Living Like a Tourist

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How does any of this relate to the construction of livable cities and towns? Why are my migratory habits relevant to the built environment? On the one hand, they don’t matter. Planners, engineers, and city councilmembers keep humming along trying to improve their cities whether people like me are engaged in the process or not. At best, I would play a very insignificant role in the betterment of my city, even if I lived here my whole life. But on the other hand, towns are not as strong as they could be if people move in and out of them regularly. This is true for two crucial reasons. First, infrastructure projects get traction because public opinion is behind them. Local organizations do the hard work of spreading their message and changing the minds of people who vote, run for office, and set legislative agendas. Second, in even the most walkable districts with street-level retail and protected bike lanes, something is missing if no one knows their neighbors. Something is missing if all you do is ride the beautiful bike lanes alone and sample the best restaurants in the area before packing up and moving elsewhere. The strongest towns have vast networks of human connection that stretch back past the immediate present. They have multi-generational families. They have local hangouts where patrons know and trust the shopkeepers they are supporting. The strongest towns are places of memory and connection. One of the primary reasons why we need towns with great infrastructure in the first place is because they produce fertile soil for communities to grow and thrive in. 

Thriving towns are exactly what people need to be convinced to stay and put down roots, rather than continue moving. Perhaps one reason so many people like myself freely move around the country is because they come from suburban non-places that failed to generate a connection to local spaces and people. These places are identical and interchangeable with thousands of other places scattered across the country. This is not true of vibrant cities that are unique and particular. Strong ties to local people cannot be quickly replaced in another town thousands of miles away. In this way, vibrant places become virtuous circles. By rising above suburban inanity, they encourage people to stay put. When people stay put, they have time to entrench themselves in local communities: They learn to care about the long-term prospects of their city because they plan to stay in it for the long haul. 

To get this process started, people need to place higher value on staying where they are. If this is true, in this equation, I am part of the problem and not the solution. Given my background as a mover, not a stayer, perhaps I am not the person to recommend that other people think hard about moving. Perhaps it is hypocritical of me to do so. But as a mover, I know how difficult it is to move away right at the moment when you have made friends in a particular place. I know how hard it is to find a community perfectly suited for you and then move away from it. I know that I have done nothing to meaningfully improve the places I have lived in. At times, it can be worth it to move, but other times, it might be wiser to forgo opportunities for advancement for the sake of the relationships you would be leaving behind. As our friendships are damaged when we move, so too are our cities. Our cities cannot thrive when we treat them as tourists do, moving from one to another without seeking to improve them. Instead, we need to treat them like living organisms that we are a part of and responsible for. The strength of our towns depends on it.

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