I just read a delightful book: “For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair between People and Their Places.” It was recommended to me by Diana Lawson, executive director of the Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) and chair of SoMa, the downtown Elkhart revitalization group. It's natural that Diana would have a passion for this book's theme: actually loving the place where you choose to live. In her role at the CVB, she and her team work to promote all seven cities and towns in our county. With SoMa, along with other downtown advocates, this group is working to make our downtown a place where people choose to “Live. Work. Play!”
is a community planning initiative working to make downtown Elkhart a better place to work, live and play. You can read more about the group in its community blog, Gateway Mile
For the Love of Cities was written by Peter Kageyama, co-founder of the Creative Cities Summit, an event that brings together citizens and practitioners around the idea of "the city." He's former president of Creative Tampa Bay, a grassroots community change organization -- perhaps somewhat like SoMa, only on a larger scale.
So you don't think he's a total urban nerd, he's originally from our neighboring state of Ohio, went to Ohio State, earned a BA in political science, played bass guitar in a decent alt rock band with a future business partner, attended law school at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland and practiced law for two years. According to Peter, that didn’t take and he now refers to himself as “a recovering attorney.”
He is totally sold on the importance of creativity, arts and culture in one's community – components that make a city believe in itself. He's also a proponent of taking the idea of city-building out of the exclusive hands of architects, engineers, planners and politicians, and instead empowering people in their communities to get involved in re-sculpturing their city. In Elkhart we're fortunate that the people Peter refers to as a city's "co-creators" work hand-in-hand with our city administration, along with entrepreneurs, artists, professionals and others dedicated to making Elkhart the best it can be. We are also fortunate to have the understanding and support of our local print and online media partners of what groups like SoMa are trying to accomplish.
I have to admit that early on in the book, when he spoke so passionately about "loving" your city, it made me feel a little uncomfortable. "Like," yes, but love? Advocate for, promote, work to make it better, yes, but love??
But Peter says, "Think about it. We don't hear 'love' being mentioned in council meetings or at the planning commission or in the zoning hearings. (Amen!) It reminds me of how easily we say that we love fried chicken or (pizza); it doesn't seem very meaningful. Yet love is one of the most basic and powerful motivations in our cosmology. It is something all of us can understand and relate to, and yet it is conspicuously absent from our conversation about community building. But why? Is it unmanly or undignified to talk about our emotions in the public realm? Perhaps the traditionally male-dominated world of politics, architecture and planning has conspired to sterilize our conversations about cities. We experience cities emotionally, yet we talk about them technically."
In a survey called "Soul of the Community" completed by Gallup in conjunction with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, it was found that few of us are "in love with" our cities. Only 24 percent of those interviewed said they were even "attached" to their communities (a far cry from loving it!) Furthermore, 36 percent were "neutral" and 40 percent were "unattached." In other words, seven in 10 people essentially don't care about their communities. What would the percentages be like if that survey were taken here in Elkhart? With the restoration of the gorgeous, historic Lerner Theatre; the amenities along the RiverWalk Culture Trail, like the beautiful Wellfield Botanic Gardens; the efforts by SoMa and others to restore our downtown and its arts and entertainment district -- would there be a higher percentage of attachment or even love for our city?
In times of diminished city, state and federal budgets, allocating funds for more fun, esoteric aspects beyond infrastructure improvements or just basic maintenance can be a challenge. However, Peter offers three key aspects that can serve as the "magic ingredients" to community satisfaction:
#3: Aesthetics, like parks, natural spaces, waterways and overall beauty. Think: the RiverWalk, our two rivers converging at Island Park, Wellfield Botanic Gardens, NIBCO Water & Ice Park and more.
#2: Social offerings, like a vibrant downtown nightlife, daytime events, fun activities for individuals and families. Think the Elkhart Jazz Fest, ArtWalk Wednesdays, Summer Dance and more.
#1: Openness. Did this one surprise you? It’s referring to whether our community welcomes differing demographic groups: seniors, racial/ethnic minorities, college students, immigrants. Here, openness is synonymous with opportunity: to make changes, to create something untried, to make a difference.
As you would imagine, Peter has some simple recommendations for what we can do to move the love for our city of Elkhart forward:
- Don't be afraid to say "love." Just adding the word to discussions about Elkhart help bring an emotional element to the conversation.
- Role play. Pretend you're a tourist here, seeing Elkhart with fresh eyes. Where would you take yourself?
- Try a new transport mode. Bike or walk instead of driving to work or to the store.
- Become a co-creator or volunteer to help a project that's underway. Volunteering to assist with an existing project could be fun -- and eye-opening.
- Use more social media. Social media builds social capital. Experiment with Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Or start your own blog!
Peter believes "we need to expand our thinking on the value of emotional connectivity and find ways to engage the human heart. Because when we are loved, we thrive. When cities are loved, they too thrive. Every place has people who love it. (We need to) find them. Bring them together, ask them for their help. Find what is lovable about (Elkhart) and (work to) make it better."
Hmm… with our city's motto of "Elkhart, the City with a Heart" we may just be well on our way!