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.

Issue 16: When Bad Things Happen to Good Towns

Melody WarnickGreat towns, Place love, VirginiaLeave a Comment

If you live in Blacksburg, Virginia, you’re apparently obligated to hate Charlottesville, at least a little. Every team has its cross-town rival, and the University of Virginia is Virginia Tech’s, thus—and correct me if I’m wrong, because I know zero about sports—we are natural enemies. Giving a talk in Charlottesville a few months ago for the Virginia Festival of the Book, I nervously cracked a joke about being from Blacksburg, and someone said, “We’ll forgive you.”

In truth, we’re a bit jealous of Charlottesville. When I was writing This Is Where You Belong, one of the Blacksburgians I interviewed, a budding placemaker and developer, described his vision for our town, the centerpiece of which would be a vibrant, restaurant- and retail-thronged pedestrian mall just like Charlottesville’s. Then a few weeks ago I gave a speech in Lynchburg, Virginia, to help kick off the city’s downtown master plan renewal. Afterward, one of the town employees gave voice to the secret longings of the southwest Virginian heart when he said, “Everyone wishes they were Charlottesville.”

Would we want to be Charlottesville now? What happens when a great city comes to be irrevocably associated with something terrible? When its name alone becomes synonymous with racism and violence?

A few weeks ago my friend mentioned she’d picked a paint color for her house: “Sandy Hook Gray.” The shock I felt illustrates the problem here. There was a time when the name Sandy Hook evoked nothing more sinister for Benjamin Moore customers than the earthy shade of a colonial Connecticut stone house, but it must be an unscathed few who don’t hear the name now and think, at least briefly, of first graders being shot in their schoolrooms. That’s not something you want to associate with a paint color, let alone an entire town.

Will Charlottesville take on similar tones? Unfortunately, it probably will, the way to some outsiders Blacksburg will only ever call to mind the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech. The hope I can offer is that’s not how locals see our town. People who lived here when that tragedy occurred (I didn’t) still deal with some very real grief; a small part of that may be grief that the place they love bears a shadow in the public mind. The shooting forever changed how outsiders see us. And yet it’s not how Blacksburg defines itself. As with Charlottesville, what happened here in Blacksburg seems, to locals, an anomaly. It’s not representative of who we are, what our place is like, or whether or not we love it.

My friend Jessie, who moved to Charlottesville several years ago and just bought a house there, posted a picture on Facebook of her family out to lunch at a restaurant in town. They were showing their city some much-needed love, she said. That’s what makes suffering cities resilient. Their people continue to love them. In these worst-case scenarios, place attachment proves powerfully healing.

Even a longtime foe like Blacksburg understands that.


Shameless self-promotion portion of the newsletter: I was the first guest on the CityWorks Xpo podcast a while back, which makes me especially thrilled that it’s since turned into this powerhouse gathering place for placemaking big thinkers. Have a listen here.

7 items of interest

1. “You talk to any 16- or 17-year-old … and they all say the same thing: I want to get out of here. But then they reach a certain age, and they want to give their kids the kinds of experiences they had.” Why people return to dying towns.
2. How would doing this project in your town change it for the better?
3. A coal town recovers from losing coal.
4. The magic of street play.
5. Half of us want to move elsewhere. The half that hasn’t read my book. Ha.
6. Nature words are disappearing from books, music, and movies—not a good sign for place attachment.
7. Bjork wants you to walk (via Project for Public Spaces).

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Issue 15: Buy the lemonade.

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Buy local, Place love, VirginiaLeave a Comment

My kids have spent approximately 1 million hours staring at screens this summer, and this morning my horror at my own lazy parenting came to a head. “NO SCREENS!” I intoned. I helped my distraught 10-year-old recover from the shock by brainstorming what she could do instead. Number 1 on her list was “Have a lemonade stand,” an activity I normally discourage because it requires arduous tasks like hauling the folding table from the basement. But desperate times and all. With her friend Grace, Ruby made cookie dough brownies and two containers of Crystal Light, posted hand-drawn signs at the top of the street, then expectantly set up shop (and the folding table) at the end of the driveway.

Let me tell you one of the things I like best in the world: people who stop for lemonade stands.

Every potential customer is driving a car, speeding elsewhere. And still, shockingly, a dozen people stopped, including our neighbors from both sides and one old guy with a scruffy beard who braked hard, shifted into reverse, and drove 75 yards backwards to buy a plastic cup of lemonade from two kids. Even the UPS guy partook. Almost everyone said, “Keep the change.” In about an hour the girls made $25, half of which they’re going to donate to the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad.

What’s that impulse that compels people to stop for lukewarm raspberry lemonade and brownies that have been manhandled by 10-year-olds without food handling permit? It is an act of almost pure selflessness. And it represents one of the best ways to love your community. You stop just to make two 10-year-olds giddy happy. You stop because nurturing neighborhood relationships matters more than rushing elsewhere.

I’m trying to be the kind of person who stops at lemonade stands, literally and figuratively. Seeing other people who do the same made me love where I live today.


Shameless self-promotion portion of the newsletter: The San Francisco Chronicle recently published a selection of first lines of books, and mine was among them. So that’s cool. Also cool: giving a TEDx talk in Fargo, North Dakota, last week. I’ll post the video when it’s out.

7 items of interest

1. I didn’t know emojitecture was a word, but I love it.
2. “Intimate connections rarely expose us to new ideas because we already know what, for example, our spouses, mothers and sisters think.” An argument for getting to know your neighbors, from my friend Marc Dunkelman, that goes perfectly with this CityLab piece about the power of weak ties as seen at the neighborhood Y.
3. Turning immigrants into American citizens is a boon for cities.
4. What activity would make a neighborhood bench a place to hang out? And are you willing to organize it?
5. As you know if you’ve read my book, I’m lukewarm about “best cities” lists, but I like this one because I’ve visited 14 of the 15 named cities! (Sorry, Nashville. Soon, I promise.)
6. I say “soda,” and I’m starting to say “y’all.” I’M A MONSTER.
7. This beautiful video about an Iowa town struggling to re-create itself exemplifies place attachment and kinda made me cry.

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