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You're Not From Around Here, Are You? Thoughts on Identity, Place and Public Process


You're Not From Around Here, Are You? Thoughts on Identity, Place and Public Process

hoosier-car When I read the Sustainable Cities Collective blog post “Urban Development: The Great Gentrification” by Jim Russell, it resonated deeply on many things I have observed and experienced, both in my personal life as well as my professional life as a planner – especially when it comes to interacting with people.  I tucked away the URL and began taking notes, the assembly of which compose this reaction piece.

Where Are You From?

As someone who finds the hometown question not an easy one, I have composed a couple responses.  My short answer is “Bethesda, Maryland.”  A more in-depth response might go like this, “well, my parents worked for the State Department and we moved a lot growing up so I call many places home.”  Or something like that.  If they pry I will say I was born in the Philippines, lived eight years in India and three in Austria before returning to go to college in New York.  Despite an international upbringing, I identify as an American, but pinpointing where exactly in America is a bit harder.

How Long is Legit?

Russell’s article observed, “Hoosier, Okie, and carpetbagger. As much as Americans move, we hate newcomers.”  Americans are a nation of migrants.  Some may settle down for a few generations, but at some point someone or some group has moved from one place to another.  I have yet to work with a community that does not have some underlying dynamic at play between “come heres” and “been heres” tensions that are often revealed when discussing the future.  Consensus can prove elusive when faced with divergent opinions rooted in different perceptions of identity.  More often than not, divergent groups share more values in common than they might realize.  A well-designed public process should nudge the conversation towards positive shared values and goals.

2013-09-12 18.27.26Some Stories

In 2012 and 2013 we conducted a number of small town revitalization workshops. In nearly every town we worked there was an underlying tension between an old guard (the “been heres”) and more recent arrivals, aka “come heres.” The way we worked through this was to get both groups to the table early on and focus on shared values and outcomes that all could agree on. For example, the community workshops were successful because they focused on a number of simple concepts that all groups could agree on – creating great public spaces, building connections between old and new business owners, advertising the community as a great place to live and visit, and fostering a new group of community leaders that included both new and legacy residents.

I recently had the good fortune to assist the historic Town of Front Royal, VA with a visioning process.  In the simplest terms, the town has an industrial past, but has become in recent decades a bedroom community for people travelling to jobs elsewhere.  The industry that used to employ thousands is now gone and has left in its wake some properties that will be a challenge to reuse and repurpose.  The process identified the need to clarify and focus on defining a community identity for the future, recognizing they are transitioning.  Rather than focusing on differences, the process yielded a vision comprised of a number of well supported themes:  a lifelong community for all ages; a town with well-preserved assets; a popular and vibrant destination to live and visit.

Pet Peeves

Okay – I'm going to vent.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard at a public event something along the lines of, “my family has been here five generations and (insert position statement).”  What bothers me about these preambles are that they imply that a longer tenure is more worthy or legitimate.  To give a long-term resident more credence than a more recent arrival is a slippery slope – such statements undermine the spirit of moving forward together.

The inverse of the argument above can be found in people who move to an area and then discount or overlook those that have been there all along.  This NPR story on gentrification and Houston’s Third Ward speaks to this example, most notably in this quote by State Rep. Garnet Coleman: "Don't come into the community, renovate your house and then act like the people that have been living there forever have no standing…If somebody's going to move into the Third Ward — I don't care who you are — just become a part of it."  I like the last 12 words.


Questions of identity and place get to fundamentals of who are we, what do we want to be, what will be the same, what will be different, and how might it all happen.  Here are some of my own concluding observations or realizations (some are personal while others are more professional):

  •  This summary sentence of Jim Russell pretty much sums up my views: “instead of questioning the intent of people (outsider or resident), the claim to citizenship is the central concern.”
  • How many years you have lived is not as relevant as your intention to be part of something positive and productive going forward.
  • Communities are more likely to succeed when plans are made in a spirit of inclusion and tolerance.
  • Encourage people to practice thinking ‘we’ before ‘me.’
  • Don’t let the words, “we tried that, we did that and it did not work,” disrupt progress.  Conditions and opportunities change.
  • Though we strive for win-win solutions, realities are such that communities may not return to glory days of old, or may involve more austerity than prosperity.  The important question in the win-lose dynamic remains: have we provided equal access to opportunity?   Have we made decisions that benefit most and minimize harm or unintended consequences? Have we maximized the potential of our assets?
  • Finally, self-identity and perception are not permanent. Communities can adopt less than healthy perceptions of themselves and languish in despair, or they can work for change.  I am energized to work with people whose intent and energies are focused on positive change.

–Jason Espie, Cities That Work Blog