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What can a folkie teach us about town revitalization? Plenty!

Recently, one of our clients hosted a talk on town revitalization by one of our favorite folk musicians – Dar Williams. Yep, you read that right – a talk on revitalization by a musician. And it reminded us of all the great information in her book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns, A Travelling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities, that was published in 2017.

Based on her travels as a travelling musician, some keen observations and some research, she writes a wonderful book that is a worthwhile read for planners, civic leaders, community residents, business leaders and anyone who is interested in helping to bring back our towns and cities.

Thoughtful and from a different perspective than that of city planners, it will clearly resonate with planners, as she name-checks Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida, but also talks about (but doesn’t mention by name) Kevin Lynch’s work on mental mapping and how we navigate our way through towns, and Robert Putnam and the importance of social capital (more on that later).

How to start? Dar (she writes in such a personal way, how can I call her anything else than by her first name?) suggests starting a conversation about revitalization, start creating connections, and start meeting other residents.

She identifies a key ingredient for a successful revitalization - the existence or creation of local social structures like volunteer groups or just a group of like-minded people. These structures support “social capital”. What is social capital? It has been described as the networks of relationships among people in a place that includes a shared sense of identity, trust, cooperation and reciprocity.

Dar calls it “positive proximity” – when communities begin to positively interact which leads to residents starting to work together to bring their town back.

She identifies three categories of positive proximity: spaces, identity building, and translation.

Spaces – those places where people can interact, and also those points in time when people gather and spend some time as a group. These interactions are the basic ingredient for positive proximity. She defines good spaces as those that “minimize the downside of potential arguments and discomfort while quietly offering …dividends”. Creating those spaces is something that planners can help a community do, and also offers suggestions as to ways to fill those spaces with community residents. It is a grass roots effort to turn those spaces into places that generate positive personal interaction and create social capital, but planners can (and should) lend a hand to identify potential places and activities. Such spaces can be indoors or outdoors, it might be a library or coffee shop (Dar offers a typology of coffee shops as well), or an abandoned building that needs some TLC or a church, synagogue or mosque.

Identity Building – what is it about a place that makes it known to others? History? Culture and the arts? Ethnic communities? Natural features? What is a common element in a town that can bring people together to create that positive proximity? That element is what a community can use to build its identity. And it’s actually not building an identity, its more like amplifying and promoting what is already there. Identity building fits closely with authenticity, that elixir that prompts millennials to seek out places. Identity building starts with what is authentic to a place and builds on that. In this section of the book, she also discusses what is called “dark tourism”, places that explore and explain the darker side of history, like the Tenement Museum in NYC or the Civil Right Memorial in Montgomery, AL.

Translation – this has several aspects to it: how a town is arranged and presents itself to the visitor (through signs or the built environment) to others, how the local media communicates with its community (profiling local artists or event announcements), how individuals and organizations can become community connectors and bring people together, how partnerships are crucial to support revitalization. All of these things can generate the social capital that is so important to a town’s rebirth.

One of the great things about the book are the case studies all across our nation, from Gainesville FL, to Moab UT, from Beacon NY to Carrboro NC, with lots of insights, interviews with locals and lessons learned. The book also includes a local success story – Phoenixville, and its Firebird Festival - that used a sense of history and strong architectural character as some of its revitalization elements.

Dar also recognizes the downside of revitalization – gentrification – and her cases studies include some local efforts to respond to it, like increasing affordable housing.

At Eastwick, we already liked Dar and her music before the book came out, and now…YEAH! She is preaching many of the things that we see in successful town revitalization, and what we strive to bring to our clients.

Want to hear more? Read the book OR Check out the podcast with Dar and some folks from the Juniata River Valley

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