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.