Friday, August 26, 2011

Three out of five?

So how does sense of place inform our lives? As I’ve shown in previous posts, there is evidence that sense of place can lead people to advocate for conserving the special features of their place – the features that give them that affinity for their place. But can sense of place make us happier? More likely to treat each other better? How about richer? Prettier?

I don’t know the psychology literature at all, but I imagine that one could find references that show that if one feels that he or she has made a good choice in place to live, as with any other of life’s big decisions, one is likely to be happier. I do see it around here in those that stop to think of all the advantages this place confers. And I imagine one could find evidence to support the hypothesis that happier people are more likely to treat each other nicer.

But what about richer? Very desirable places to live sometimes have lower wages. When we lived out in Colorado’s Front Range, there was a saying ‘the mountains cost you $7,000 a year.’ Apparently someone had done a comparison of average wages in the Front Range to similar jobs elsewhere and found that difference. The thinking was that the companies could get away with paying people less since they did not have to entice their employees to move to some undesirable location (similar to how really fun jobs like natural resources conservation don’t have to pay a lot to attract people to do them). So will a strong sense of place make you richer? Hmmm. Guess not. This wonderful place I live now isn’t known for its high wages. Guess we get our riches in the non-monetary form.

How about prettier? Not so sure about that either. I was just talking to a colleague the other day about how the people in some of those towns below the bridge are always so fashionable and dolled up. That’s not quite the case here. We have a style, a way of presenting ourselves, but we are not fashionable under the definition of “fashionable” as keeping up with changes in styles. (Thanks to local fashion expert Maria Guzzo and her IgniteSault talk on fashion for that understanding of fashion

In our discussion, that colleague and I agreed that it’s nice to live in a place in which one doesn’t need to worry about fashion. I’ll take better stewardship, and happier people who treat each other well and not worry about being richer and prettier.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Keeping it Weird

I have not been to Austin, Texas. In fact, other than brief visits to Houston and to Dallas for conferences, I’ve never really been to Texas. I don’t necessarily have anything against Texas, just didn’t have any real reason to go there. After reading the book “Weird City” by Joshua Long, I might feel inclined to visit Austin sometime. I had heard that Austin was a city known for its music (well, OK, I knew that from watching “Austin City Limits” in my youth). I did not know it was also famous for fighting the homogenization that’s running rampant through the country. Having seen several, formerly unique places, end up looking anything but unique, I was intrigued enough to read the book.

The book’s title refers to the “Keep Austin Weird” phenomenon that began with kitchen table discussions among Austinites concerned that the city was losing its character due to an influx of newcomers. What attracted many of these newcomers was the city’s reputation as supporting the cool, the creative, the bohemian. These Austinites were concerned that those coming to the city to appreciate that uniqueness were diluting that very uniqueness and thus the city would fall to homogenization and gentrification.

As the book describes, that group began to distribute “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers and it became the rallying cry for fighting developments perceived as threatening the soul of the city. Since, in addition to a strong sense of place, Austin also had a strong tradition of civic engagement, these efforts worked. The book also describes how the “Keep Austin Weird” motto was co-opted (and copyrighted) by a group that used it to promote local businesses and has sprouted up as Keep Boulder Weird, Keep Portland Weird, etc. It also describes that the feeling was not unanimous. There were others in Austin who used the mottoes “Help Austin Grow Up” and “Make Austin Normal.” But overall the story seems to be one of a city capitalizing on its unique character and resisting the tendency to look like every other city.

I recommend the book for anyone interested in a case study of the power of sense of place. It’s a spin-off from Long’s PhD thesis but is an easy read, told in story format (some chapters have an academic tone but readers are warned in advance of those chapters and they are not essential to following the story – as an academic I appreciated those chapters). The book also includes a nice summary of the concepts of how cities evolve and references to the ongoing work of those who study cities and help cities develop (such as Richard Florida who promotes the ‘attract the creative class’ strategy).

Here in my area, we need to develop the sense of place further. We have those who think that a mark of ‘arriving’ as an area is to have a new big box store or national chain restaurant and that otherwise we’re a cultural backwater. “Weird City” doesn’t provide specific advice about how to help build a sense of place, but does provide good background on what sense of place is and isn’t and what it can do for a town. It also shows that preserving what’s already good about a place can be good for a place’s economy and doesn’t mean that the place has to be frozen in time. Those are good lessons for many areas.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

New sticker for showing off UP

In a previous post, I had mentioned that the UP is somewhat unique in that we have our own area code (906). All of the UP is in that area code and only the UP is in that area code. The other day I noticed that one can purchase a white oval sticker with 906 in black so I did. And today someone asked "what's the 906 sticker about," but as soon as she asked, she answered her own question. Just a subtle way to show off where one lives.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tourist Attractions

I suppose sometime I should stop by the Wisconsin Dells. Last week we were within an hour’s drive of the Dells, but, just as with so many such trips in the past, we’ve did not go. There’s just something about the promotional brochures that doesn’t make it particularly compelling to me; too much of an amusement park feel to it. Maybe there’s a place where one can view the river away from all that, just as one can view Niagara Falls without having to go to the tourist attractions. Maybe.

Years ago, I was discussing the potential for a new national park with someone who lived in the out-of-the-way area the park would be. This person was concerned that with such a designation the area would be overrun with bumper cars, miniature golf, trinket shops and other developments. That’s what this person thought of when he thought of tourism. A national preserve has opened there operated by the National Park Service and there are no such tourist attractions, but years ago, but I could understand that person’s concerns. Years ago, that was tourism. I recently stopped by a town here in Michigan (again, one of those finally stopped by after being in the area many times) in which the 1960s era tourist attractions are the dominant feature of the landscape. The landscape needed no such embellishment. It was a lovely lake with a small town, but in that era tourists expected such diversions.

Since then, nature-based tourism has come on the scene. Family tourism is no longer mom and dad with a station wagon full of kids needing to be entertained (well, OK, the kids may need to be weaned from their various LCD screens, but that’s another story). There is a group of tourists that want authentic experiences with nature and they have money to spend and they spend it. It’s not the nature crowd of the 70s about which one former Michigan governor said “they bring an extra pair of underwear and a $5 bill and don’t change either one.”

Nature, history, local culture, local foods all make for place-based tourism – tourism built on experiences one can only get in a particular area. Miniature golf, bumper cars, water slides and other amusements are pretty much the same everywhere. The local natural, historical and cultural features are not. A successful tourist economy can be built on those unique features and help conserve them in the process.

Monday, August 1, 2011

When the Grass is Greener On This SIde

I know some people who think that our area absolutely is the place to live, work and play. I know other people for whom this seems to be a terrible place to be.

Some of the people who really love it here grew up here, but many are people who moved here specifically to live in what they consider a great place. Those that think this is an awful place seem to be more people from here that for one reason or another are ‘place bound.’ They may have family obligations, or maybe their occupation keeps them here, or maybe they just haven’t gotten the get up and go to get up and go. It would make sense that this latter group is mainly from here – we don’t have the kind of employment draw that would compel people to move here for a job in an area they otherwise don’t like.

One place-bound person born and raised here recently told me what a dump this place is. Earlier that very same day, I was with a group of people, some from here, some who moved here, expressing what a delightful place this is. The contrast was interesting and it got me thinking that it’s probably a good thing that we have people coming to the area realizing how great it is and working to keep it great.

Again, there are people from here and who have lived most of their life here that think its great and work hard to keep it great and make it greater, but its also good to have an influx of enthusiastic people who really love it here. It is important for these newcomers to be able to express their appreciation for their new place and have opportunities to help keep it/make it great. Some of the environmental projects are started by such people who don’t take our natural heritage for granted the way the longer term residents tend to. Some of our new businesses are started by relative newcomers who see opportunities the long-term residents didn’t pick up. Perhaps the long-term residents were too used to seeing things the way they are and not how they can be (kind of the reverse of how it is when you see an old friend you haven’t seen for a while and notice that they’ve aged but you don’t see the aging of the people you see every day.

Towns need to be welcoming of new people who bring good, new ideas. It’s only natural that it would take a little while for newcomers to have some influence. We don’t want to swing back and forth with the latest fads. New people need to work themselves into the community. But some communities make it harder than it needs to be for new people to bring in new ideas. Community development research shows that successful communities welcome newcomers and new ideas and energy that fit into a shared vision of the place