On placemaking, or a review of Melody Warnick’s This Is Where You Belong

Melody Warnick is no stranger to moving–or the itch that inspires it–, and considers herself pretty proficient at the practice. But then she and her family do move number 6 so her husband can take a tenure-track job at Virginia Tech. Faced with the reality of yet another new town, she longs to put down roots. This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Live is her attempt to figure out what it is, exactly, that makes a place feel like home.

ThisIsWhereYouBelong_CVF_110316.inddIn the book, Warnick talks to placemaking experts (as an aside, am I the only one that reads books like these and finds all these cool careers she didn’t know existed but sound really fun and interesting?) to find out ways to jumpstart feeling at home. She has chapters on volunteering, getting involved with local politics, making neighbors into friends, and even how simply walking somewhere creates a bond between you and where you live in a way that driving won’t. At the end of each chapter she includes a “Love Your City Checklist” with a variety of actionable ideas you can implement in your own community. There’s something for everyone there, and you don’t have to do them all–one of her main points is that just trying at all will be extremely helpful in establishing a sense of place.

I read the book with great interest since I’ve moved around a fair amount–it’s nothing compared to some people, but it’s enough to make the ‘where are you from’ question a slightly convoluted one. The book helped me understand why I felt at home in some places and so displaced in others.

If I think about why Germany and I didn’t mix, well, a large part of that was probably because I wasn’t doing any placemaking of my own. I walked a lot and took public transit, so scored high on that list, but my life there was pretty restricted to the university and my apartment. Mostly due to the language barrier (completely underestimated how long it would take me as a shy introvert to even try to talk German outside of language classes), but honestly also because I spent a good chunk of my time there battling clinical depression without realizing it. When I left Germany in 2013 for a fellowship in Utah, I had very little to show for my time there, and I kind of regret that.

I jumped at the chance to leave Germany, and moving to Utah felt like a breath of fresh air, albeit fresh air with a lot of culture shock. Utah was an interesting experiment, in that it was supposed to be a short-term home for me (the fellowship was nine months), so any placemaking I was doing in those early months had that in the back of my mind. Until I met L. and suddenly I was there for the long haul and had to step up my efforts.  Two things stand out for me there: I took a small seminar-type class at the university and met some other grad students, and I joined a fabulous friend’s fabulous book club. I distinctly remember meeting a friend one Saturday morning at a coffee place in my neighborhood, maybe a year and a half in, and thinking, ‘this is it, now I’m home.’ And that’s pretty much when L. got the California job offer and we made plans to move again. I thought moving with someone would be easier, and in some ways it was, but in some ways placemaking as a trailing spouse is especially hard. Or at least I found it so. I made L. promise we could stay here longer than two years, and I set about the task of building a new life, again.

I found myself nodding at a lot of what Warnick wrote, in the sense that she describes a lot of things I had done unconsciously in my attempt to settle in, like volunteering, or eating local, or just wandering around the neighborhood. I ended up signing up for a century that first spring, and I got to know so much of the peninsula while training (I’d go out on 40-60 mile rides every week). And because we only had one car and I didn’t have a job yet, I spent a lot of time walking to and from downtown, or the grocery store, or around the block with the dog. So I got to know my way around pretty quick. That, coupled with a new church where I quickly started volunteering, our commitment to trying out all the breakfast places in town, and finally landing a job of my own, meant I felt much more at home at the one-year mark than I had ever done in Germany and Utah.

The longest I’ve ever lived anywhere is the ten years we spent in California when I was a kid, so I can’t really fathom staying in one place for 15 or 20 or however many years and becoming a real local. But one of the things I appreciated about the book is that you don’t have to be–Warnick includes both long- and short-term strategies in her book, and implementing them will help you feel at home wherever you are, however long you stay there.

One last note: even if you’re not like me, you’re not a Mover, you’re a Stayer, there’s probably a lot you can learn from this book. You might instinctively being doing much of this already, but I bet there’s a tip or two in these pages that will make you love where you live, even more.

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