How to Love Where You Live, No Matter Where You Live
An interview with author Melody Warnick, on her new book, "This Is Where You Belong."
I’ve considered moving at least six times since I graduated college in 2010. Most often it’s been to New York, the writing capital of the world, where I figured I’d have a better chance of making it in publishing. Other times have been to Charleston, S.C. (due to the ocean, history, and southern culture) and Athens, GA, where my best friend moved in 2012. Then I met my fiancée, who took me to visit her family in Salt Lake City, and I found 100%, without a doubt, where I wanted to move next. The mountains, the skiing, the affordability: What didn’t it offer?
But that’s when I remember: everything that my current home (Nashville, TN) offers. This includes friends, walkability, great food, southern culture, and my colleagues in the small-but-ever-growing writing community.
This was why, when the president of Livability shot me an email with an interview featuring Melody Warnick, the author of This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, I was immediately intrigued. The job of our site is to help people find the best places to live--for them. Yet, this book (and author) argued for a different take: It’s not about finding the best place to live for you; it’s about learning to love the place you’re in, no matter where that is.
Wanting to know more about this, and the 10 experiments she conducted to help gain “place attachment” to Blacksburg, VA, where she reluctantly moved with her husband in 2012, I sat down with Melody to talk about livability, walkability, and how cities can convert tourists into residents.
Livability: So the inspiration for this book was your move to Blacksburg, VA, which you weren’t thrilled about, but felt you could learn to love. After going through all the experiments, how’s it going in Blacksburg? Did they work?
Melody Warnick: They actually did work. It was funny because, as I was writing the book and doing these experiments, there was a part of me that was like, “This isn’t going to work, but I’m going to have to say that it worked because I’m writing a book about it.” And so I was really pleasantly surprised when I felt my attitude toward my town begin to change. It was really these small moments of realization, this slowly dawning appreciation for what my town was and the things in it, and the people I’d met. I’d be doing a hike or something, then all of a sudden be like, “I really love it here!”
So if I walked up to you on the street and said, “Give me one word to describe Blacksburg,” what would it be?
This sounds cheesy, but I would say “friendly.” We’re in the South, and there’s just kind of this generally feeling of friendliness. People will say hi to you; they’ll smile at you. And I know that doesn’t happen everywhere.
What about a slogan for Blacksburg?
[Laughs] That’s a good question. I think our real slogan is something really kind of dumb, like, “Blacksburg: A Different Kind of Place.” Or something really nondescript and lame. [Editor's Note: It's actually "A special place."]
I would say, and this is not a good slogan because I just thought of it right now, but, “Blacksburg: Where People Really Care.” Maybe it’s because it’s a university town, and you have a lot of educated and idealistic people. But we have a lot of people who are really dedicated to the community; who volunteer a lot; who are really interested in making it better. I think the another slogan for Blacksburg might be, “If God Didn’t Love [Virginia Tech] Hokies, Then Why Did He Make Fall Colors Orange and Maroon?” Because Blacksburg is all about its Hokies.
On the topic of college towns, for someone who hasn’t lived in one, is moving to one, or is considering moving to one, what are some ways a person could utilize a local college or university to fall in love with where you live?
First of all, college towns are uniquely situated to give you stuff to do. Blacksburg is a town of about 43,000, and the majority of that is students. So in essence we’re a small town with an unnaturally large amount of social offerings--because of the university. Concerts and plays and lectures and readings by famous authors and sporting events. Having things to do and people with which to do them is one of the keys to feeling attached to where you are. So if you’re lucky enough to live in a college community, you will have a lot of that. Even if they’re just student productions.
I’ve also found that college towns, because of the nature of the student population and the faculty population, tends to be a little transient. That can make towns more welcoming and open to all kinds of people, which is important for place attachment, too.
Out of all the experiments you did in an effort to gain place attachment, what do you think was the hardest? In other words, what’s the greatest obstacle a new resident may face in trying to love where they live?
I think the biggest obstacle in doing the experiments is a willingness to get out of one’s comfort zone. I am a big introvert and going to places where I don’t know people, putting myself out there, having conversations with strangers; all that stuff that can be really integral to meeting new people when you’re new in town. Those kinds of things are really not my favorite. Even the stuff like developing relationships with store owners or the clerks at your grocery store, having conversations. Some people are really good at those; it comes really naturally. But I think a lot of us struggle, especially now that we have social media in our pockets. We don’t necessarily think to engage with strangers.
You talk about the importance of walking your new city. Do you still walk regularly in Blacksburg? And if so, did you find that there was a point where you were like, “Meh, I’ve seen it all”? As in, it didn’t have the same effect as when you began exploring the community.
I do still walk regularly. I treat walking as basically my one form of exercise. [Laughs] But definitely after awhile, you’re not getting that same sense of mental map-making that you do at the beginning. Like, “I have no idea where I am, but now I’m figuring it out because I’m on foot.” You kind of have your routes that you take, and it becomes a little more automatic. I’ve found that I still appreciate the walk because things do always change. As the seasons change, you’re seeing different plants; the trees look different; there are different flowers. Different stuff is happening around the neighborhood. There’s a construction project going on over here, or new people moved into a house. The really unusual thing, that thing that surprised me, is that I’m still discovering new places to walk. I actually posted a photo on Instagram yesterday of me doing a little trail walk that like’s a half mile from my house. It goes through the woods; it’s off the sidewalks; it’s on a dirt path. And I didn’t know it was there for the first four years that I lived here, even though it’s right near my house. I liken it to outer space: There’s always more to discover. If you’re totally sick of your neighborhood, that’s fine. Walk around your work, or hop in the car, drive to a trail or just a new neighborhood. It’s hard to imagine just how difficult it is to exhaust your home town.
You liken finding the right place for you to finding a the right partner for you. You mention your friend who, if there was a city equivalent of her in style and manner, it would be Austin. Have you ever considered a place with this in mind for yourself?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like every time I travel I do that. This summer I was in Seattle for a few days. And Seattle is one of those cities that people love. People feel really passionate about it. And it has a great reputation. I totally enjoyed being there, but even after just a couple of days, I could that it wasn’t my city. I was not the type of person who would really fit in in Seattle. Which is not to say that if I did end up moving there that I’d be miserable; I think I would find my niche and do the experiments I did in the book, and I’d find a way to be happy there. It just didn’t speak to me the way it might speak to other people.
But I went to a conference in Brookings, S.D. a couple weeks ago and it was funny because I was telling people where I was going and they’d laugh. For some reason the Dakotas are the most maligned states in the nation. And yet, when I went there, I just fell in love with the town. People were really friendly. It had this very plain-spoken Midwestern vibe. Sometimes I think that if I were apart of the country, I’d be the Midwest.
That’s a great transition, because you mention converting tourists into residents in the book. Are there ways a city could objectively go about converting tourists into residents? Or is the experience too subjective?
I think the Park City, UT example I give in the book is a good one because in that chapter I talk about place identities, and the attachment that people have to a place when it allows them to say, “This town allows me to do the things I care deeply about.” So towns that want to convert visitors into residents should find ways to show off the assets it has. Essentially, they should be themselves. When towns are authentically themselves, and allow visitors to have a great experience there, that’s what makes people fall in love with a place.
Let’s look at it the other way now: If someone is considering moving to a place, what are some things they can do while traveling there to get a good idea if it’s right for them?
So I have met a surprising number of people who have gone about this in a really systematic way. People who have compiled spreadsheets and qualities that matter to them in a city. And I think that will be slightly different for everyone. Some people really want an art scene. Others really want good restaurants, or outdoor activities.
I think the first step is figuring out what matters to you in a place. And it may begin with looking at the place you live now and deciding, “What about this place is meeting our needs? What are the things we love best about it? And what are the things that aren’t working about it?” Then, as you visit new places and try them out, you put them to the test.
What do you think is the worst mistake people can make when choosing a new city? In other words, what’s something that people latch onto a lot as a reason for moving somewhere, yet really might not be as true of an indicator of future happiness as they think?
I think low cost of living is a big one. I know I’m prone to this in my fantasies. Imagining what it would be like to move to Indianapolis and be able to get the $200,000 house. Or the $100,000 house. And then you start looking at some of the Rust Belt cities and you have the $30,000 house. Wouldn’t that be so amazing? I think a lot of us equate home prices with happiness. We think if we can get into a house that’s really affordable, then everything else doesn’t matter. That the home is, essentially, the place. And I don’t think that that’s true at all. I think that’s how you end up with a fantastic and super affordable home in a community that you really don’t like.
Let’s crossover to politics now. You give readers several tips on how to broaden their political horizons if, say, they’re liberal and end up in a conservative town. Do you have any suggestions for cities on how they might be able to develop a more moderate population?
There are actually two questions there. First, can a city attract more members of the opposite party? Or more moderates? The research shows, no, it’s not possible. I looked at a study--I didn’t write about it in the book, but I’ve written about it since--that looked at Wisconsin and these really polarized counties in the state. Dane County around Madison, which is incredibly liberal. And another county around Milwaukee that was far more conservative. What happened is, over time, the communities kind of fed on themselves and they became even more conservative or liberal. Whatever they were, they became more so over time--because a conservative from Madison might move away and a liberal would buy their house. And conservatives who needed to move to the area wouldn’t move to Madison because of its reputation.
So, I think that’s really hard to change. But the thing that I can think of that cities can do to help is to make their city the most welcoming environment possible for all kinds of political voices. And that might be organizing special dialogue sessions where we invite people from different political parties to engage in some sort of discuss on a topic in a non-heated way. Or, we try to engage more people in the political processes that aren’t based on parties. A lot of decisions that towns or cities have to make aren’t really Republican or Democrat decisions. They’re, “Are we going to build a rec center? Or are we going to build a new school?” There are a lot of ways, which I address in the book, to engage more voices in that process.
Your book is essentially about helping people fall in love with their cities, no matter where they live. But let me ask the opposite question: How might you know it’s not work, and it’s time to move instead?
I have a friend here in Blacksburg; she’s an older woman, and she’s lived here for 16 years or something. And she just doesn’t feel at home here. The whole time I was working on the book she was so supportive and loved the premise, and then she’d be like, “But that doesn’t really apply to me, because I’ve tried those things and they haven’t worked.”
On the one hand, I believe that, no matter where you are, you can probably make yourself feel better about it. But on the other hand, if you have tried the Love Where You Live experiments and you still feel like this town or this city just isn’t right, I am totally not against moving. I am all for people thoughtfully finding the place where the fit is better.
What I would recommend doing before getting to that point is giving it at least three years if you can. My book is all about trying to speed up the process of place attachment, but it is true that a lot of it just happens over time. And if you expect to feel incredibly at home in the first six months, or even a year, you may be disappointed.