For many of us in the urbanist world, the idea of upgrading physical aspects of our cities with a goal of improving quality of life through improving quality of place is axiomatic. That seems to be a tougher case to make in small towns, except perhaps basic Main St. beautification.
One challenge I’ve noticed is that people who live in small towns have a strong belief that it’s already a great place to live. In part this is a self-selection matter: the people who didn’t like it are gone. But in part it’s also because their belief is true.
However, so much of what makes up the quality of place in a small town is the people in it, in their relationships, experiences, shared history, etc. I think about Laconia where I grew up. To me, the quality that makes that place so wonderful to me is my family, the house I grew up in, the church I attended, the schools I went to and the experiences I had there, the relationships I built. When I drive down the road everything I see triggers memories, maybe even memories of something that’s no longer there.
But those are all things that are unique to those of us who are already established in a place. So it can be difficult for us to relate to what a newcomer sees when they drive through. Yes, newcomers can build those experiences too, but that takes time. People and businesses thinking about moving in don’t have those great, positive experiences yet. All they can judge the community by is the numbers they see in their spreadsheet, and what it looks and feels like when they are there and the surface interactions they have when visiting.
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get honest, direct feedback on what that is. And because our own experience blinds us, we can’t fully divorce ourselves from it to see clearly like an outsider would. This makes it difficult for a lot of places to see where they need to change. Which is a shame, because stereotypes notwithstanding, it is possible to find a great new home as a newcomer to a small town. But you have to get them there first.