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Archive for February, 2010

The Power of Place

Our house is a shambles. Walls are bare, cupboards are empty, there are boxes everywhere. We’re moving. We’re moving because of the power of place. In this case, the power of Orvieto, Italy – home to our Adventures in Italy.

Street filled Orvieto Paseggiatta

It began two years ago on our return from Orvieto. In truth, I suppose, it began long before as I worked for years to preserve our country’s downtowns and to plan communities in a way to lend them character.  But for us and our living situation, it began on our return in May of 2008. After spending several weeks in the human oriented, human scaled, nature blessed environment that is Orvieto we returned to suburbia in all its magnificent blandness. The streets were devoid of people, there weren’t even sidewalks to accommodate people. Stores were fronted by acres of hot, black asphalt. The constant, casual, conversations that took place everywhere you were in Orvieto were completely absent. We looked at each other and wondered how we could go from a place of such richness to one so empty, soulless, and heartless.

A too typical American community

We decided right then we had to do better. We are mountain folk, and, after 30 years in the south, migrating here from Colorado, we are southerners. We got in the car to drive along the foothills of the Appalachians and Blue Ridge mountains in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Five days we spent searching, but we found Morganton on our first night.

Here was a town with a courthouse square, which I knew is the downtown form that generates the most pedestrian traffic. We sat outside on a nice tree-shaded, corner patio having a beer downtown and watched in amazement as a parade of people of all ages and colors walked by – almost like the passeggiata in Italy! The next morning we discovered not one but 3 different coffee houses where people gathered and spent time talking to one another. Wow! The place had soul and character, people on the street, and casual conversations.

Further investigation showed the town was working on a long range plan – boring I know, but for someone who spent 30 years working with  communities, a clear indication that they were working to manage their future. They had already taken steps with a downtown organization that gave people lots of reasons to be downtown, a 6 mile river walk with a couple of nice restaurants along its path. It is blessed with its physical environment, proximity to the mountains, and a downtown full of possibilities.

Sure Morganton has challenges like figuring out how to transition from the furniture building past to something fit for the 21st century. But it has assets like mountain views everywhere, the Blue Ridge Parkway, a big recreational lake. And it is working to craft its own future.

So, in a couple of weeks we will be in Morganton. And Orvieto is the reason. While our trips give people deep insights into the Italian culture, they also let us see how powerful and wonderful a people-centered place can be. Indeed, the first trips we did to Orvieto were for the purpose of learning how to build character into our communities at home.

Little did we know that the lessons would lead us to the search for and finding of our own place of character here in the United States!

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