Make Your Hometown Lovable

Note: This post is cross posted from Strong Towns. I wrote it for them, but wanted to archive it here too.

Life often comes to a crossroads when people are first starting out on their own. They are faced with a choice, find a place that they love and where they can find work, and move there, or settle where they grew up. When I graduated college, I too was faced with this choice. I wanted to move to Washington DC, continue my education, and work in the national security establishment. My girlfriend (now wife) wanted to stay close to her family.

Both options had their advantages for me, as they do for most people. Moving allows people to pick their surroundings and their jobs, but often means removing themselves from their support network of friends and family. Staying provides just the opposite qualities, it allows people to remain close to family and friends (at least the friends that don’t move away), but doesn’t provide much in the way of choices on where to live.

Obviously I chose the girl over the career I wanted, but at the time I was disappointed with the quality of the city I grew up in and still call home. However, I’ve found a third way that, over time, will allow me to have the best of both worlds: I’m working towards making my hometown a city I’d love, even if I didn’t grow up here. This third way of making hometowns loveable will be necessary if we want to ensure our communities thrive in the future.

As a society, we’ve forced this choice on people by building many soulless places over the past fifty years, cities with no sense of community or identity, nothing that makes them unique. In many cities that have been around since the early 1900’s, the globalized economy has taken its toll and destroyed once thriving communities. It is understandable to want to flee these places that are either soulless or dying, or both. But what if each of us decided to stay in our hometown to transform them into places worth living in and loving again?

Unfortunately transforming a city into a lovable place takes a herculean effort over a long period of time, and it cannot be done alone. It takes a community of leaders and activists to push changes to city plans and policies, create a vibrant local economy, and create a built environment that suits the needs of the community. There are many roles in such a community, a place for everyone no matter what their interests and skillsets. While the work is hard, and it takes time, the necessary tasks to start transforming a city into a lovable place are simple:

  1. Get involved in the existing community. If there isn’t an existing community, start building one. Talk to others in your hometown, find the people that are committed to the place, and start building a network of like-minded people. While a single person can do a lot to change a place, a community of people working together can be transformative.
  2. Determine what you want for your city and set goals to help ensure the community is pushing towards the same objectives. Make sure your network of like-minded people are truly like-minded. The list of goals doesn’t need to be anything specific or necessarily ambitious, a broad outline of simple goals will do. And accept that not everyone will support every goal, but that generally everyone will be moving in the same direction.
  3. Create a plan once there is general consensus on a list of goals. This plan doesn’t even need to be written down, just some key stepping stones to achieving the broader goals. Specifically, find those intermediate steps that help move you closer to multiple goals at the same time. If two of your goals are to increase the walkability of the streets and to minimize infrastructure costs, a good intermediate step would be to narrow the roadway widths, which helps achieve both goals at the same time.

Being involved in a community of like-minded people that are all tied to a specific place will make you fall in love with your hometime even if nothing gets done. However, with steady pressure over long periods of time, transformation is inevitable. That transformation can help solve society’s most pressing issues and ensure that our hometowns are places where our children and future generations want and are able to stay and raise their own families.

As for me, I’m well on my way towards helping make my hometown more lovable. It’ll be a long road, but my children will be happy to call Anaheim home when they are faced with the choice whether to stay or go.