Like many Americans, Melody Warnick was a chronic mover. With her husband and family, she hopscotched five states in 15 years. The next place was always going to be the one they’d put down roots in and love. That led Warnick, a freelance writer, to ponder the concept of place attachment. In her wonderful new book, THIS IS WHERE YOU BELONG: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, she explores why place matters and provides simple steps that everyone can take to love where they live. Pick up a copy at your local bookstore. In the meantime, we spoke with Warnick from Blacksburg, Va. about her work.
Amy Cortese: What is place attachment and what led you to write this book?
Melody Warnick: Place attachment is that feeling of being at home in a place, of loving where you live, feeling like this is where you belong. It’s one of those squishy things that can be hard to measure, but its something that’s been interesting to sociologists and scientists for a while now. Most of us don’t really think about, but we know it when we feel it. And when you have that feeling, you tend to want to give back to the town, to invest locally, you care about the place in which you live.
I came to place attachment after moving around for about 12 or 13 years. We spent a couple of years in Austin, and before that Iowa, Utah and Virginia. Every time I moved I had this feeling that this next place is where we’re going to love it and stay forever. But that never happened. Even in Austin, which is a place that most people are bowled over by, it never quite felt like out home.
When my husband got a new job in Blacksburg, Virginia, we moved again. In the initial chaos and loneliness of the move, I realized this isn’t the perfect town either, and I might need to make some effort and mental changes to how I approach the places that I live. So that sent me on the road of research. I learned that place attachment is a feeling, but also a product of behavior. It’s something you can create for yourself.
AC: What are some of the benefits of place attachment?
MW: Your mental well-being increases when you feel happy or satisfied where you live. There are some surprising heath benefits. One study of women in Japan found that the women that felt connected to their neighborhood lived on average 6% longer.
It’s a new thing for many people… thinking about loving their place, on purpose, and consciously making choices to connect and engage in their town. It can have a lot of benefits for you and for your town as well.
AC: To conduct your research, you went through a series of what you call ‘Love Where You Live’ experiments. Tell me about that…
MW: I started doing these Love Where You Live experiments designed to make me feel more comfortable and happy in Blacksburg and help my town succeed. One of the hallmarks of place attachment is you’re interested in your town’s future and you want to see your town succeed—that’s the element of buying locally and investing financially in your community. There’s this circular effect where, as you invest in your town financially, your town does better and can create itself as a kind of place that attracts residents and makes them happier.
I divided my experiments into ten broad categories… things that research or common sense says will have an effect on your town or your feelings about your town—walking, buying local, connecting with your neighbors, eating local food, getting more involved in the political process. From each of these I would devise one or two small actions that I could undertake that would help me put the principles to the test.
For example, I volunteered at the historic downtown theatre called the Lyric. It’s like the town living room. I’d go and make popcorn and stand behind the counter and see people come in, you’d see everyone you knew. There’s a lot of evidence that volunteering makes people happy and healthier in general. And that spills over to the place where you are.
I also brought banana muffins to neighbors, invited our neighbors from Sri Lanka over for dinner and they reciprocated… it became this really nice thing.
One of the principles I learned is that, place is mostly what you think it is. There’s no one platonic version of a town or city—you have to embrace your town as it is. In Blacksburg, which is a college town, that turned out to be football—I’m not a huge football fan but I knew this was something that Blacksburgians were really into, there are tailgate parties every Saturday. So I went to a couple of games and ended up feeling an electric thrill from being in a community of a lot of people who cared about this place. It’s about embracing your town’s assets rather than focusing on what you wish was better.
AC: Little actions and civic engagement can have a bigger impact in the world beyond even your immediate place… do you see a broader national or political context for this?
MW: That’s key. People get angry with the state of the US, but they don’t necessarily apply those feelings to their own community. They’re more satisfied with their local and state government. It’s the great unknown, the other. The antidote to all that can be found in your own town. If you get to know people of difference backgrounds in your town and have positive interactions, its’ much harder to assume that everyone is terrible. It’s a mindset of trust. Simply trusting people can have positive physical benefits: a couple of studies found that people who trust their neighbors are 40% less likely to have a stroke and 67% less likely to have a heart attack!
AC: A lot of the creative placemakers you write about are average citizens who took the initiative… Any advice for people who may be a little crunched for time?
MW: Being a placemaker is very much like being an entrepreneur. It’s seeing the thing in your town that you want to fix or improve—a service you want to provide, an event you want to organize, or a public space that could use some benches and you’re the one that takes the initiative to go to the City Council and ask for it.
That can also be daunting. I tried to organize a sidewalk chalk festival in Blacksburg like one we went to in Austin. I had a really big vision for what this would be like, and I got some support from the downtown business association and an arts organization. Then I kind of freaked out. The thought of pulling off this enormous thing paralyzed me, so we scaled it way back and it ended up being part of a larger festival.
At the time it felt like a big fail. But as I talked to other community leaders, I realized that not everyone has to be the person who makes the thing happen. It’s also important to have people who just show up or are willing to take the two-hour shift. There are a lot of different entry points and ways to get involved.
AC: Where do economic developers and other municipal or state agencies fit in?
MW: There is a shift in the way communities are approaching recruiting and retaining businesses. In the book I talk about Oklahoma City which, 25 years ago, was using a very standard approach of offering a million tax breaks, land and other inducements to get large companies to settle here. The then-mayor tried to import United Airlines and when it fell through, they asked for feedback and the response they got was, ‘we just can’t see asking our employees to come live in Oklahoma City.’
That led them down a road of doing some placemaking, making Oklahoma City a place where people want to live. Some of that was things like improving the school system. But there was also a downtown riverwalk project, a kayaking center, a stadium—things that make the city more enjoyable.
A stadium might not be the solution for many areas, but find what your town is good at and promote it. Our economic development agency in Blacksburg promotes the “Scenic Seven”—seven bike trips and hikes in the area. We’re in the Blue Ridge mountains and the Appalachian trail runs near here. It’s a marketing thing to help attract businesses, but it’s mostly aimed at residents: if you complete all seven hikes you get a t-shirt. So I think there’s a really tight connection between place attachment and economic development.
AC: What about local business?
MW: Local independent businesses are so key to the success of towns. This is what makes you unique and distinguishes you from a sea of Applebees and Best Buys. When people are truly place attached, they want to see their town succeed. So you cannot say you want to see your town succeed if you don’t buy local.
AC: Here, here! Many people are sad when a local business closes, but turns out they weren’t shopping there, they were going to a chain or online.
AC: I’ll admit, I was one of those people that did most of my shopping on Amazon and Target. I liked the idea of local business but didn’t actually want to buy things there—maybe it was a little more expensive or inconvenient.
So I had that conversation with myself and thought, which business would I be sad about if it closed in my town? There’s a beautiful little toy store near where I live called Imaginations that I love having there, but I never bought anything there because it was a little more expensive. So I made a commitment that whenever my daughters got invited to a birthday party, that’s where I buy the gift. Plus they wrap it for you and it looks lovely and they’re happy to see you. Simply shopping in stores that are part of the local identity builds place attachment.
AC: So do you plan to stay in Blacksburg?
MW: We’re buying a house… that’s our commitment statement! When I started this research, I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. But now I want to stay.