Issue 10: The Third Way to Fall in Love with Your Town

Melody WarnickUncategorized0 Comments

There’s a study I talk up all the time that found that you’re most likely to be place attached if your city does three things well: social offerings, aesthetics, and openness. People tend to understand the first two. It’s the third one, openness, that causes problems. Even after I explain that openness means your city welcomes all kinds of residents, sometimes people are like, “Huh?”

So here’s a concrete example. For a while now I’ve been volunteering with the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership, a group that’s committed to helping refugees build new lives in our community. Next week two Afghani single moms and their three kids will move here, a thrilling development slightly complicated by the fact that these women speak a variant of Farsi, while we volunteers do not. Translators are imperative to this work. In a few minutes of googling, I found that there is an Iranian Society at Virginia Tech, and I sent an email asking for Farsi-speaking volunteers.

Eight emails piled up in my inbox within a few hours. These Iranian students were so eager to help.

That’s openness, in a nutshell. And it’s really making me love Blacksburg today.

7 items of interest

1. These best friends built a row of tiny houses as their own private vacation commune. Would you do this? How would you decide if someone was vacation commune-worthy? BTW, here’s the poetic argument for having two homes.
2. Do those “best city” lists even mean anything? (Shameless self-promotion: I’m quoted in this one.)
3. Millennials are actually moving less than previous generations, for a counterintuitive reason.
4. “The middle of Ohio didn’t turn out to be my escape, but it was the beginning of a new kind of life.” How our fantasy cities don’t always match reality.
5. A world map that exchanges place names for song titles and yes I want it. (Although maybe I didn’t need to know there was a song called “Dead Loss Angeles.”)
6. England is going to build 14 garden villages—brand-new towns from scratch. Now they have to decide what they should look like.
7. In Chicago, a nonprofit program takes underprivileged teenagers to parts of the city they’ve never explored before. You wouldn’t think that would be as mind-blowing as it is.

Issue 9: Welcome to Minnesota, Here’s Your Hat

Melody WarnickCool projects, Moving, Placemaking0 Comments

Moving to a new city is like walking into a party where you don’t know anyone. You’re secretly hoping everyone’s going to fight each other for dibs on being your new best friend, and when that doesn’t happen (because does that ever happen?) you end up hovering near the metaphorical hors d’oeuvres table, wishing someone would please acknowledge your existence.

You’re not alone. Pretty much everyone experiences that I AM UTTERLY ALONE moment when they move to a new city. Then you make friends, your brain resets, and you develop amnesia about how hard it once was.

Artist Jun-Li Wang remembered. She transplated to Minnesota from California and, not surprisingly, hated it at first. The one thing that made her feel physically and metaphorically warmer in her new homtown was a fake fur–lined hat. Maybe, she thought, it would help other newcomers too. So she started the nonprofit St. Paul Hello. Every couple months, the group invites new St. Paul residents to a ceremony where they’re presented with, yes, a hat. So far they’ve given away about 600.

So here’s the goal: Give other people a hat. Metaphorically speaking. Give them whatever little bit of friendship or instruction made you feel at home in your town. Tell someone about your favorite secret park, or give them a map of all the traffic-avoiding shortcuts. Invite them to a party and tell them you want to be their best friend.

Or literally give them a hat. That works too.

7 items of interest

1. Eventually the weather’s going to turn nice. When it does, you should become a Front Yard Person.
2. “Much of how we learn about one another as a society comes from physically being together in places like skating rinks.”
3. How food (and a PBS TV show) saved a Southern town.
4. A TEDx talk about a city that’s converting an abandoned railroad track into 22 miles of walking and biking paths.
5. Mouse-sized shops in a Swedish city! Can you survive this level of adorable?
6. Books are important, but this little free food pantry that a family set up in front of their house makes a strong case for a more practical sort of neighborliness.
7. “We rescue pianos and put them on the street for everybody to enjoy.” Do this right now.

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Issue 8: It’s Hard to Love Your City When It’s Cold Out

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Love Where You Live experiment, Place love0 Comments

On Wednesday it was 62 degrees here in Blacksburg, and it felt like the earth had been reborn, and all of us right along with it. A teacher at my daughter’s school said, “This weather is tricking me into being happy.” After the bell rang, families lingered. Kids swarmed the monkey bars while their parents peeled off the layers of coats and sat in the sun on the blacktop. I took an extra-long walk and lifted my face to the sun, so grateful.

I don’t need to tell you that today it’s 31 degrees and snowing rabbity pellets of ice.

Why is it so much easier to feel happy in sunshine? Not to mention to practice the behaviors that increase place attachment? So many of them revolve around good weather. It’s easier to hike when the ground isn’t mucky, or to start conversations that strengthen social ties when you’re hanging at the park. In Blacksburg, the farmers market is still open once a week, but who wants to linger there now? We’re all a little bit grumpier and worse for wear.

Here’s a possible solution. I mentioned in my last newsletter a story I’d written for CityLab about the Danish concept of hygge, or comfort and coziness, especially in winter. I boiled it down to four principal components: warmth, light and color, access to nature, and gathering places. Consider it your cheat-sheet to staying sane during February.

I hygged myself this week. (Yes, it’s a verb.) After the weather shifted again to frigid, I took my daughter and her friend to the town aquatic center. Normally I relish the fact that, hey, they’re 10; I can read a magazine deckside without getting my hair wet. But there’s a hot tub at the pool, a major source of wintertime joy, so I climbed into my swimsuit and soaked the grumpiness out of my bones for a few minutes (and even talked to a stranger). Turns out they have a sauna there, too. It smelled like camping and dry wood. Winter became a little less grim.

7 items of interest

1. Pothole gardening. Yes please.
2. What would you include in a #10SecondTour of your town?
3. Solid advice for making friends in a new city; it’s place attachment research–approved.
4. Save your gathering places.
5. Resolutions for being a better citizen.
6. How technology erodes community.
7. “The marriage of good design and civic pride is something we need in all places,” from one of my very favorite TED talks.

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Issue 7: The Good Kind of Resolution

Melody WarnickUncategorized0 Comments

People tend to feel passionately about New Year’s resolutions one way or the other. I’m quite in favor of them myself, spending the days around January 1 plotting how this year I’m actually going to do my resolutions, not just think about them. I bought this habit calendar from Kickstarter because I’d read that Jerry Seinfeld created an ironclad daily writing habit by marking an X on a calendar every day he wrote. As the string of X’s grew, keeping the streak became the incentive. Now I’m feverishly marking off my calendar for goals like “Write every day” and “Exercise for 30 minutes.” My willpower game is strong right now.

The problem is, it won’t always be. That’s why I’m considering making some resolutions that are actually pleasurable to keep. What if you made a goal to watch more movies? Or to read a book you chose just for the cover? Or like my friend Amy, to log 365 self-propelled miles outside this year?

Or here’s a thought: Increase your place attachment with some happy local resolutions: to get an ice cream at the neighborhood parlor once a month (once a week?), or to walk in the woods on sunny Saturdays, or to buy tickets for three live performances in your city. (I really want to see this one.)

My family’s other New Year tradition involves conducting a sort of year-in-review, writing down our accomplishments and favorite memories from the year that’s just passed. The memories can be particularly tricky. Who knows what we did back in February of last year? Often we can only recall the extraordinary, like a trip to Alaska. We remember the events that take us away from our normal lives and regular places precisely because they’re so unusual.

This year, I want to celebrate the more mundane delights. So yet another resolution is to keep a memory jar. We’ll write down simple little joys that happen all year long, tuck the papers in a jar, and pull them out to read and remember next January 1. I hope that there will be many forest walks mentioned, as well as lots of trips to the ice cream parlor.


Shameless self-promotion portion of the newsletter: I’m speaking ( about This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live quite a bit this coming spring. Know a group that might be interested? Email me at email hidden; JavaScript is required.


A few more items of interest

1. Get stuff done the old-fashioned way by hiring a neighborhood kid to do it for you.
2. Men and women use cities differently. Duh.
3. My CityLab story explains how the Danish concept of hygge can make winter not suck. (Canoe sledding, people.)
4. “I want to see my neighbors prosper … especially if those neighbors are feeling targeted and vulnerable.” Localism as a moral imperative.
5. Vote for where you think America’s heartland really is. Apparently it’s all in the mind.
6. Shop indie, save the world.

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The Joys of Going Off the Map

Melody WarnickLove Where You Live experiment, Place love0 Comments

Unsplash/Volkan Olmez

In a heroic act of altruism, my mom, who lives on the other side of the country, offered to watch our two daughters so my husband and I could go on a cruise to Alaska. Her one antiquated request beforehand: a paper map of our town. “I like being able to get a sense of the big picture when I’m in a new place,” she said.

I didn’t even know where to find a paper map! In the age of ever-present GPS navigation, a physical map seemed as antiquated as a horse and buggy.

Then an odd thing happened. My husband and I left for Alaska, where we used—wait for it—paper maps.

Because we were out of our normal cell range and at one point out of the country, we kept the GPS turned off. So at every port where the cruise ship docked, we picked up a free paper map from the visitors center so we could get from point A to point B.

Researchers have long been interested in how humans navigate. A recent study by cognitive neuroscientist Thackery Brown at the University of Stanford suggests that goal-oriented travel is enabled by interactions between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, while other parts of the brain acknowledge and sometimes pursue “sub-goals,” or stimuli encountered along the way to the original goal.

Interestingly, the brain handled both goals and spontaneous sub-goals more effectively than “non-goals.” As we move around places, we want to go somewhere.

I’m no neuroscientist, but I know that there is pleasure in using a real map to figure out one’s own way around a new town—and an even deeper pleasure in occasionally leaving the route. On a four-hour stopover in Victoria, Canada, my husband and I ambled down Dallas Road toward Cook Street, a neighborhood friend had told him about. As we walked, I was constantly diverted by impulsive sub-goals. For instance:

Sub-goal One: Hey, there’s a walking path along the coast here. Let’s take it.

Sub-goal Two: Look at that darling house down the street. I want to see it.

Sub-goal Three: A rose garden! I love roses!

And so on. Though we ostensibly had a goal in walking around Victoria, allowing ourselves to be temporarily sidetracked created a better sense of place than simply following the map would have. Every time we stepped off the planned route, we expanded the coverage area of our cognitive map, and we firmed it up too, since we needed to return eventually to our original route.

Walking has been shown to contribute to happiness, creativity, calm, and clarity. Perhaps it’s when we approach our routes with a sense of openness and whimsy that getting from point A to point B does that best.

Next time, opt for a Distraction Walk. Set out with a goal in mind, like the store or the park (probably not work, unless you have a very understanding boss), and then allow yourself at least one curiosity-led side excursion. Admire a house on another street. Visit a dog. Photograph a bird. Navigational sub-goals will keep your internal GPS sharp and help you remember why you love living where you do.