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.


  1. Our local sportsmen's club has done quite a bit in the past to help promote our sense of place. There are three boat ramps in town, two of which have been improved by the club. The ramps represent the only places to launch a boat for many miles up and down the river. More important, perhaps, the club - and its president at the time, especially - was instrumental in establishing a kids fishing pond in the city. It's very popular with young anglers and serves as a great way to get kids outdoors to learn more about their place.

  2. thanks for the comment. Our local sportsmen's group does indeed do an excellent job of not only promoting conservation of our precious resources, but also encouraging others to get into enjoying the outdoors. keep up the good work!

  3. You mentioned people spending too much time watching tv. I think in this region, with a long winters that keeps people indoors for the most part, effects people in ways they do not realize. One begins to live in a bubble and it also spills over to the other times of the year. Interaction with the community is important to feel connected and energized.

    I got tired of not finding satisfaction with the line up on television. It seemed that I was always dissatisfied after watching pretty much anything on tv. I would walk away uninspired. Not to mention having a little less money in my pocket with what I considered too high a price for the cable service. I canceled my cable tv and kept the internet connection. To my surprise, I found so many things to do instead of watch television. I feel like a different person now, after nearly four months without watching the boob tube. I rent movies, sure, but no more getting bombarded by people trying to sell me things and influencing my thoughts and telling me what I need to have, think or feel.

    Best of all, there is peace and quiet in the house. I also feel I have taken control of my life and found more time to be productive. I feel like I have detoxified to a certain extent. I feel like I know my place better.