Issue 21: Why You Need a City Bucket List

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Cool projects, Love Where You Live experiment, Place love, Virginia

Fun fact: New York City residents do not visit the Statue of Liberty every day.

It seems like they should, right? About 60 million people visit NYC every year, and the number #1 thing they want to see is the Statue of Liberty. Don’t the locals who have daily access to her just count their lucky stars?

No. No, they don’t. Actually, some people believe that the #1 sign you’re a real New Yorker is your utter disinterest in Lady Liberty. That old thing? Meh. Tourist stuff.

The sad truth is that most of us treat our own city’s most thrilling attractions the same way. Daily life intrudes. Even if you moved to your city precisely because you loved its amenities, eventually the carpools, grocery runs, and late nights at work force everything else into the background. The longer you live in a place, the more successfully you ignore it.

That’s why you need a City Bucket List.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of bucket lists in general. I’ve kept a life list (Go dog sledding! Learn to play tennis!), a “40 Before 40” list (Visit Acadia National Park! Buy a grown-up piece of furniture!), and currently a “19 before 2019” list (Write a will! Try meditation!). I love sitting down and making the lists, the way it funnels my imagination toward a hoped-for future life. And I love actually ticking off items. Without my 40 before 40 list, would I have paid the money to go ziplining? Or planned a summer vacation that would get me to the last of the 50 states? (Love you, Connecticut!)

With a City Bucket List, I get that same push toward adventure, except where I live right now. Right around the time I moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, I started formulating one for my new town. To get ideas, I scoured blog posts, Instagram (hashtag Blacksburg), TripAdvisor, Yelp, the website of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. My friend Kristy asked strangers about their local favorites as an icebreaker. “I just moved here,” she’d say. “Where should I shop? Where’s a good place to eat? What should I see if I only have a few days here?”

The candidates included

Go to a Virginia Tech baseball game

See a movie at the Lyric Theater
* Hike at Pandapas Pond
* Bike the Huckleberry Trail to Christiansburg
* Eat at Dude’s Drive Inn
* Swim at Claytor Lake
* See Mabry Mill

Start with the Statues of Liberty in your neck of the wood—all the attractions you never got around to seeing. Then add the trails you’ve meant to hike, the views you’d like to take a selfie with, the restaurants whose dishes your colleagues keep yakking about, the festivals you’ve avoided up until now.

Simply brainstorming the list recalibrates your relationship to your community, making you do a mental deep-dive into your city’s assets, strengths, and hidden gems. Basically, you’re creating a mass of positive, “I’m happy here” feelings. Then, when you actually do the things, you create a trail of meaningful experiences all over your community. Meaning is the kicker here—what turns a park into “the park where we picnicked on a warm June afternoon” or a weird back road into “the place where we found the apple orchard that smelled like heaven.” Bucket list experiences make your town feel like home.

Tourist stuff is pretty amazing sometimes.


Shameless self-promotion portion of the newsletter: I’m now writing a weekly column for! Do me a solid and come check it out.

7 items of interest:
1. The new utopia: real estate developments that encourage walking and blueberry eating.
2. “As urban renewal swept through Northeast, neighbors who’d looked after each other for decades were suddenly scattered across the city. They literally couldn’t find each other.” An illustrated history of urban renewal in Roanoke.
3. A simple way to make people happy where you live. Or anywhere.
4. Are you living the dream?
5. We probably need a minister of loneliness too.
6. Did you know China has a fake Paris? A guide to duplitecture (best coinage ever).
7. How to go slow, plus a nice matching podcast episode.

xoxo, Melody

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Issue 20: The Ultimate Buy Local Holiday Shopping Guide

Melody WarnickBuy local

Confession: I spent Black Friday at a mall in Roanoke, Virginia. From the lady who can’t shut up about buying local, that may strike you as just a titch hypocritical, never mind the extenuating circumstances that this was my daughter Ella’s requested birthday outing and that I repentantly spent a couple hours at an indie bookstore on Shop Small Saturday.

But let’s be real for a second. Everyone shops online, at chains, and at big box stores. It’s almost impossible not to. The steady stream of willpower it would take to resist that impulse would zap the emotional stamina you need to resist leftover Thanksgiving pie.

This is not an all-or-nothing proposition, anyway. In This Is Where You Belong, I suggest a few strategies for increasing your local, independent purchases, like spending $50 at three stores each month, or committing to buy one category of items (say, camera equipment) locally. Might I suggest a similar approach to the holidays? Buy one local gift for someone you love this season. A million ideas below.

Experiences Are Better Than Stuff

Since studies show that experiences are more more meaningful than mass-produced crap, considering one of these options.

  • A pair of tickets to a play or concert
  • A ticket to see a beloved local sports team play
  • Lessons—piano, cello, Irish dance, art
  • Classes—yoga, CrossFit, pottery making, gymnastics
  • Tickets to a local movie theater
  • An overnighter at a nearby bed and breakfast or AirBnB
  • A tour, like a foodie tour or a city walking tour that helps you get to know your place better
  • A reservation to camp at a state park
  • Tickets to a music festival
  • A guided hike
  • Passes to your town’s children’s museum
  • A hot air balloon ride or scenic airplane flight
  • Passes to miniature/regular golf
  • Community pool passes
  • An outing to the local roller rink/trampoline park
  • Membership to a rock climbing gym
  • A membership to a local historic site
  • Cooking classes
  • A YMCA or local gym membership
  • Museum membership
  • Tickets to a local workshop or gala (check Eventbrite or your local newspaper listings)
  • Snowshoe or cross-country ski rental
  • A boat, kayak, or SUP rental for when the weather’s nice again

Make Someone’s Life Easier

Buy someone a few hours of a service offered by a local practitioner.

  • Maid service
  • Carpet cleaning
  • Deck staining
  • Power washing
  • Professional organizing
  • Certificate to a nail salon or hair salon
  • Massage
  • Landscaping
  • Time with a lawyer to make a will
  • Car wash
  • Graphic design (for a business card or website)
  • Photography (for a family portrait for the next Christmas card)

Eat This

Food can be super-local, and as a consumable, it’s minimalist too!

  • Gift certificate to a local restaurant
  • Gift certificate to a bakery (I often do this for teachers because a relatively affordable $5 is a loaf of bread or a couple cupcakes)
  • Wine from a local vineyard
  • Honey—virtually every community has their own beekeepers
  • Share of a cow from a local farmer
  • Jars of locally made jam or apple butter
  • Bags of locally roasted coffee
  • Gift certificate to a local ice cream store
  • Gift certificate to a local coffee shop instead of Starbucks
  • Chocolate (how I adore Chocolaterie Stam in Ames, Iowa)
  • A basket of produce from the farmers market
  • A loaf of bread, plate of cookies, or pie from a nearby bakery
  • A bag of bagels
  • Regional specialties for far-away relatives (like White Lily flour or Virginia ham for Westerners)
  • A mix from a local restaurant (we gave Kerbey Lane pancake mixes when we lived in Austin—huge hit)
  • A longed-for local food item for friends who have moved away (my Texas friend flew east with tortillas from HEB grocery store for me, and I love her for it).
  • A CSA membership

Gifts You Can Unwrap

Buy something tangible for someone you love in a brick-and-mortar store where you live.

  • Books from a local bookstore (find one at Indie First)
  • A potted plant (from a local nursery, not Home Depot)
  • A t-shirt/mug/magnet/necklace/ornament that declares one’s love for one’s place (like gear by North Carolina company Home State Apparel)
  • Anything from a nearby antique store, thrift store, or Craigslist
  • Toys (if you lack a locally owned toy store, you can now shop mine, Imaginations, online)
  • Knitting supplies
  • Bicycles and bike gear
  • Clothes from indie stores (in my town, Walkabout Outfitters and Back Country Ski and Sport are stocked with everything you’d ever need in terms of hats, mittens, socks, coats, sunglasses, shoes, and awesome Patagonia gear that my daughter lusts after)
  • Handmade jewelry
  • A guide to local history
  • A flower bouquet
  • A map to area hiking trails
  • A downtown gift certificate
  • Locally made furniture
  • Hand-sewn quilt or apron, commissioned from a local seamstress
  • All kinds of handmade art (Etsy has a Local Search function!)
  • Subscription to the local newspaper or magazine
  • A basket of favorite local things—a jar of jam, local bread, a book from a local author, a water bottle you got at the indie outdoors store


Shameless self-promotion portion of the newsletter: I had a great conversation with Callie Crossley of WGBH about the meaning of home. Take a listen. Also, I just found out that my lovely friend Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy included This Is Where You Belong in her 2017 holiday gift guide. If you’d like a signed book for a mobile/moving/newly settled friend, just let me know.


7 items of interest

1. Get paid to move to the Swiss Alps. Fine, if you insist.
2. If you’re not sure which place your holiday giftee likes best, give them this slightly generic print from brilliant artist Judy Kauffman.
3. “New York is brown, Berlin is red, Paris is aquamarine, and San Francisco is a pastel rainbow.” What color is your city?
4. Community planning where the community is actually involved.
5. “Gifts purchased locally are a win-win. Your loved one enjoys a hand-selected gift, local shop owners enjoy your business, and you are the all-star who made this play possible!” More preaching about buying locally—and I’m quoted!
6. Your house can make you ride your bike less. What can your town do?
7. 100 people making their cities better.

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Issue 19: 11 Things I Learned at CityWorks (X)Po

Melody WarnickCool projects, Place love, Placemaking, Virginia

Why do I blow off so many potentially life-changing conferences? Money. Time. Complicated carpooling schedules. Guilt-inducing children. Even attending the wonderful CityWorks Xpo conference in Roanoke, 45 minutes down the road from Blacksburg, required a herculean level of organization.

And yet, as my writer friend Kate Hanley points out, “Good things happen when you leave the house.” Like the fact that I learned complacency-shaking new ideas—and Ruby still made it home from tennis lessons. For those of you who didn’t catch it in person, here’s a short-and-sweet rundown of some of my favorite, most curiosity-evoking takeaways:

  • On learning new things and mastering new skills: “Ask everyone, ‘Who else should I be talking to about this?'”—Matt McKimmy, host of CityWorks Xpo.
  • On endemic community racism: “From 1934 to 1968, the FHA refused to make home loans to African-American citizens.”—Akilah Watkins-Butler, CEO and president of the Center for Community Progress
  • On what happens when people never walk: “They know the best parking space, but they’re not familiar with a business three storefronts down.”—Jeremy Holmes, director of RIDE Solutions, Roanoke
  • On making your place better: “You need to come home and be the change you want to see.”—Tim Lampkin, CEO of Higher Purpose Co.
  • On why our communities aren’t healthy: “Less than 3 percent of Virginia’s crops is fruits, vegetables, and nuts.”—Maureen Best, executive director of LEAP
  • On being excited: “Pay attention to where you feel chemistry in your life.”—Poetry Gods
  • On telling our place stories: “Community narrative is not spin; it’s finding what exists already in your community and letting it shine.”—Ariella Cohen, editor-in-chief of Next City
  • On honoring our history: “My ancestors love me. They are my first line of defense. They did good. I can do good too.”—Free Egunfemi, founder of Untold RVA
  • On why libraries rock: “73 percent of Americans say libraries promote a sense of community.”—Jeff Julian, public awareness director for the American Library Association
  • On racism: “Prejudice is an attitude, racism is an action. Forget about prejudice and start dealing with racism.”—Wornie Reed, director of Virginia Tech’s Race and Social Policy Research Center
  • On making better places: “Places that are optimized are who they are, but they’re the best “who they are” they can be.”—Katherine Loflin, placemaking consultant and city doctor
  • ———————————
    7 items of interest:

    1. A new study shows that places are far more effective than objects (even wedding rings) at producing feelings of well-being and calm. Brain scans don’t lie, people.
    2. Creatively painted crosswalks are a simple form of placemaking; this one boggles the mind—but would it make you wreck?
    3. “When I try to imagine living in a tiny home, I get viscerally upset.” Roxane Gay on tiny house hunting.
    4. A small Tennessee town is trying to attract Millennials by taking the drastic step of listening to what they want.
    5. Why we need small towns in America—and why they’re dying.
    6. Ben Kittelson told us about City Hall Selfie Day at CityWorks Xpo; his GovLov podcast is perfect for local government nerds.
    7. When I wrote about person-environment fit in This Is Where You Belong, I should have included this map of America’s favorite Halloween candy and insisted that we all decamp to the state whose preference agrees with ours. For me, that leaves Alabama, Michigan, New Mexico, Idaho, and South Carolina—but I’m pretty happy with Virginia’s leanings too. And if that’s not scary enough for you, our ghost stories help form place identity.

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Issue 18: Sometimes Football Is More Than Just Football

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Love Where You Live experiment, Place love

I don’t really like football. As confessions go, that’s not a very good one since I say it all the time, lest I be confused for someone who knows or cares what a fullback is.

The weird part is that I nevertheless love when Virginia Tech plays a home football game here in Blacksburg. Last week’s was a doozy, the biggest game of the season. Clemson (they’re good, apparently) and ESPN and rabid Hokie fans thronged the town, mingling under a beneficent blue sky. I put on my Virginia Tech t-shirt and felt bizarrely abuzz with excitement. Quinn explained me to myself. “You like a spectacle,” he pointed out.

Circuses. Parades. Fairs. Festivals. Any event that’s splashy and thrilling, that invokes a holiday-time aura of excitement, I love. In a town where fall football games mean thousands of people walking downtown and tailgaters grilling in every campus parking lot, a game is just the kind of extravaganza that appeals to me. Or rather, not the game itself, but the human spectacle that accompanies it.

There’s a place attachment benefit to community spectacles as well, since they’re often tied to our place identity. Big events like fairs and football games differentiate and unite us, coming to symbolize community togetherness. Yesterday was Blacksburg High School’s Homecoming parade, fifteen minutes of teenage football players and school board members floating past on truckbeds, while art club members like my older daughter pressed candy into the hands of kids. The sidewalks were thick with people we knew. The parade didn’t just look like unity. By providing a communal experience for everyone to share, it actually made us feel more united.

The energy of it, the spectacle of it, enlivens our community. When something special is happening, it confirms our belief that our town is special. Which of course it is. Even if we, ahem, lose the big football game.


Shameless self-promotion portion of the newsletter: “Warnick’s book gives me hope that whether we stay or go, we are equipped to learn to be happy wherever we are.” I liked Kristy Ramirez’s heartfelt post at on learning to love a city that doesn’t fit.

7 items of interest

1. Placemaking through portable ping-pong.
2. “You can empower and invest in your new downtown residents and let them be the ambassadors for our growing urban paradises, or you can ignore them and build casinos.”
3. When disasters strike (and there have been so many lately), recognized public gathering spaces and socially connected residents foster resilience.
4. In other words, neighbors who know each other save each other.
5. “People say, ‘Go to school and go make something of yourself.’ It’s like you couldn’t make something of yourself here.” Wisconsin’s problem.
6. Ten good reasons to build community.
7. Twelve ideas for learning to love where you live.

Issue 17: Your Place Is Not Just Your Place

Melody WarnickGreat towns, Love Where You Live experiment, Place love

The author Laura Vanderkam, who writes books about making the most of the time you have, shares a hot tip about using your weekends well: Plan your days off. That little tidbit sometimes rattles around my brain at 3 pm Saturday afternoon when the only thing I’ve done of note for the day is scrub a toilet. My father believed strongly that weekends were for outings (Disneyland! Universal Studios! The beach!). Why do I so often go to bed Saturday night suffused with regret about wasting my opportunity for adventure and exploration?

When Labor Day rolled around, I pledged it would be different. I demanded a family plan. We would maximize the crap out of this day off. We would take a day trip.

Before I even moved to Blacksburg, I created a bucket list of things I wanted to experience locally before death or relocation. My wish list reaches well into the surrounding region—not just neighboring towns, but neighboring states. Anything within a couple-hour drive is fair game. On Labor Day, motivated by the memory of a really good sandwich Quinn had eaten there, we drove two hours to Fayetteville, West Virginia, hiked for a heavenly view of the 3,030-foot New River Gorge Bridge, ate some ice cream, then drove home with both a sense of accomplishment and a sense that we lived in a good place.

Can a town 100 miles away, in a different state, increase your sense of place attachment? Sure. In truth the feeling of place attachment or place identity can be extra-small, encompassing your house, your street, your neighborhood. Or you can biggie-size it to an entire region. Even while I focused on attaching to Blacksburg, my Love Where You Live experiments bled over into the region as a whole, like when I went hiking near the Blue Ridge Parkway with my friend Laura. All of it is my “place.” In some ways, the more generous your definition of “place,” the more you’ll find to love in it.

We don’t have a 3,000-foot bridge in Blacksburg, but any and all experiences that make this part of the world feel like home, I’ll claim. And it made for a pretty triumphant day off.


Shameless self-promotion portion of the newsletter: I did a video interview a few weeks ago with Canadian life coach Nicole Michalski for her online Your Best Life Yet Summit, and you should go watch it. (Funny thing: until about five minutes before it started, I thought it was going to be a phone interview. So I look really awesome.) Nicole and I went deep on topics like what really matters when you choose where to live. Plus Canadians are the best.

Part 2 of shameless self-promotion: The Kindle edition of This Is Where You Belong is on a crazy-good sale right now—just $1.99! I’m not sure how long the price will last, so snap that puppy up and tell your friends, because it really doesn’t get any cheaper.

7 items of interest

1. Amazon’s announcement that they were going to build a new headquarters somewhere outside of WA threw everyone into a tizzy. The New York Times thinks it picked the winning city.
2. What to do when you move to a new house and what to do when you move to a new town. There’s a difference. (I like the first one on the latter list.)
3. “A place is a truly immersive experience, and its reputation depends on its natural and cultural attractions, its leaders and cheerleaders, its visitors, marketing strategies, and specifics of day-to-day life. In other words, everything.” How place doing is replacing place branding. Speaking of place branding, no one likes America anymore.
4. In heartwarming buy-local news, a stranger saves a village store.
5. But must it always take a motivated wealthy person to fix local problems like affordable housing?
6. A Love Where You Live experiment to make your city more playful: a guided tour of random things (scroll a bit).
7. People in Louisiana like raisins, and other weird findings from Walmart’s top sellers by state.