Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Placemaking is about helping a place become somewhere people want to stay in instead of somewhere people can’t wait to get out of. Third places can be an important part of that effort. Not only are they pleasant places to be, they are places where residents discuss their aspirations for the place, cook up projects to make those aspirations a reality and in general keep informed.

Caf├ęs, outdoor public places, the library, civic centers, are the usual things that come to mind when one hears of third places. Civic organizations are third places for many people, especially in the sense that people come together to take on community projects. Recreation groups could be third place communities for civic projects, too, since the discussions among parents watching their kids’ games may turn to such issues (perhaps between episodes of being little league parents). Adult recreational athletes who get together after the game might end up discussing local events. Anything that brings local people together can be thought of as a third place. The more it promotes deliberate discussion, the better.

I’m curious about on-line communities as third places. The book “A Different Kind of Engagement” described how on-line communities are part of the civic engagement of youth (and countered the decline of civic engagement described in the book “Bowling Alone”). Recently the rural development website reimaginerurual.com, based in South Dakota, described the large number of South Dakotans on facebook (http://reimaginerural.com/tech-trendy-south-dakota/ ) and how that could be serving the role of a third place. Other posts on reimaginerural also described how tools such as Front Porch Forum (http://www.frontporchforum.com) have helped bring communities together.

I started this blog learn about how sense of place informs peoples’ lives. I wanted to post my thoughts and have others respond. Thanks to those of you have. Keep ‘em coming. I also have learned about sense of place from other people’s blogs. But blogs don’t seem to be interactive enough to be a third place. The facebook page keeps like-minded people informed and connected regarding sustainability topics and events in our town is fine, but it does not seem to be quite the right venue for discussions either. Facebook seems to be more for quick check-ins.

So I return to my question about how on-line communities can act as third places for discussion of community development/sustainability/conservation/sense of place. There’s an interesting set of articles in the scientific literature about how gaming communities can act as third places for youth, but that’s exactly the opposite of what I’m after. I want people to see how people within a geographic community can come together on-line to discuss _their_ community, not a fictional life, not a virtual community but a virtual gathering spot for a real community. How to get people engaged in on-line discussions?

I use on-line discussion tools in some of my classes. They’re not that different than tools we use to generate discussions in face-to-face classes. As an instructor, I can’t just say ‘what do you think?’ or ‘any comments?’ I need to pose prompts that are pertinent to students, that help them get into the topic. But it’s a bit easier with students – they are trying to earn a grade. Getting busy people to take time to articulate a response in an on-line community is not easy. People have to see the benefits of making time to respond. I would think it would have to be timely, concrete topics or current projects. I’ll keep working on that, but if you have examples of particularly effective techniques for promoting participation in on-line communities related to place-making, let me know. It may be that, as with university classes, a hybrid approach is best (periodic face-to-face supplemented by on-going on-line discussions/check-ins).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thank an entrepreneur

My interest in placemaking combines my conservation background and my desire to see sustainable rural communities. The two are intertwined. Sustainability often is equated to conservation-related topics, but for rural communities, sustainability includes maintaining a vibrant local economy. A vibrant local economy feeds back to conservation since a) a local economy can be built on natural assets and b) towns with hope for the future are more likely to be concerned about conserving the natural assets of their area. As I said, they were intertwined.

According to the recent talk in rural economic development circles, vibrant rural economies depend on promoting local entrepreneurship. Farmers were the original rural entrepreneurs but as employment shifted away from agriculture, other employers needed to be found. Not too long ago, for some communities finding those employers meant luring a company with tax incentives (with some of the companies banking on being able to get away with paying low wages since the area was job-limited). When the tax incentives expired, the company looked for the next place that would offer tax incentives. That’s not a sustainability based approach.

The sustainability based approach is to build up entrepreneurship among people who want to stay in the area. “Economic gardening” refers to encouraging residents start enterprises that make jobs for them and perhaps for others. These local entrepreneurs help put the ‘stay’ in sustainability (thanks to an unidentified street artist in St. Marys Australia for that play on words).

Local entrepreneurs may be placemakers directly. The ice cream vendor that adds more things to do at the waterfront (in the manner of Project for Public Places’ Power of 10 Concept) is an entrepreneur of place. The owners of the locally flavored cafes and pubs and other third places are entrepreneurs who help make the place as are local food producers, local artists/artisans, outdoor recreation vendors (i.e., the kayak rental on the waterfront).

Other local entrepreneurs help build and maintain the community, even if they are not directly involved in placemaking. Like all entrepreneurs, they are investing their time and treasure, with the goal of making money to be sure, but also because they, in some sense, want to help build the area. Afterall, there are easier ways to make money and one of those easier ways might be to leave the area. But your local, independent [fill in the blank from list below] stays and perseveres and probably supports the local community in ways national chains do not.

Look around. You may be surprised at the number of entrepreneurs in your community. I never really thought of our area as a hotbed of entrepreneurship until I thought about the number of contractors, auto repair shops, personal care businesses, restaurants, cafes, pubs, professional services, small manufacturing enterprises, and more, all of which make the town what it is. We all rely on them. I’m glad the proprietors of my favorite places are still hanging in there. They work really long hours. They have a lot invested in their enterprises. I hope they’re able to get some return on that investment when they choose to retire but in the meantime, thanks for keeping the lights on.

I’d like to see a “thank a local entrepreneur day” in our community. Do any of your communities out there have something like that?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Lost my source of donuts

For the past several months, I had gotten into the habit of stopping in at a local restaurant for midmorning donuts if my errands took me over that way (or I could stretch the errands to take me over that way). Stopped in the other day at 9-ish. Sign on the door said "New Hours." Unfortunately, the new hours did not include breakfast and thus the bakery had been closed. Downsizing I guess. Darn. I had gotten fond of fresh/local donuts/pastries/scones all of which were quite good. I've had good donuts and I know the difference between good and bad donuts. These were good. And the only source of good donuts in town.

That's the third good donut source that's closed here. What's the matter with an upper midwest town that can't keep a donut source in business? This morning a possible answer came to me when I filled up the car with gasoline. I wonder if the expense of feeding the automobile is leaving people short of cash for luxuries such as donuts? Maybe it's time to put the car on a diet and leave yourself some extra pocket change for donuts.

As one door closes another opens. Losing the donut source is sad (although as someone who works in public health I do have mixed feelings about donuts... remember, everything in moderation!). But the first local brew pub recently opened downtown (again, remember, everything in moderation!) And one of the vacant storefronts states that a new coffee shop will be opening. Maybe they'll have donuts.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Turn Around Town

I enjoy reading stories about towns that have been able to overcome problems. It's uplifting. My interests are more about rural areas and small towns but seeing how large cities have turning around makes me more optimistic about the chances of any area overcoming its problems. Also, since rural economies require thriving urban areas, those of us interested in advancing rural areas need to be at least interested in progress in urban cores.

Time Magazine is running a series on Intelligent Cities about how cities are overcoming urban problems with technology. Last December, they ran a story about Torino, Italy's conversion from an old industrial center to a new economy center. The title was 'What Torino can Teach Cleveland.' Poor Cleveland. Always the example of industrial strength problems (such as burning rivers).

But apparently even Cleveland is getting a make-over, according to Charles Michener's story in the April Smithsonian Magazine (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/Clevelands-Signs-of-Renewal.html).

Michener credits a spirit of re-invention among the populace but also cites natural assets such as a chain of parks and smart development along the waterfront. He didn't say 'placemaking' but it sounds like some good placemaking was involved.

I haven't had a chance to see Cleveland but now I'd be more inclined to consider a trip to Cleveland an opportunity instead of thinking 'what did I do wrong to have to go to Cleveland?'

(The Cleveland story is part of the My Kind of Town series in Smithsonian Magazine. The magazine invites prominent writers to describe how their towns evoke a strong sense of place. Most of the entries are famous towns (think Portland and Seattle) but a few are of more rural towns. Some are flattering portrayals, some not so flattering. It is good writing about place. To check it out, follow the My Kind of Town link from the Cleveland story.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Story of No Place

The town of Dishwater, Michigan, is unique only in the sense that it’s the most ordinary place anyone has ever seen. And not very many people have actually seen it. Who would bother to come see a place so ordinary?

History? There literally is no history here. Even the Native Americans considered the site that later became Dishwater to be so ordinary as to not warrant visiting. They didn’t even bother to give it a name. Not even ‘The Place That’s So Ordinary We Didn’t Bother Naming It.’ The few white settlers that took up farming here all had hoped to establish farms elsewhere but they ended up in Dishwater instead. Then most left due to sheer boredom. No one bothered to write down any stories of the early white settlement days because it was just all so boring. The settlers weren’t even from any colorful ethnic group. No special foods or customs or fun holidays or anything like that.

In the 1950s a company got cheap land from the county and set up a factory to make dishwashing soap. The company thought it’d make for clever advertising, playing off the town’s name. It didn’t. The factory was closed, the equipment taken elsewhere, the buildings dismantled. You can hardly tell the factory was there.

There’s not even an amusing story about how the town got its name. It’s just what popped into someone’s mind at the railroad as a place name on the line.

Natural features? There aren’t any. No streams. Nothing special about the woods. Just plain old woods with some farm fields. There’s nothing here to attract any special wildlife species. Even the soils are just plain dirt. In fact the soil series name is Dishwater Dirt. There’s no environmental problems because, aside from the soap factory, no one’s done anything to harm the environment. No one’s done anything.

Culture? Nope. No one does anything artistic. None of the architecture is special in any way. The buildings look just like any other building in any of countless other towns.

Third Places? The town has a coffee shop/diner but they only sell prepared foods from a restaurant supply company. No one really hangs out at the diner. Most of the orders are to-go.

Somebody recently had the idea to hold a Dishwater Ordinariness Festival. But nobody was interested.

You know what it’s like to live in Dishwater, Michigan? Of course not, nobody does. There’s no place that ordinary. Every place can engender a sense of place, some more than others and for more people than others. While you can’t create a sense of place in people, you can help keep places special and you can help people see what’s special about a place.