Native American New Urbanism: How America’s Poorest County Created a Vision for the Future of Cities

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An Indigenous Vision for the Future

Thunder Valley is just one community on Pine Ridge. There are a total of nine political districts, each with their own communities. “We’d like to see one of these in all the districts,” said Andy. The development might look different in each place. “We’re right along the road here, so retail made a lot of sense. But other more isolated communities might have more agriculture.”

They created a template for what a 21st-century, regenerative community could look like. It’s not meant to be copy-pasted all across America, but to serve as inspiration for how one might go about creating a development process that’s reflective of the people in each place.

Since starting Thunder Valley, over 70 other Indigenous communities had reached out to them and expressed an interest in doing something similar. “We don’t want Thunder Valley to be the exception,” said Nick. “We had to move beyond inspiration and start trying to build infrastructure and a system that could support a growing movement for Native people.” He would go on to found another organization, the NDN Collective, to build Indigenous power at a larger scale.

Incorporating many voices into a single community vision for the future can be a challenging experience, and at the end of one town hall meeting, Nick recalled feeling exhausted, ready to go home for the day. But right before he could leave, someone approached him.

“This unci, that means ‘grandma’ in Lakota, she ended up coming up to me. She was 91 years old. And she came up to me and she said, ‘Takoja,’ that means ‘grandson.’ She said, ‘That was the best meeting I ever went to.’ And I was like, ‘Really? Why?’

“And she said, ‘91 years I lived on this reservation … But in those 91 years, nobody ever asked me what I wanted for my children’s future and my grandchildren’s future. Nobody ever asked me those things and meant it. And today, people asked those things to me and they meant it, and I shared them.’ And she said, ‘That’s why this is the best meeting I ever went to.’”

That’s the pursuit of Thunder Valley and community builders everywhere. It’s a vision for change that asks us what we really want for our future—and means it. 

Thunder Valley’s strength doesn’t come from any one silver bullet, but from the way its leaders have combined many different principles. They’ve grown incrementally, building off each success to create a time-tested and cost-effective process. They’ve rooted everything in the desires and culture of the community. They’ve combined tactical, bottom-up action with a long-term vision. And they’ve bridged the divide between places to live, work, and play, and the land that supports them all. By coming together as the resident experts, we can begin to create places that our descendants may one day look upon with the same pride and admiration given to the great cities of the world.

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