What makes a community a great place to live? Why do some cities and towns have a reputation as places that are growing, vibrant and alive? And why should we in St. Louis look at these “famous” places and how they created their magnetic atmosphere and culture?
Certainly, cities like New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles are attractive and growing. But these aren’t really the places we talk about when it comes to vibrant, active communities, the ones that show up in the endless rankings of best place to live, work, retire, start a yoga studio, etc. The headliners of these lists are trendy and shift from year to year, but many have great turnaround stories based on the unique active cultures that spurred their resurgence.
According to the blog The Urban Phoenix, the communities that still rely only on traditional economic development tactics like building stadiums, casinos and other high-priced facilities in their effort to attract tourism and residents are losing to the communities that are investing in green space, access to recreation and transportation, walkability and other neighborhood amenities.
A great place to live is a great place to visit. The strategies that make communities more livable and attractive are the crucial components of long-term efforts to enhance a local market’s ability to attract tourism and workforce. After all, no one wants to start a business or travel to a place that isn’t or doesn’t have the potential to be truly livable.
Community sustainability, land and water conservation, green infrastructure, local foods, bike/pedestrian friendly design and good access to the outdoors are just a few of the tactics that make up an emerging community’s livability. The most innovative communities are using outdoor recreation as an attractive livability strategy in their overall development efforts.
Evidence of this trend is apparent in the pattern of U.S. economic and demographic growth. Famous destination communities like Boulder, Denver, Portland, Seattle and Asheville are renown for their outdoor cultures and for their ability to attract a creative workforce. More relevant to the St. Louis scene, the successful efforts of places like Dayton, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Duluth, to transform their images and economies through the creation of parklands, greenways and outdoor cultures has been essential to their revival.
In many of these locations, urban rivers are a fundamental urban design tool, which St. Louis is just now beginning to think about. There is a whole new movement emerging to build outdoor recreation access into the urban grid in ways that let people have close access to paddling, mountain biking, climbing and more.
The St. Louis region has an opportunity to innovate on this front. It can start in places like Cortex and the St. Louis and St. Charles riverfronts. North St. Louis city has significant tracts of open land that could serve as urban outdoor access. The western communities of Eureka, Pacific, Wildwood and Washington enjoy a rich diversity of river access, parks, trails and conservation areas that are a potential outdoor goldmine. Nearby Edwardsville and Alton, Ill., boasts thousands of acres of relatively underutilized public land and natural space. (In the case of Edwardsville, a good deal of that accessible land is part of SIUE’s campus.)
There is no reason why we can’t develop the same sort of vibrancy as the communities mentioned above if we build the same (or better) level of quality access to the outdoors and support it with a great cultural scene.
Through the work of my firm, Active Strategies, we have seen the catalytic impact the emergence of an active culture can have on a community. Dayton, where I founded and led an outdoor recreation and livability initiative from 2005 to 2013, was just named in Outside Magazine’s Best Towns 2017 issue as the city that has experienced a “Rebirth of the American Dream.” Proof positive that these strategies work.
Growing an active culture brings people together in new ways that creates excitement that can turn into new ideas and provide support for new community initiatives. Once momentum is achieved, early adopters are willing to commit to a community that is innovating and moving forward. The emergence of an active community culture driven by great outdoor access can be a catalyst for related small business growth, as well as development of a lively art and music scene and dense creative network that is so important to sustain a critical knowledge economy.
We have an opportunity to transform our future by creating a vibrant St. Louis region through promoting existing active living opportunities, identifying and incubating key early access creation, and accelerating those forerunners that are helping the community flourish. So read this, then put it down, and join us on our journey.