Rural America is home to 50 million people, occupies 75% of our space and is breadbasket to the world. And like urban communities, rural areas compete on a worldwide stage for jobs, economic growth and something above survival- aptly described as "quality of life". The 21st century and emerging generations[i] are demonstrating to developers that people increasingly choose places first and then jobs, upending traditional economic development strategies. This newer concept is called PLACEMAKING and in simple terms means the process of creating places that people want to be in.[ii] The title of a 2017 webinar summarized this as "Creative Placemaking: Economic Development For The Next Generation".[iii] My definition- "a conscious effort to identify community assets and then apply them to the health, happiness and well-being of the area" places emphasis on action. "Today, placemaking is absolutely essential to economic resilience."[iv]
Context Sensitive Solution theory (CSS) brings other phrases to mind- Livable Communities is one. Rural Living[v] is another, and actually shorthand for the bond between the land and its' people. This bond connects farming, fishing, mining, recreation, tourism, local commerce and more. In an even broader sense, it also connects how people, goods, services and information flow. Rural America is laced with the arteries of our nation- highways, roads, bridges, pipelines, power lines, waterways and rails. Connect this network with Internet, broadband and smart phone communication tools to see the prospect of a fairly level playing field. Small town America can be the perfect choice for families and businesses.
A livable, rural community that welcomes the future, while maintaining the essence of its natural and cultural identity is really on to something. It adapts to constant, inevitable change in creative ways. Through a combination of instinct and sharp perception, fundamental qualities are preserved and even grown through new ideas, people and resources. No small task by any measure, but innovation is always a challenge.
Creative thinking works most effectively with diverse discussions and opinions. Then, add some crazy ideas to the practical ones. It is hard to look at community resources in a new and different light… "it's always been here" and "no one cares" are limiting mindsets that are not helpful in placemaking. Every locale has blemishes, so "accentuate the positives" and "fix what you can".
Where do the resources come from to achieve 'change' and momentum? Three elements come to mind; time, money and focus. New volunteers and leaders must come forward and communities have to nurture, respect and listen to them. Remember that the future depends upon them. Achieve small successes and create an environment that builds upon them to create momentum. Have goals in mind, but don't be too limiting. Young people (and all other demographic groups) want involvement and so community planning by discussion is part of making a place more attractive and livable. Artists of all types are great local resources to involve. On the ever important 'money' topic, the best advice is to get everyone consistently thinking about investment- as in what are you willing to invest in your land, your way of life, your kids?
To maintain focus, my inclination is to define targeted audiences (XXXXX)[vi] and then really dig into several questions for each audience:
What does XXXXX want?
Why will XXXXX stay?
Why will XXXXX come?
One of the hardest things about change is; letting go of the past, determining just what part(s) of the past to let go of and how to let go. This is another key reason why community planning is an open discussion process- difficult but necessary. Stephen R. Covey's observation about collaboration[vii] points to the magnitude of the challenge: "Without trust, we don't truly collaborate; we merely coordinate or, at best cooperate. It is trust that transforms a group of people into a team."[viii] Working on quality of life issues and the future well-being of communities and regions are clearly team projects. Rik Nemanick, talked about the "Myth of Individualism" in bold terms that pertain to communities, like "living is a team sport" and "success is not an individual matter".[ix] Here is my checklist for staying on track and maintaining focus:
1. Your target audience provides the most valuable perspectives and insights.
2. You are creating a PLACE, not a DESIGN. The concept of 'place' is much larger.
3. Collaborations are stronger than individuals. Let natural leaders ebb & flow as needs change. There can be no one single leader in community development.
4. There will always be those that disagree so start with like-minded people first.
5. More observing and listening- less preaching if you want to truly understand your targeted audiences.
6. Have goals, prepare plans and get organized- but stay open to unanticipated directions.
7. Get underway and make adjustments as you go… don't blame, move on.
8. Recognize and use the areas natural resources.[x]
9. Start small.
10. You are never finished!
[ii] Source: Dean Solomon, Michigan State University Extension, "Is There Such A Thing As Rural Placemaking?", January 18, 2013.
[v] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/blueprintamerica/blogs/the-dig-op-ed-what-is-rural-livability/1021/ This PBS piece covers all three terms.
[vi] One of my favorite examples is actually defining "stayers" and "leavers" in a community as suggested by Kim Huston in Small Town Sexy, The Allure of Living In Small Town America, 2009.
[vii] Collaboration:To work with another person or group in order to achieve something. Source: Encarta Dictionary.
[viii] The 7 Habits of Highly Resilient People, Stephen R. Covey.
[x] Resources, Assets and Capital can be many things- whatever is helpful for moving ideas ahead.PHOTO CREDIT: "The White Squirrels Of Olney", Steven Groner, Extension Educator