Becoming one of the best

The “Smithsonian” magazine recently ran an article “The 20 Best Small Towns in America.” The magazine’s staff gathered data about the number of galleries, museums, music, historic sites and other cultural amenities from towns across the United States of less than 25,000 people and came up with twenty places where “travelers could experience what might be called enlightened good times in an unhurried, charming setting.”

Now, don’t stop reading because you think “enlightened good times” is another way of saying, “wasting time by elitist city folk.” You might be right, but if we want our small towns to prosper, we might want to think more specifically about what that means.

The editors of the “Smithsonian” were looking for good places to visit. Their criteria for what is “good” has a bias toward the arts and good shopping, but according to social scientists who study the nebulous science of “quality of life,” these are all things that make for a good place to live as well as to visit.

If we are considering what makes a good place to live, obviously, we must consider the ability to earn a living. If employment opportunities are equal, however, quality of life is a major reason why people choose to live where they do.

Unfortunately, too often when we are looking at the sustainability of our small towns, we tend to only look at the availability of employment. A job might bring us to a place, but there are other things that keep us there.

In order for us to call a place “home” we need things other than work. To be one of the best places to live, communities need access to good medical care and adequate and affordable housing. Food has to be easily available. Our physical needs must be looked after. Contrary to our stoic, hardworking, northern European ethic, however, these practical and economic necessities are not the only thing needed for a good life or “enlightened good times.”

A desirable home also has opportunities for our minds and for recreation. Good schools and parks draw people with young children. Opportunity for extracurricular music lessons and sports activities to enrich kids’ education is a priority for most parents these days. I know people who moved elsewhere because our small community could not provide their children with stringed instrument lessons, options for learning languages, and limited opportunities for exposure to art education.

Just as music and art were a major part of what the Smithsonian considered part of what makes a place worth visiting, these things are part of making a good place to live. Galleries, museums, concerts, theater are not just frivolous, time-wasting. A nice golf course, hiking trails, water sports and a beautiful view are on the list too. We have to have something to do for recreation whether we are just visiting or looking for a home.

One of the measures of quality of life that was alluded to in the “Smithsonian” article was the unique flavor of each small town on their list. Some places were the home of a particular artist. Others had a special place in the history of our country and used that to draw people to visit. All seemed to have good food and restaurants that specialized in local cuisine and often locally produced foods, not just reheated food service products or fast food outlets.

It is important to shop in our own small towns. It is important to work to attract good jobs and businesses. It is equally important to beautify our parks, and streets. It is important to maintain our infrastructure. It is important to make music, create art, encourage fine craftsmanship, and to have a place to play.

What can we do to get our town on the list of America’s best?

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains