem to work together to combine the natural features and the history into fueling visitors’ imaginations with the early days of cattle ranching in the western US. One change in the area since my time there in the late 1970s is mountain biking. Mountain bikes are available for rent from a shop in town. The terrain makes for good mountain biking, but Medora hasn’t become a mountain bike destination in the way that Moab, Utah has. That’s maybe a good thing.
We had a late breakfast in a café frequented by tourists and locals. I find it pleasant to have that kind of mix. The locals didn’t seem to mind it, either. We felt welcome.
Medora has done a good job of making a very attractive gateway to a natural and historical site. Their theme and their desire to capitalize on what visitors want seems to be working for them.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Place Based Education

I took a walk the other day through a woodland which is on the grounds of one of our local elementary schools. I had walked it several times when our son was younger, especially when he was in school there. This time he and I were looking for any invasive plants or out-of-the-ordinary plants to report to Terri, the teacher who uses that woodland in her 5th grade class.

The woodland is only about 5 acres but it has a nice combination of large trees of several species. The woodland is old enough to have built up some amount of downed wood (coarse woody debris) and uneven microtopography. The students already do a number of projects at the site. Another project could be to monitor salamanders. The coarse woody debris should be good for salamanders and students could use that hands-on, in-their-own-backyard work to learn better about salamanders, forest habitat quality, and the concern for loss of biodiversity of amphibians not just globally but also locally.

That's how this handy on-campus field site helps the students understand the woodlands that are so much a part of our place here in Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula. Textbooks, class videos, the cable channels and the national magazines do a nice job of explaining global issues, such as the plight of the rainforests. Students need to know about global issues. But they also need to know about conservation needs in their local community. Terri does a nice job of integrating local conservation into her in-the-class curriculum -- and not just in her science classes. Language arts, social science and other topics make natural connections to lessons learned in the woods.

She also incorporates these opportunitites into outside-the-class curriculum. Like her, many teachers have discovered that by getting their students outside, in this case in the woodland, the students will become more engaged and interested in school and will thus do better academically (and even on standardized tests). The engagement can be in an environmental setting, it can be history and culture, it can be local social issues such as local hunger and poverty or local issues with youth or the aged. It’s called place-based education. It uses the local community as the classroom. It builds sense of place, stewardship of the place and builds future social capital. These kids will grow up and be willing to be civic leaders, help put together projects and groups, run for school board, and so on.

This particular grade school has a woodland on site. Some clever designer way back when made that happen. Not all schools have that resource. For those that don’t have an on-site woodland, teachers can find a local stream, park, open space, garden or other place with some plant life for nature-based enrichment/engagement. Cultural or historical sites would be the place for that kind of engagement. Every school has access to social service agencies for that kind of engagement. Any and all of those avenues for student involvement in the local community build sense of place, stewardship of place and social capital. These projects get students involved in a concrete way rather than just in the abstract. This kind of real-world, hands-on approach to education goes beyond facts learned for a standardized test or even ‘critical thinking skills’ and lets students see what they can do and will be doing to make their world a better place.

SIDEBAR: Service Learning
A specific strategy for place-based education is service learning. Students do projects that involve them directly with agencies to help address the problems. Students research the problem, meet with agency staff to find a suitable project, help design the project, carry it out and report on it. That’s powerful learning, especially when the students complete some reflection on what they did, how they did it, what they learned by doing it, and how they now may see the world a bit differently. In the case of Terri’s students, we may end up putting them to work in invasive plant control in the school woodland, but the possibilities are limit-less.

If you work in an agency or organization that could work with local K-12 or college/university students, let the teachers in your area know that you’d be interested in looking at the possibilities of working together.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A place of recreational boating

I thought I had seen recreational boating before. But I'd not seen anything like the inland waterway in northern Michigan. That's a place of recreational boating.

This past Sunday we rented a pontoon boat at Indian River Marina and boated through the inland waterway (http://www.irchamber.com/inlandwaterway.htm). It was wonderful. The waterway consists of a series of lakes connected by rivers. The Native Americans used it to get from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. In the late 1800s, commercial steamers carried passengers, mail and freight through the waterway from Crooked Lake to Lake Huron. Railroads proved to be the less expensive alternative and the commercial traffic on the waterway ceased. But then the tourists arrived. Now hundreds of boats traverse the waterway each summer weekend (and I'm sure plenty on the weekdays, too), bringing a wealth of tourist dollars to the communities along the waterway.

The waterway makes for a very enjoyable day of boating. Where the river goes through towns (such as Indian River and Alanson), one can view the cottage lifestyle. And what a lifestyle it appears to be from one who doesn’t have quite that leisurely of summers. The river is lined with many well-kept cottages/houses (along with the sheet piling on the shorelines), but the majority of the river system is natural habitat. It appears to be in pretty good shape, but I understand that zebra mussels have moved into the lakes. From the freeway overpass, I had seen a profusion of purple loosestrife in years past, but I did not see so much this year. Perhaps some beetles had been released there.

Based on my limited experience in the area, the inland waterway seems to be one of those natural features (ammended with some dredging)that’s turned into a prime tourist destination. The small swing-span bridge that let boats traverse the low clearance of a residential street represents an investment by the town of Alanson in the waterway. Perhaps in recognition of the importance of the waterway to the tourist economy, Tuscarora Township (Indian River area) has proposed a millage for the Veteran’s Pier project.

I don't know how much the area promotes the waterway. Maybe it doesn't need much promotion because everyone seems to know of it already. It's been a tourist destination for decades. One change over the years is the decrease in squirt gun activity between boats. One must now know that the other boat is willing to engage in consensual water play before firing. We wouldn't want the ever present cell phones to be at risk.

Not all communities have a built-in attraction of this kind. but the ones along the inland waterway have learned to take advantage of it. I think our community of Sault Sainte Marie could learn a little more about pleasure boating as an industrial cluster.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Recess For All

I’m always happy to see kids playing outside at recess when I go past a grade school, especially if they are in unstructured play. I’m a bit surprised school districts still do recess, since there is no Standardized Test for Recess Skills and no alarm going out that we’re in danger of losing out to other countries in Recess Innovations. I’m glad that school districts recognize that kids need to burn off their excess energy, they need to let their mind wander, they need a time for play, they need a time where they get to make some of the rules.

But it’s not just kids that need recess. So do you adults. Psychologists warn us that we cannot keep our focus for hour after hour at work. We need breaks. We need to stop taking lunch at our desks. We need to get up and move, get up and let our mind appropriately wander on a break (so it doesn’t at work).

When city planners are thinking of placemaking, they can think of recess for adults. What kind of places could there be near offices and other work locations so that workers could take a quick walk? Or a place to take their lunch? Ideally, such places would be tied to the unique and special features of the place – a view of the river, a park with a native plants garden, a historical or cultural feature – and would offer a chance for people to interact with each other and the place.

Recess is a spontaneous break in the day. No special planning is required. We need places for that. In grade school, we also took field trips (do they still do that?). Field trips require a bit more planning, they need to be scheduled and perhaps require some special gear. By analogy, places for ‘field trip for adults and families’ are where one could, say, go kayaking in the river or riding a bike along the river right in town after work or for a few hours on a weekend (i.e., without taking up the whole day). Adults need to remember how field trips made a nice break in the school routine (and a good way to learn something new) and plan some field trips for themselves for just a few hours. Otherwise, we put off our fun for a major vacation that may or may not happen and we don’t get to know our place as well as we should.

Yes, take the great vacation to some other place, learn about the world outside your place, but don’t forget to go on recess and field trips in your own place.

Buying Fun
When I see the commercials for resorts, cruises, theme parks and other components of the vacation industry, I can’t help but wonder whether we’ve gotten to the point that we pay others to do so much for us that we also must pay others to make us have fun. Can placemaking be about do-it-yourself, everyday fun? Can we make family memories inexpensively, right in our own place?

Monday, July 19, 2010

It’s the kind of place where people pick wild blueberries

This past weekend was our annual foray into the woods to pick wild blueberries. The season was earlier than usual but the crop was excellent. Plenty of berries in nice clusters that make for easier picking. It’s a family tradition for us as well as many other families in this area. Everyone has their favorite spot.

It made for a very enjoyable few hours. It’s always nice to be in the woods, but this past Saturday afternoon was especially nice. It was warm enough, but not too warm to be comfortable in long sleeves and pants. The cool, dry breeze kept the bugs off for the most part (but it wouldn’t be a visit the UP woods without a few bites).

It’s also one of those nice activities that lets your mind wander. I began to wonder why it is so nice to go pick blueberries. It’d be much easier, and cheaper to buy them from someone who collects and sells them, especially when you factor in travel costs (we drove about 40 miles round trip) and the time that could be ‘billable time’ to a project (2 hours by two professional types…). So according to the economists, there must be some utility we derive from picking them ourselves. I guess there’s just something about going out and getting them yourself. Part of the fun is finding just the right patches within our usual spot. Part of it is that it is an annual tradition.

And maybe it’s the fact that we live somewhere where berry picking is a thing people do. We’ve lived in places where one cannot do such things, so we appreciate the fact that it’s there and we’d do well to take advantage of that opportunity.

And maybe it’s the chance to do some daydreaming (I had mages of Native Americans picking berries to make into pemmican to sustain them through the winter). Or maybe it’s the satisfaction of seeing a big bucket of berries that and anticipating the pies, muffins, pancakes, jelly and more to come throughout the following months until we’re out picking again next year.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It's a place where people...

In thinking about sense of place, it occurs to me that one can sum up the sense of a place by filling in the statement “This is a place where people…”

For example, I spent the previous weekend in the Kansas City area, where I grew up. We crossed town to make the lunch pilgrimage to the original Arthur Bryant’s. We had an errand to run in Swope Park, we had dinner at a Mexican Restaurant on SW Blvd, we did the Boulevard Brewery Tour. We drove by the Plaza but did not stop. We took the obligatory drive down Ward Parkway. But most of the time we were in the Shawnee Mission area.

Shawnee Mission is a sprawl-o-topia. Some of the major street intersections would be indistinguishable from an intersection in a suburb of Dallas, Denver, or Detroit, especially south of 87th. But the merged towns of Shawnee, Overland Park, Lenexa, and others, have retained some of their original character in their ‘old’ downtown areas. And it is a place where people , well, for one example, encounter history every day.

The name originates from the Methodist Mission to the Shawnee Indians. The Mission is a historical site with the building and surrounding grounds open as a park. Sante Fe Blvd tracks the route of the Sante Fe trail and a number of signs designate sites of several trails that originated in what is now the metro area. Other historical sites in the metro area include Loose Park in Kansas City, Missouri, the site of the Civil War Battle of Westport and interpretive signs tell the story (we visited there, too). I’d be curious, though, to ask how many people know the history. A place where people _can_ encounter history is not the same as a place where people do encounter history. As people zoom about on the freeways each day (and residents of a sprawling city, they surely do), they should be thinking of the traffic and not the history the freeway paved over. In our small town of Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, it’s easier to notice the history.

Like many suburbs, in the Shawnee Mission neighborhoods, people can go out for a walk or jog in the morning and greet any number of neighbors. And it’s a place where people do greet each other in such encounters. I had the pleasure of running with my brother around the 1,000m pathway at a local park. Some clever park designer provided this nice, convenient way of running an exact distance around a nice park with just enough topography and views to keep it from seeming like a running track. It made for a nice run.

A Suburban/Rural Contrast
I also had a nice run yesterday, but in a contrasting site. As I ran the country roads adjacent to our home, I saw a kestrel trying to make headway in a breeze, I flushed a mamma grouse and her 6 chicks from their roadside hiding spot, and I saw a coyote amble across a field (luckily for the chicks, about ½ mile away heading in the opposite direction, for now anyway). But I didn’t see any neighbors. Not better, just different.

I’d like to hear about your places. Fill in the blank. “It’s a place where people…”

Suburban History?
Recently in the town of Overland Park, Kansas, a local fixture of a motel closed shop. It’s large sign, which predated sign code but was grandfathered in, was just moved from the site of the motel to the local history museum.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bye or cell?

Yesterday I had the opportunity to hike along about a mile of northern Lake Huron shoreline. I thoroughly enjoyed scrambling over the limestone cobble and boulders, noticing the plants I knew, but mainly looking for plants I didn’t know so I could learn them. I was just west of Cedarville, where the shoreline offers views of open Lake Huron but with the added visual interest of inlets and peninsulas and small islands.

I had my cell phone with me and did conduct a few brief business calls as I hiked. Cell phone? On a hike on Lake Huron shores? If I were to observe someone else doing that, I’d think ‘leave the cell phone at home, enjoy your hike!’ But it occurred to me that having my cell phone and being able to conduct those few, brief business calls is what made it possible for me to take the hour or so to do the hike (the hike was worked in between some other business I had in the area.)

So here’s my rationale (rationalization?). Let me know if it makes sense. If the cell phone makes it possible for you to be out there, take it along, but make sure it’s for brief, necessary calls (or to share your sense of wonder with someone you otherwise would have liked to have with you). If you can take the day off of business, by all means do so and clear your mind. Be sure to have some days like that. But if the choice is cell phone vs. not going, take the cell phone with you for a few, brief calls but keep the focus of your hike on where you are, not on the phone call. How’s that for a compromise between being connected and being in nature?

(I know of some lodge that use the fact that they are out of cell phone reach as a selling point for people to vacation there.)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Celebrating a place

This past week was Engineering Day, the one day out of the year that the public is invited to tour much of the locks complex here in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. It’s a big day for the Sault. People come from all around to tour the locks. I couldn’t make it this year, but have attended in years past and always enjoyed crossing over the locks and seeing the inside of the buildings.

The locks are important for the Sault. The facility employs a number of people, both in the direct operation and in ongoing maintenance. If the ‘super locks’ really comes to be, construction jobs for that project will make a substantial contribution to the local economy. But aside from that super project, the locks probably generates as much economic activity from tourism as from operation and maintenance. The locks are impressive and it is fun to see ships lock through. Many thousands of people visit the Sault each year, with a visit to the Sault locks as their main agenda item.

So Engineering Day helps us celebrate the locks. The local electric utility piggybacks on the celebration and opens the hydro plant to the public (at ¼ mile long and still running after 100 years, it is something to celebrate. The utility celebrates that the hydro plant generates one-third of the power the utility sells – far above the new renewable portfolio standards.) LSSU’s Aquatic Research Lab, located in the hydro plant, also benefits from the added exposure and a look at the lab’s hatchery operations adds to the interest of the plant tour. The sturgeon are a highlight of the hatchery tour. The International Bridge, another important feature of the twin Saults, gets in the act by hosting the Annual Bridge Walk. It’s a big weekend and a great celebration.

Celebrations of local features helps build a sense of place. Many places have local festivals celebrating natural features, historical events, cultural activities. It brings in tourists but just as importantly, builds the sense-of-place for residents, too. Whether it’s a big 4th of July celebration or an ethnic celebration such as Oktoberfest, it’s a good party and a good reason for people to visit and spend money (for example, Hays, Kansas, where I lived for several years and have family, is clever to combine their Oktoberfest with Homecoming at Fort Hays State University, the local University and my alma mater. It makes for quite a popular party.) Paradise, Michigan has its annual Blueberry Festival coming up in August, Cedarville has its annual Frog Fest coming up in July. The St. Ignace Car Show just wrapped up this past weekend (St. Ignace is getting known for its car show even though the auto industry did not really figure into the town’s history.) The biggest of the festivals in northern Michigan is the Cherry Festival in Traverse City, but that’s off the chart compared to the others.

Here in the Sault, we have an annual art-in-the-park event, a relatively new history festival, and others. Sporting events such as the annual I-500 snowmobile race and various fishing tournaments also bring festivities to town. New for this year is the Sault Marathon. It’s nice to see a diversity of events building up.

What we’re missing in the Sault is a St. Marys River Festival. The river is our signature feature. We should celebrate it. Over the years, Sault, Michigan has held various Locks Festivals and several years ago, the festival was a week-long event featuring a number of musical performances and other entertainments. Apparently that was not sustainable since we have not had a big locks fest since. The local sportsmen’s club held a St. Marys River festival which went well, but I’m not sure whether that has been sustained either. Perhaps the county, city, university, tribes and others should collaborate on bringing a nice, appropriately sized, festival to the Saint Marys River. We need to do more place-making along the river. Maybe a re-invigorated St. Marys River Fest would be a good start. Now we just need a group to come together to get it going.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Serenity Now

Research shows that idly petting your dog or cat lowers your blood pressure. I don’t know if similar research shows the same effect from gazing over a nice stretch of open water. I can only speak for myself.

About 20 some miles downstream of the Sault, the St. Marys River widens into Munuscong Bay. At about 4 miles wide and 8 miles long, it’s an impressive stretch of open water.

In my job as a Biologist, I get to visit Munuscong Bay spring, summer, and fall. I always look forward to those trips and am never disappointed. This past week, I was at the Bay as part of a planning session on invasive plants. Fortunately, Munuscong Bay doesn’t have very much in the way of invasive plants. We want to keep it that way.

One can enjoy waters in many ways. Fishing, boating (fast or slow), studying the natural history, photography, writing, and more. Or one can just take Otis Redding’s advice, even if we don’t have a tide to watch here in the Great Lakes. Instead we can just look out over the water. I don’t agree with Otis, though. It’s not a waste of time. It’s investing time in one’s mental health.

The St. Marys River offers many sites to look out over the serene open water and feel your soul restored. Where's your favorite?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

northern michigan in NYT

Petoskey, Michigan made the New York Times earlier this spring

Check it out, it's a fun story. But it does make Petoskey sound almost like, well, not quite a real place. Petoskey is a real place with a diversity of people, not all of which live in vacation homes.

I like Petoskey. We go there often when we want to go to a different town for a change of scene.

It occurs to me that Petoskey wasn't always the Petoskey we know today. I've heard that that part of Michigan actually used to be hillbilly county and was even the inspiration for Lil' Abner 'though I have not confirmed that story.

Whether the Lil' Abner part is correct, that area of northwest lower Michigan certainly did make a transition from rural outpost to somewhere considered by many to be the place to be, for a large part because it was discovered by the money-ed crowd.

A place doesn't have to become a yacht haven for wealthy people, but somewhere in their history some towns made a transition from 'frontier town' -- the mining, logging, railroad, or other industry that upon which the town sprang up -- to modern town that attracts forward thinking people. That happened in some towns and their economies show it. I am quite interested in seeing whether the place-making movement can help other towns make that transition.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Third Place

Placemakers talk about the third place. Your first and second places are home and work, respectively (at least for those with those priorities). Third places are where you go when you're not at home or at work. Typically it's a cafe. One of the favorite third places in our town is a nice, local cafe, but, similar to being a visitor in a small town church, one needs to be careful in selecting a place to sit. You wouldn't want to sit where Bill and Mark and their crew sit.

Third places are important. One small town in the Great Plains, when faced with the prospect of their one cafe closing, decided to run the cafe as a public enterprise through the library.

When I was in college, our third place was a small grill-style restaurant whose liquour license was limited to beer. That was before the current trend for microbrews and local beers, so there was only one choice for beer. But an upscale microbrew or pub with a wide selection of specialty beer has become a common third place in several towns.

For some towns, the 'upscale' part hasn't quite caught on. Somne towns have a number of traditional downtown bars that may well be third places for their patrons, but to some don't project the image the town is trying to portray. Placemakers find themselves in a similar role of the ladies that worked to convert mining towns, logging towns, railroad towns and other rough-and-tumble towns to 'respectable' towns.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Some skillful placemaking

At its south end, Lake Huron flows into the St. Clair River. Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario are right at the start of the river. Both towns grew up as industrial cities. Sarnia was Canada’s first petroleum refinery and a center of the chemical industry. There is still has an active refinery on the Canadian side of the river. Port Huron grew up as a shipping town, and still bills itself as Michigan’s Maritime City. The riches of the area’s forests, ag fields, and, later, industrial enterprises, and easy shipping of those products, made the town prosperous. Port Huron and Sarnia could have gone the way of other rust belt towns, but some far-sighted placemaking has instead left it a lovely river-front town.

Even though practically none of the natural riverbank remains – it’s all rip-rap and sheet piling – both towns committed to the idea of public access to the river. Public access was a guiding principle as former industrial sites were cleaned up and replaced with offices, public works, mixed use residences and parks. Other than stretches of private homesites that remained private homesites (including luxury homes where fish shacks previously stood), the rest of the river features walkways close enough to the river to fish from. And fishermen use those access points extensively day and night. The immediate proximity to open Lake Huron makes Port Huron/Sarnia a port of choice for boaters (including yacht owners).

One example shows the Port Huron’s commitment to public access. When the new sewage treatment plant went in, the standards called for a fence to exclude riverfront access. Instead the city insisted, against the directives of government agencies, on retaining public access.

Now, thanks to the efforts of the St. Clair River Binational Pubic Advisory Council, projects have begun to reclaim some of the riverfront to more fish-friendly cover on both sides of the river. With all of the waterfront development, a natural stream course isn’t feasible, but sheetpiling and rip-rap are being replaced by shallower-gradient rock walls and gravel. With the reduction in industrial discharges and the clean up of the water treatment systems over the past many years, a thriving fish community occurs, including a healthy sturgeon population.

The cleanup efforts are likely helped by the area’s relative affluence. Although the recession has taken a large toll on personal incomes, the yachts and luxury homes along the river indicate some degree of financial wherewithal remains (and waterfront property appears to be out of the price range of most people, unlike the St. Marys River where ordinary people can live on the river). A local industrialist helped in placemaking by reclaiming a mile of former industrial land to public use, including the Great Lakes Maritime Center.

If you want to see what happens when a town commits to public access to its water front, come see Port Huron/Sarnia. (For a good view of the river front, including the luxury homes, take the tour boat.) You’ll see that with public access, people interact with the river in many positive ways and become motivated to work to improve the place’s qualities.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Normal, Part 2

Part of what makes a place a nice place to live, work and play is what’s considered ‘normal.’ In the most recent posting, I described how walking is becoming the new normal in many places. Of course walking is just one aspect.

Normal could also include tolerance for and indeed support for people looking for all kinds of healthy choices such as availability of outdoor recreation options and even a wide range of food choices. Normal could also include an overall feeling of concern for environmental quality, overall pride in the area’s history and culture, visual appeal of the town. Normal can mean a diversity of desires and opinions. Economic developers stress an area’s feeling of welcoming of new people even if those new people bring slightly different ideas.

I’ve heard both sides of the ‘slightly different ideas.’ One the one hand is the danger of gentrification. As suburbanites move out to the land of working farms, some begin to complain about the sounds, smells and sights of their new neighborhood. They may not think that part of the charm of living in a rural area includes the sound of tractor motors and back-up beepers at 530 AM or the wafting of animal smells or the sight of old equipment. Some townships, upon receiving notifications of purchases of new residential properties in their rural areas, send the new owners a friendly letter explaining a bit about life in the county. These new residents are briefed about what they may expect to see, hear and smell. Farmers in Michigan are protected to some degree from complaints from neighbors. The right-to-farm law in Michigan protects farmers who follow best management practices from nuisance complaints regarding their farming practices (but again, the protections are for those farmers who follow best management practices).

On the other hand, a little gentrification wouldn’t hurt in some places. I recall several years ago hearing a local, long-time resident complaining about these darn new neighbors that ‘want us to have mufflers on all our cars and clean up our junk piles.’ Umm, yes, maybe your old neighbors would like that, too.

There are ways to welcome new people and ideas without losing what made the place appealing to begin with. It takes people working together to plan for it all. People working together to accomplish progress? How normal is that?

I can think of a few places that residents and officials came together for environmental cleanups. Maybe these places could thus be known, if not just for the natural beauty of the area but also for what they were able to accomplish.

Once could be a site on the Detroit River formerly known as the Black Lagoon. With that name, you can perhaps imagine the conditions of the river at that brownfield site. Thanks to hard work by many people, fish now can live in that section of the river and it’s been renamed “Elias Cove.” A mixed use residential development is planned for the site.

Things didn’t work out quite so well for Bay Harbor outside of Petoskey, Michigan. A site contaminated by cement kiln dust was re-fitted to luxury residences only to find the cement kiln dust resurfacing in to Lake Michigan. In the not-to-distant future, it will be known as ‘a place they fixed’ but ‘they’ still have to come up with a workable answer to the question ‘now what?’

Here in Sault, Michigan, three contaminant hot-spots have been cleaned up. The old leather tannery, the old carbide plant and an old manufactured gas plant (the former two represent economic engines of the Sault’s past that required substantial clean up). Still, we have a lot more work to do before we can become knows as ‘the little town that could.’

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Walking: The New Normal?

We’ve generally had a warm, dry, early spring up here in the EUP. You know, the kind of weather that’s called ‘nice.’ Maybe because of the 'nice' weather, I’ve seen a lot of people out walking. Not just in town, but also along rural roadways. And it’s not just people who’ve lost their driver’s licenses to DUIs!

It’s looked to me like over the past several years, more and more people are walking as a way to enjoy being outside, as a way to get some exercise, and as a good way to socialize with one’s walking partner(s). It’s great to see.

Not that many years ago, walking was not so normal. How many of you had this experience? You were out for a stroll and someone you knew came by in their car. They’d stop to offer a ride because obviously you’d run out of gas or for some other reason were forced to walk instead of drive. It happened to me several times. I could hardly dissuade those well-meaning acquaintances in their attempts to offer me a ride. They’d leave somewhat puzzled why I’d prefer to walk.

Again, it’s great to see the new interest in walking. Not to be pushy, but if we could see more people walking as a form of transportation, not just recreation, that’d be even better.

Pleasant surroundings, pleasant weather, a safe route, all encourage walking. Towns are looking into walkable communities projects, including walkability audits, designated coffee break walking routes around offices, maps and guides to choice walking routes, walk/ride to work/school days. It all helps promote walking. But what might really promote it is the relatively new, positive attitude about walking.

So wouldn’t part of a place’s sense-of-place revolve around what’s normal for that place? Changing attitudes can be a slow process and probably has to happen organically, but how can we encourage changes in attitude like that? How did walking get to be the new normal?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Place Setting

Place setting: (noun) The locale in which an author selects his or her story to occur.

People get emotionally attached to the stories they read in print or see on television or in the movies. Some readers and/or viewers get so attached, they want to visit the location in which the story was set.

Tourism groups capitalize on such interest. The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island still gets mileage from “Somewhere In Time,” an old movie with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. Marquette, Michigan still benefits from being the setting for the book and film “Anatomy of a Murder.” Seney, Michigan uses Hemmingway stories to draw tourists. Central Iowa cashed in on “The Bridges of Madison County.” Some communities in Kansas gave in and began promoting themselves based on “The Wizard of Oz.” Sometimes the tourists get ahead of the local chamber of commerce. Apparently fans of “Twilight” were flocking to the Pacific northwest looking for the story’s locales (those locales are now capitalizing on it).

Conversely, place-based fiction uses a place’s existing popularity as a hook for readers. A number of books are placed here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and it’s fun to recognize familiar places in the stories. And it’s fun to live in a place deemed worthy as a locale for so many stories.

I have not yet heard of tourist agencies commissioning authors to develop stories just to increase tourist interest (i.e., a town’s version of the song ‘GTO’), but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some have. I know of one university that only half-jokingly was encouraging an author to mention the U in his next work placed here in the UP and thereby getting some students to choose to come here based on that.

Place setting: (noun) The arrangement of plates, bowls, glasses, utensils, napkins and mats in preparation of a meal.

Riding the coattails of authors’ works can be a bonus but is probably not the best place-making strategy. Communities can write their own stories, so to speak. They can make investments that put the features in place to encourage particular activities for which their communities can become known.

A place can capitalize on a natural event. Birders are prime ecotourists (in fact, the Audobon Society has members leave calling cards at restaurants and hotels stating that birders are supporting the local economy). North Platte, Nebraska draws lots of tourists in the spring when the sandhill cranes are migrating through by the thousands. Whitefish Point draws some birders as well, but not as many as North Platte. Could more publicity work for Whitefish Point?

A place can become known for people activities. Interlochen, Michigan is known as a center for the performing arts, mainly due to the Interlochen Academy. Curtis, Michigan, a village up here in the UP, is hoping to take a similar approach, but without the academy. Curtis has invested in an arts center and is drawing artists and writers for workshops. Maybe it will become Curtis’ claim to fame.

It recently occurred to me that all of the Michigan waters from the tip of Whitefish Bay clear to the end of the St. Marys River are in Chippewa County. But it’s not enough just to say that we have these spectacular waters. We need to make investments that would support the ways in which people can interact with the waters and each other. It’s not ‘place making.’ The place is already here. It’s helping people take advantage of what the place already offers.

Place setting: (verb) Preparing a place for people to enjoy. Facilitating the interactions of people with the features of a place.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Public Places – For a Fee

Of all the fascinating spots here in the Eastern UP, one of my favorites is the forest between Monacle Lake and Mission Hill. It’s a bit different than the other forest stands in our area. It’s an older forest -- large maples dominate the canopy; small maples grow beneath. There’s a good number of large standing dead trees and large fallen trees. It’s in the gap-dynamics phase of forest development, in which larger trees blow down and thereby create openings for new trees, which in this forest include yellow birch and oak. The large yellow birches have taken on a good deal of character. Enough light penetrates to the florest floor to support a diversity of spring wildflowers including dutchman’s breeches, solomon’s seal, gold thread, and many others. Toward the lake, there’s a substantial number of yew, large white pines and large hemlocks but in this particular stand there are no conifers. It’s interesting ecologically and makes for a very pretty scene.

I’ve been taking my ecology class there for all of the past 15 years I’ve been teaching here at Lake State. This week, I had the summer-session ecology class there. As we were preparing to leave the parking lot, a student asked if I had noticed that it was a day-use fee area. I had not. It had never been before. We walked over to the sign and sure enough, one is to pay $4 per vehicle per day to use the site.

This US Forest Service site includes, in addition to the trail back into the woods, a picnic area and beach on the small lake. A boat ramp, an accessible fishing pier, and a campground round out the amenities. There’s always been a fee for camping, but the day use fee is a new feature. Apparently the US Forest Service needed to supplement its budget to pay for the cleaning and maintenance of the day use area. That’s understandable. Budgets are tight. There are real costs associated with keeping such a site in the kind of condition that makes it attractive for people to use. And the day use fees don’t cover those costs entirely, they only help cover them. But I think it’s too bad that the Forest Service had to institute the fee. I can afford to pay $4 to use the site. And there’s probably a USFS annual pass to put on the windshield next to the annual state park pass (if we were closer to the national parks, we’d have one of them, too, to show off on our automobile). But I fear it will have a chilling effect on site use. When choosing whether to come to Monacle Lake or to any of a number of still-free sites nearby on Lake Superior, my guess is that their choice will be to save the $4, especially for those for which the $4 represents a splurge. I hope the fee idea doesn’t spread to the USFS’s Iroquois Point Lighthouse nearby.

When we lived in Ft. Collins, Colorado, we watched as the turn-offs to public access to the Cache la Poudre River were converted to pay sites. One-by-one, the feds, the state even the county began charging fees. The town park on the river was still free, but maybe it’s a fee site, too. Somehow it was kind of sad to see what used to be free access turn into exclusive access.

There is the philosophy that people that use a public resource should pay for it and people that don’t use it shouldn’t have to. There’s also the philosophy that sites for healthful recreation represent a public good, and thus justifiably supported through general revenues. Then there’s the new economy of place-making which states that a strong, positive sense of place pays off by attracting entrepreneurial knowledge workers to an area. I wonder if a having to pay to access public sites adds to an area’s strong, positive sense of place?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Place-making for fun and profit

Earlier this week, I attended an economic development workshop here in Sault, Michigan. Michigan has a lot of catching up to do in terms of economic development. After decades of over-reliance on one industry, and a none-too-nimble industry sector at that, the state needs to figure out how to do things differently. Michigan State University’s Land Institute is traveling the state this summer to encourage regions to develop strategies to position themselves in the ‘new economy.’ There’s likely to be such an initiative underway in your area. Lend your support and point-of-view. Contact your local regional planning authority about how to get involved.

A large part of this initiative is to help communities and regions develop a strong, positive sense of place. Communities and regions with a strong, positive sense of place are better able to attract knowledge workers and knowledge workers are the new economic drivers. These are the people who choose where to live then figure out how to build themselves a job there, and in so doing build jobs for others. That’s a bit of an over-simplification but it does capture the main point of the initiative. The research regarding successful regions and communities bears this approach out.

The built environment figures heavily into this approach, but places cannot be manufactured, they have to develop organically based on a region and the communities’ existing features. One of our key features is the St. Marys River. But it is not enough for us to simply say, ‘Look how wonderful the St. Marys River is.’ We need to show how this fabulous resource provides opportunities for people to do things they want to do and cannot do elsewhere. And then we need to build on the natural features, adding amenities that let people do those things. Parkways along the water. Attractive access points to the river. Places people want to be to do things they want to do. We need to provide specific reasons to go down to the river.

What gives the river – or any place -- its strong, positive sense of place is how people interact with it. Making that connection is what place-making is about.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Common Place

By "common place," I mean a place a community shares in common. Too bad that when written as one word, “commonplace,” it ordinary, unremarkable, even clichéd or trite. The place we share in common may be anything but ordinary and unremarkable and not at all clichéd or trite. But because we’re surrounded by it all the time, we may begin to think of our place as ordinary and unremarkable. Some young people looking to expand their horizons seem to have to go through a phase of thinking of home as clichéd and trite to propel them outward. We should not think that way. In fact, we should encourage the others we share the place with to see it as extraordinary, truly remarkable, refreshing, even novel.

A small group of us from the university and community spent the past year-and-a-half thinking about a way to celebrate the 40th Earth Day. We had all kinds of ideas, some more workable than others. Then someone in the group suggested a tour of local farms. I thought it was a good idea but have to admit, I was a bit skeptical. We live in a small town in a rural area. Many people have vegetable gardens. We have a popular farmer’s market. We’re surrounded by farmland. We’re not in a metro area where people are separated from farms and gardens. I thought farming was, well, commonplace here. I thought we might get a dozen or so local food advocates to come along to show support for the growing interest in local ag. I was wrong. More than 80 people came on the farm tour. I learned that 1). Farming is remarkable to more people than I thought and 2). Commonplace shouldn’t be confused with common place. The tour was fabulous. People came away with a much stronger sense of what we have to offer in local agriculture, with a stronger sense of place. (I did not go to the tour, but did go to the after tour dinner put on by a local restaurant using almost all local ingredients. Fresh, locally grown food prepared by an expert chef can’t be beat.)

That tour happened only because a few people realized that we need to share a special feature of our place, in this case the feature represented by local ag. What other groups are out there working directly or indirectly to promote some special feature of a place? Of course there’s the land trusts and conservancies, the nature clubs, the historical preservation groups whose main goal is to promote place. What about the bicycling clubs, paddle sports clubs, hiking/trails clubs, cross-country ski clubs? Their goal is to promote particular outdoor recreation, but they’re also promoting the places in which one does that. Likewise, gardening clubs, arts and music groups, the local library and others all help build community, help make a place special, but also help get the word out that our place is special.

Perhaps you don’t think that belonging to, say, a cross-country ski club (or hiking or cycling or paddling, or _____ club ) will enhance your enjoyment of that activity (especially if solitude is one of the things you like about your activity). But it can help enhance others’ enjoyment of it and build appreciation of your place. Clubs not only promote the activity, they also work toward preserving the places to do it, and they help people learn about their place while they enjoy the activity. Are you part of a group – persistent or ephemeral (see sidebar) -- that shows that your common place should not be thought of as commonplace?

A few years ago, the book “Bowling Alone” documented the declining tendency of people to join civic groups. As people spend more time in front of TV, computer and phone screens, they spend less time in civic groups. A later book, “A New Engagement,” countered that view by showing how ‘these kids these days’ really are engaged, just in a different way. (One of the especially popular ways cited in that book is through consumer choice such as selecting fair-trade or other certified products.) Many avenues for promoting places exist whether through ongoing clubs, through modern media, through organizations that form for a special purpose then morph and reform with other informal groupings around other purposes. I’d like to hear about any groups you’ve been involved with that helped build and promote place.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Feel the place

Each week, my weekly schedule of meeting takes me to Sault Ontario’s Civic Centre. Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario was very clever to put their civic offices and in an office building right on the St. Marys River – the river upon which the city was created. In walking up to the building, one can not only see the river, but also hear the sounds of the river (wildlife and human), smell the river (I mean that in a good way), and even feel the microclimate of the river. I generally try to take all those sensations in, even if it’s while I’m hurrying to make my meeting. This week, the bright sunshine of a clear, cool morning and the atmosphere of the river practically forced me to notice. I hope that everyone else coming and going to the Civic Centre, or other riverfront destinations, does, too. It’d be even nicer to see people actually stopping and remarking on the wonderful resource we live on.

A nearby venue lends itself to that more intentional appreciation. Several years ago, Sault Ontario created a riverfront walk that runs about ½ mile from behind the Station Mall (also on the river) down past the Civic Centre. The river walk has really helped build awareness of the river. From what I understand, before that the area was industrial land; not a place people would want to spend time. Now people do spend time there, and in so doing have come to appreciate the river more. We have no hard data to show it, but those of us working on restoring and protecting the river ecosystem have noticed a real uptick in concern about the river since the river walk was built. It’s used extensively all times of the day. It seems that as more people get on the river, they begin to build a stake in the river. They begin to say ‘hey, that’s my river, don’t abuse it!’ In the jargon of this discussion series, the river walk has helped build a stronger sense of place and thus stronger stewardship of the place. Congratulations, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sometimes it is who you are

I recently saw the following quote posted on a colleague’s door: “It’s not who you are, it’s what you do.” At first I thought the point is “what will speak for you is what you do, not what your background is.” I read it the same wey I read “it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,” or, pertinent for this discussion series, “it’s not where you live, it’s how you live.” (There’s also the cynical “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”)

But, as that colleague later explained, she intended the quote to refer to the fact that any one particular activity need not define you and shouldn’t be used by others to define you. She works with non-traditional college students. She meant it to encourage them to retain their ‘who they are’ and not think that their role of college student should elbow out their outside-of-school life of parent, spouse, community member, worker, etc. She wanted to encourage them to strike a balance in their activities and to avoid stereotypes. The idea might come across better with an opening noun, something like “Attorney: It’s not who I am, it’s what I do” (Just kidding, lawyer friends and relatives! Attorneys can be lovely people!)

But for some of us, what we do is a large part of who we are. For many of us, our career isn’t just what we do, it really is part of who we are. My definition of myself certainly includes parent and spouse but I think of what I do – my work in education, conservation, community sustainability – as a large part of who I am. Or is it vice-versa? Is it who I am that dictated that I would work the career I chose? Hmmm. Probably a little bit of both.

Following this train of thought, can ‘where you live’ be a large part of ‘how you live?’ To what extent does place – the aspects of where you live -- inform your life? To the extent can 'where you live' help direct ‘how you live?’ Can positive feelings generated by your place help you get through frustrations and barriers and lead a more positive life?

I’m not sure. Afterall, we talk about ‘sense of place’ not just ‘place’ A place cannot be positive or negative other than as people let it affect them. (Another quote I recently saw was Shakespeare’s “There’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”) Some places have many traits that many people would think positively about. But a place doesn’t define itself. We still need to develop our sense of place if that sense of place is to positively influence our lives. I guess it really is how you live, not where you live. Bu still, knowing about where you live – having a strong sense of place -- can help you choose how you live. Examples anyone?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

gardens and gardening

A sense of place has to do with the feelings one has while being in that place. It may be the historical significance, the cultural richness, the natural beauty. If it’s a sense of place for the place in which we live and work, our sense of place is not just about our current feelings but also about memories of past feelings.

Where we live and work most likely includes some human constructions, i.e., the built environment. Most of us live in a built environment. For a very few, that built environment is a house far from other neighbors. But even that isolated home probably includes some human-created landscaping around the house

The rest of us work or live in a much more built-up environment. We live with many buildings, roads, yards, and many people. Our sense of place thus includes not only the aesthetics of the built environment but also the community and how the built environment and community interact. Does the built environment lend itself to pleasant community or does the built environment isolate people and thwart community? Architects and planners study the traits of a place that most likely will lead to pleasant community. They talk about creating community spaces. Sometimes it works. Soemtimes it doesn’t. There are examples of spaces in which the concepts and data suggested that it should create community, but the community just didn’t gel. Conversely, some places feature thriving community despite the data that would indicate that they shouldn’t. Most often it does work. Places can be made intentionally according to a big plan, or be made organically, piece by piece.

Public gardens are important parts of the built environment. I recently read a wonderful book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, by Robert Pogue Harrison. The author is a professor of literature and his essays are about gardens and what they mean for those that view them and those that tend them. It’s not strictly about making spaces from a landscape architecture point of view, but the ties to literature and spirituality connect places, history and community.

Gardens can be community projects. The gardens thus enhance the community in their tending and in their viewing. For example, Charlevoix, Michigan is famous for the plantings of petunias all along the main highway through town. This tradition started in 1982 with a group of people who wanted to enhance Charlevoix’s natural beauty (http://www.keepcharlevoixbeautiful.org/petunia-story.html).

Some people feel so strongly about improving the appearance of abandoned urban lands that they resort to ‘guerilla gardening,’ which may include tossing ‘seed bombs.’

Private gardens also enhance the built environment. I have seen towns in which almost everyone has some carefully tended plantings around their house or on their patios. As a visitor, it really enhanced my feelings about that town. (But I also know of complexes that limits all owners to two potted plants on the patio. Apparently the homeowners’ association doesn’t want to break up the geometric symmetry of the townhouses with something chaotic like a potted plant.)

Sault Michigan awards ‘Garden of the Year’ prizes to encourage attractive gardens. I don’t think the criteria include working with nature, but maybe they could have a special category for that. Wise gardeners work with the climate, sun exposure and soil to select plants that can do well in the specific areas. Thus native plants are often a good choice. A garden that reflects the characteristics of its place will be unique and not just an imitation of the gardens of some other place.

Given the power of gardening for place making, some towns, including Sault, Michigan, have developed community gardens for growing vegetables. We have more than enough garden space on our property so I have not participated in the community vegetable gardens, but from what I hear, the Sault’s community gardens are growing community as well as vegetables. The gardens and the gardening add to the sense of place. My sense of place for the Sault is enhanced by knowing that it’s the kind of place that does things like putting together a community garden.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Take the time to see your place

The following article was written by a colleague and appeared in our local paper.
I post it with Jim's permission.

Sense of Place
by Jim Lucas

One form of transportation as well as exercise I enjoy is walking and bicycling. For the 22 years I have lived in this community it has helped me to have a better sense of place. A sense of place for me is knowing where the first patch of flowers that bloom in the Spring (south side of St. Mary's rectory two weeks ago), recording on a calendar the last snow of the year (last week, so far), the last ice floating through the locks (Memorial Day 1995), I record annually when the certain birds arrive and leave from my feeder and the last frost of the season.
This quirkiness is part of my training as a biologist. But over the years, it has given me a sense of place, a feeling of what to expect next and what I need to do next for this season. For many years I have kept these thoughts to myself, but I have learned many people also have a sense of place, but for different things.
A good friend has passed on where and when endangered native orchids bloom in our region. Some of the locations are secret and some are on secluded plots on public land. By my friend passing on these secret locations, I learned to identify other locations where these same plants seem to thrive. Understanding the sense of place for these plants has given me a better understanding of their niche and my responsibility to protect this place for future generations.
We live in an old home. It is a very comfortable place, but the mystery of the age of the house and its history always has intrigued me. We have the abstract that tells us who owned it before us. From what I learned, William Bell lived in this house (there is a W. B. etched in the glass on a bedroom window) and there were never any young children living in our home. It was not until we removed years of wall¬paper and we found "H. Carr papered this wall 10th June 1890" that I had a sense that real people built and lived in our home.
While digging in the garden years ago I found a clay marble. I still wonder who the child was who lost it. I also know that our property was built on a former wetland where the spoils of the power canal are the basis for my lawn. Dig more then four inches deep and you find basically stones and broken sandstone.
Understanding the history of my home has given me a better understanding of the place we occupy and that the floors must have been rather dirty until 1902 when Hewlett and Co. laid the sidewalk in the front of the house.
It has been a rather pleasant March and April. There has been a record high temperature set this past week but this last Thursday morning we found that the calendar will say Spring, but winter weather can reach out and grab us just about anytime in this area.
Plants are similar us, they thrive best in some places better then others. Plant biologist study these things and documented the best places for certain plants. I have learned that basil grows best in soils above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. My basil has failed for years and the main reason is because I need to fool the plants that this is Italy or Thailand and not Sault Ste Marie. I plan to put a cover over a raised gar¬den so it keeps it warm during our cool summer nights.
If you want to know about what grows in your region, go to the USDA website and consult the hardiness zone and you can choose what best grows in your region
From my experience, I have found the last full moon, around Memorial
Day, is when it is safe to plant seeds and plants outside of the possibility of frost. But with the possibility of global warming, that is another story for another day.

Jim Lucas is with the Chippewa County Office of Michigan State University Extension Service.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Local Media

Given the important role ‘sense of place’ plays in community planning, public input sessions on community planning often start with some exercise to gauge the participants’ sense of place. Often these exercises are inventories of the community’s assets – the natural, cultural, historical and other features that make the place distinctive for its residents. Does local media get mentioned in these discussions? It should.

The local media can be an important vehicle for building community if a) the media companies are willing to do so and b) if the community members are willing to view that local media.

As a rural resident near a small town, local media for me is the local newspaper, a few local radio stations, a local repeater of a regional public radio network, local repeaters of region-serving broadcast television stations and internet-based media. We don’t get cable out in the country. That’s one of the advantages of living out in the country.

Our local paper is a typical local paper. Maybe 16 pages weekdays, two sections Sunday. No Saturday paper. I didn’t appreciate them dropping the Sunday funnies, but something had to go. Facing declining subscription and thus declining ad revenues, it had to shrink. It cannot afford a staff of reporters or much of an art department. It is still a daily (except Saturday) source of local news not available elsewhere. I also subscribe to a weekly paper from the neighboring county. As a weekly, they do nice, in-depth stories of regional interest.

The local radio stations have some local reportage, as well, and send the news crews out on assignments. It’s nice to see them at the local events.

Our television comes from a regional network of repeaters but the stations take their regionalism seriously and provide adequate coverage all around their region (a radius of more than 100 miles). The regional public radio is also good about providing news coverage of regional concerns.

My favorite of the local internet-based news sources is one particular resident who takes on the role of town crier. She has an extensive email list of civic-minded people who ask to be on her list. When people want to promote an event, they send her an announcement and she emails it out to people on her list. Thanks, Mary, for doing that.

What if we didn’t have local media? And without listeners/readers/viewers there wouldn’t be any. Where would you get reliable, accurate information you need to know in real time? There was the story a few years ago about the train derailment up in Montana that caused a public health emergency, but the news couldn’t get out because the one local radio station had given up locally produced programming in favor of a national robot program. That was before tweets so I guess now everyone could just tweet the news. I’m sure it’d stay quite accurate from person to person.

I heard of one town, that when the local paper folded, the library took on the responsibility of putting out a local paper. That’s how important a local paper was to that community.

So hurray for local media. Maybe your local paper won’t win a Pulitzer, but it is your local paper and needs your support, just like your local artists, musicians, shopkeepers, farmers, educators and the rest of your community does. I’m not talking pity purchase here, I’m talking about local companies providing local value. I know it sounds naïve to say that if local businesses provide value-add, they’ll get customers and I know that it’s hard to provide that added value and still keep costs contained. But I have no choice than to think it’s possible. I don’t want to give up on the possibility of viable local businesses – including local media -- adding to a community’s sense of place.

No Pity Purchase
The message ‘Buy Local!’ is a complex one. Yes, money spent locally circulates locally, building the wealth of your local community. But when you hear ‘Buy Local!’ don’t think pity purchase. It’s an attempt to strike a deal. Your local businesses endeavor to provide value you can’t get elsewhere. They’re asking you to let them try. Don’t just presume that the national chain provides better value. Give the local businesses a try.

I support our local hardware stores, not because I think it’s my civic duty. I spend my money at the local hardware store because I get to tap into their expertise when I purchase something. They have experience doing what I’m trying to do and know what would work best in a particular scenario. It also helps that they know me by name.
I can afford to pay a little more for that value, but often I don’t have to pay more. Often, the local hardware store’s prices are as good or better than the big box store’s prices.

Can a local business continue to deliver that value while containing costs and providing an adequate return on investment for the company’s owners? That’s the life-and-death question for our local businesses. Some can find creative ways to; some cannot. It’s never a good idea to buy an inferior product just to support the provider of that product. It’s always a good idea to be mindful of the entire value involved in a purchase.