In her 2016 book, “This is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are,” author Melody Warnick explores if a place can become the right place by our choosing to love it. She presents a list of ten “Love Where You Live” experiments that are supposed to lead to what is known as place attachment. Melody Warnick is a freelance journalist and self-described “chronic mover.” Over the past 15 years, she has written articles for The Guardian, Atlantic CityLab, Quartz, Reader’s Digest, O:The Oprah Magazine, Redbook, Better Homes and Gardens, and many other publications. This is her first book, and it has been featured in Time, Fast Company, Psychology Today, Realtor.com, Forbes.com, and Inc.com.
The book begins with Warnick moving to Blacksburg, Virginia, a town she would not have chosen to move to if her husband had not taken a new teaching job there. It is the fifth state she and her family have moved to in the last 13 years. Despite her lack of enthusiasm for Blacksburg, she is hopeful the move will be a good opportunity for renewal, and the chance to start over. Warnick, like many Americans, has a strong belief in the healing power of geography, or what can be described as “the geographic cure.” This is the belief that if we could just find the right place then we would be happy. The perfect life is waiting for us in the perfect city or town.
The author writes, “Moving offered absolution for whatever failures I’d amassed in my present town… Each time the moving truck pulled away from the curb, these petty vexations and regret vanished. Thus freed and forgiven, I’d relish the prospect of beginning again in the next city. Things would definitely be better this time.”
A quick Google search will yield countless results for city rankings and different variations of “The Best Places to Live in America.” Many cities go to extreme measures to be featured in these lists, and many of us pore over these lists thinking a happier, more successful life might be waiting for us in between the data sets. The author ponders the number of times she has moved, chasing after “the best place to live,” excited about the possibilities of a new life and new way of living, only to fall into old habits and routines and quickly grow disillusioned with her new town. Warnick’s book challenges the idea that there is one perfect place and instead proposes that we can learn to love where we live by engaging in certain behaviors that lead to place attachment.
The book is organized into twelve chapters that follow the author’s journey through each of the ten “Love Where You Live” experiments. The first chapter, entitled “The Lost Art of Staying Put,” introduces the reader to the author’s own struggles and reasons for writing the book. Each of the next ten chapters is dedicated to one of the place attachment behaviors and chronicles Warnick’s experience in carrying out the “Love Where You Live” experiments. The last chapter is about learning to “unpack” your life wherever you are, even if you still haven’t found your ideal “heart match” city. At the end of each of the chapters, two through eleven, is a list of suggested action items that are meant to help the reader achieve place attachment. The book is also packed with research and an extensive list of endnotes so it is easy to take a deeper dive into any topic you’d like to explore further.
The overall tone of the book is lighthearted and intended to appeal to a general audience. It would especially appeal to anyone who feels like they have not yet found the “right” place to settle down and be happy. It is easy to understand and a worthwhile read even for people with no previous knowledge of the subject matter. Warnick writes in a logical way by proposing a theory and then supporting it with evidence. She uses a combination of research and real-life examples to support her theories, as well as reliable and quality sources that help prove her arguments. The only addition I’d suggest would be some photos and/or graphics to help illustrate the concepts and drive the author’s points home.
Though the book is intended for a general audience, it is also useful for city planners, urban designers, architects, developers, or other professionals and community leaders who are involved in the business of placemaking. Many of the action items presented at the end of chapter two through eleven could just as easily be implemented by local governments and organizations as by individuals. After reading the book I have definitely compiled a list of things I want to implement in the city where I work. The documented research that Warnick has cited throughout could also be useful to help guide decision making by elected officials.
Warnick’s book is less about changing the physical makeup of our cities, and more about gaining a new perspective on and maximizing what’s already there. She argues that there is no objectively best place, only the best place for you right now, known as “person-environment fit.” She also proposes that you can learn to love where you live, even if it is not your ideal, which is described as unpacking your life wherever you are. The book adds to the ongoing debate about whether any one place is really better than another, and the dilemma of the grass always being greener on the other side. Warnick builds on previous findings on person-environment fit and place attachment and presents them in a nuanced way by challenging the reader to take action in his/her own community. Below, I’ve presented each of the “Love Where You Live” experiments and actions that individuals can take (“Average Joe-Tips”) as well as actions that professional placemakers can take (“Pro-Tips”).
Experiment #1: Walk More
The way we learn to navigate a place is called “mental mapping,” and humans most effectively develop cognitive maps of a town by exploring it on foot or bike. Driving limits us to a “windshield perspective” of our towns and prevents us from really observing the details of our environments.
Encourage walking in your community by making your own Walk signs at WalkYourCity.org.
“If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”
Experiment #2: Buy Local
In a study of businesses in Salt Lake City, researchers found that big-box retailers returned just 14% of their revenue to the local economy, whereas 52% of their revenue from locally owned independent stores continued to circulate locally, a phenomenon called the “local multiplier effect.”
Attend a cash mob or start one in your own town at cash-mobs.com.
Create districts of local, independent stores, (i.e., Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, the Pearl District in Portland, the East Village in New York), that “use architecture, streetscapes, and storefronts to give a town its distinct character.”
Experiment #3: Get To Know My Neighbors
“Neighborhood cohesion” is the level of closeness and connection neighbors feel toward each other. The higher the level, the more positive emotions and fewer physical ailments people report experiencing. “An enthusiastic neighborhood can… make a whole city feel welcoming.”
Celebrate Good Neighbor Day on September 28 (or any day) by offering to do something nice for your neighbor like bringing them a goodie basket, inviting them over for dinner, helping them with a chore, or simply saying hi.
Include design features that promote interaction in neighborhoods, “like wide sidewalks, front porches, local parks, and community gathering places.”
Experiment #4: Do Fun Stuff
“There’s no precise metric to indicate how many museums, restaurants, monuments, hiking trails, amusement parks, shopping malls, and nature preserves make a town entertaining enough. Everyone’s personal boring-meters are differently calibrated, based on who we are and what we love to do.”
“No two people ever read the same book, and...no two people ever live in the same city. Our experience of the place where we live depends entirely on who we are, how we interact with it, and how we interpret what’s happening around us. We create our places every day by the way we choose to view them.”
If the activities you like to do don’t exist in your community, create them! “Take a space where not much is happening - a park, an alleyway, a vacant building, an art gallery in the off-hours - and ‘activate’ it by doing something cool to bring it to life.”
Use the Project for Public Spaces Power of 10+ framework to identify targeted placemaking efforts.
Experiment #5: Explore Nature
“Place dependence” is a subset of place attachment that emphasizes feelings of reliance on a landscape. This is especially significant for those who have hobbies that require a specific geography, such as rock climbing, surfing, skiing, fly fishing, and numerous others. Research shows that when people are attached to where they live, they’re far more likely to protect it from environmental impacts. Rather than NIMBYism, this is called “solastalgia,” the feeling of distress associated with environmental change close to your home.
“Find ways to do outdoorsy things you love where you live. Even in cities, you can walk through parks, bike greenbelts, or dangle your feet in ponds.”
You can’t change your town’s geography, but you can create a list of outdoor activities for people to enjoy that they might not have otherwise been aware of.
Experiment #6: Volunteer
“One of the by-products of volunteering in and for your city can be a sense of ‘place identity.’ The idea is that, in the same way you might self-identify as a parent or a lawyer or a dog lover, volunteering helps you see yourself as a valuable part of your town. You join the collective ‘we’ of your place.”
Check your city’s website or one such as VolunteerMatch.org to find volunteer opportunities that match your interests. If you are short on time, you can donate to a charity whose mission you align with, or participate in a giving circle. If you are short on time and money, you can always perform random acts of kindness!
Find ways to harness the power of volunteers to help solve your most pressing local challenges. You can also try using a crowdfunding site such as Neighborly or ioby to fund small or even large-scale projects in your city.
Experiment #7: Eat Local
Almost all of us crave the proverbial Cheers-esque establishment where everybody knows our name, a so-called “third place” that’s neither home nor work but something in between. “Nothing contributes as much to one’s sense of belonging to a community as much as ‘membership’ in a third place.” Additionally, people are becoming increasingly curious about where their food comes from and supportive of locally grown produce. A study showed that those who participated in “civic agriculture” were more likely to be engaged in their communities and like where they live better than those who bought their food at conventional supermarkets.
Find your third place by becoming a regular at a local eatery in your town. Social media is a good place to find hidden gems. Shop at your local farmers’ market or join a CSA.
If you do not already have one, start a farmers’ market and/or community gardening program in your town. Combine community engagement with eating local by hosting a strEATing event like 500 Plates. Incorporate local restaurants in your strategy to support local businesses (see Experiment #2).
Experiment #8: Become More Political
“Most of us don’t ponder the parks department or the police force until it fails us. The better bureaucracy works, the less attention it draws.” “The trouble is, we trust our leaders just enough to stay completely uninvolved until we’re angry about something.”
Get involved with your local government. Attend a city council meeting. Join your local citizens academy. Run for an elected position, or volunteer for a board or committee.
Make it easier for people to participate. Less than 25% of Americans go to public meetings. Explore online engagement tools like MySidewalk.com or Neighborland.com, or bring city services directly to your residents with a City Hall To Go.
Experiment #9: Create Something New
“Creative placemaking” is an approach to community development that taps the creativity of artists to strategically shape the physical and social character of cities by activating public and private spaces, rejuvenating structures and streetscapes, and improving local business viability and public safety.
If you don’t already have one, create a Cultural Arts Council in your city. Make sure artists have a seat at the table for long-range planning processes.
Experiment #10: Stay Loyal Through the Hard Times
“We’re a nation of immigrants, transplants, and literal trailblazers, people whose DNA appears to carry the code for burning the ships and starting again somewhere else.” Eventually, “Bad Things” happen in every city. These can be divided into two categories: shocks and stresses. Shocks are one-time events like natural disasters or violent outbursts, while stresses are ongoing, chronic challenges, such as crime, traffic, unemployment, or lack of affordable housing. When “Bad Things” happen in your community, will you stay and help fix them, or head for greener pastures?
Create your own personal emergency plan that includes a list of contacts, evacuation plan, and supplies.
Ensure you have Hazard Mitigation Plan in place. Conduct annual audits and practice drills so you are prepared to act if disaster strikes.
This book is comparable to others written on the same topic. Two books by Peter Kageyama come to mind. The first is “For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places,” which explores what makes cities lovable and people’s emotional connections with the places they live. It offers suggestions for harnessing the power of ordinary citizens to bridge the gaps that "official" city-makers can’t fill. Kageyama’s follow up book, “Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places,” builds upon the premise that love of place matters and suggests practical steps that community leaders might use to make their own city a place where residents feel emotionally connected to.
It is about realizing that no matter how much we want to be different, there’s just no getting away from ourselves. We envision that we would be a different person if we won the lottery or moved overseas. In the attempt to get away from being with ourselves and searching for something or someone else to make us happy, the grass constantly appears greener someplace else. But in every place and every situation, there we are again. We must learn to water our own lawn. I discovered during my own move from California to Colorado about four years ago in search of my "home" that happiness is not something you find, but something you create.
In the planning profession, there is a lot of emphasis on physical development and the physical building of structures. We like to believe that our urban designs, architecture, and streetscapes are what make cities great. We can get stuck thinking that if we come up with the perfect comprehensive plan, zoning code, or design guidelines, that we will magically create a perfect utopian community. We forget about social networks and connections and that community is made up of people, not buildings. Cities would be nothing without the people who inhabit them.
Warnick’s book is a good reminder that the planning profession and placemaking is equally about building both social and physical communities. Probably the ultimate example of social community, or rather, intentional community, is the Burning Man event which takes place in the middle of the Nevada desert every year. The temporary Black Rock City is located in an inhospitable environment with no trees, no water, and virtually no infrastructure - hardly the city planning utopia envisioned by Le Corbusier or Ebenezer Howard. Yet this self-described “temporary metropolis dedicated to art and community” has attracted hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world since it first moved to the desert in 1991. Attendance at last year’s event was over 67,000, a larger population than many US cities. The success of Burning Man illustrates the importance of social connection and that sometimes, even if for only two weeks, it even takes precedence over physical comfort or design.
After carrying out the ten “Love Where You Live” experiments, Warnick does indeed find herself more place attached to Blacksburg. The process of writing the book and studying placemaking reframed the way she viewed what she perceived to be Blacksburg’s deficiencies. She realized that a perfect utopian town is not a real place, but only one that we idealize in our minds. Every place, much like a relationship, has its flaws and annoyances. There is no universally perfect place, only the perfect place for us, right now. A town might have all the right amenities and accolades and be on top 10 lists in magazines, but still not feel like home. You have to find your “heart match.”
One of the findings that came as a surprise to Warnick was that even the most place attached people still move frequently. America is one of the most mobile nations on the planet, and many of us move over and over for a number of reasons. A lot of Americans don’t like the idea of being locked in one place; however, mobility should not stop us from loving wherever we live right now. Instead of waiting to be happy someday, when we find the right town, job, house, car, spouse, physique, or (fill in the blank), we should unpack our suitcases and lives wherever we are. We can become place attached even if it’s not our forever home.
Which “Love Where You Live” experiment would you be willing to try where you live now? Do none of them suit your fancy? Not to worry - here are 100 more ideas. Share your thoughts in the comments area below.
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Credits: Image by Kelly Hickler and Creative Commons images courtesy of John Wardell, Kyle Harmon, Tony Webster, Brett Sayles, Eneida Nieves, Kaboompics.com, Clem Onojeghuo, Gotta Be Worth It. Data linked to sources.
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