Three Things Vacations Teach Us About Creating Great Towns

This entry was contributed by on September 7th, 2016 at 9:00 am and is filed under .
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I don’t think I’ve ever been on a vacation where I didn’t say to myself, “Would I live here? I would live here,” followed by some surreptitious investigation of the local real estate market.

Case in point: this summer’s Alaskan cruise. With no more than eight hours in each of the four port towns on the itinerary, I trundled down the gangway with a fierce sense of purpose and possibility. What would delight me here? In Ketchikan, it was the rivers rippling with salmon, and a meal of the world’s best fried halibut. In Juneau, it was the compact downtown so easily navigable that a twenty-minute walk encompassed a host of shops and museums.

I only spent three after-dinner hours in Victoria, Canada, and yet its charms were instantly apparent—and for the most part, replicable even by those cities that aren’t coastal provincial capitals. Here’s what I learned—and what other places can crib:

  1. Beautify your city.

In March, communities around greater Victoria join in the annual Flower Count, a contest to earn the title of “Bloomingest Community.” In August, I saw the fruits of their labors in the form of front yards full of blossoms, and it was gorgeous.

The Flower Count gives community loveliness in Victoria just enough of a competitive flair that there’s neighborhood pressure to take part. And beauty matters, both to tourists and to residents, who are more likely to become attached to a place they find aesthetically pleasing.

  1. Encourage kindness.

Cities have personalities, and your town’s residents may not be as preternaturally cheery and chatty as Victoria’s. Yet what really gobsmacked me was how quickly cars stopped for pedestrians in crosswalks.

Where I live, you can loiter hopefully at the curb for 5 minutes before traffic finally pauses to let you across. In Victoria, simply looking expectantly into the street halted cars in both directions—even taxis! The unexpected deference made me feel strangely cared for.

Victoria’s respect for pedestrians may occur naturally, but it certainly could be mandated. When police officers crack down on crosswalk violations, cars learn to stop. Your visitors and residents will feel the love.

  1. Invoke wonder.

My tourist brochures instructed me not to miss the white lights on the British Columbia parliament building, and indeed, they were magical, casting a pale glow onto the water of the Inner Harbor. It surprised me how a few strings of life turned what could be a boring government building into an attraction, making the lawn in front into a gathering place.

How difficult would it be to replicate the effect in a small town by decking out your city hall with Christmas lights that shine year-round? Other inexpensive placemaking efforts, like a mural, a community garden, or a line of brightly painted park benches, could be similarly inviting.

When we travel, we experience with wonder the beauty, openness and whimsy of other cities. Everything’s so new that we actually notice their charms—and that can give us a great list of ideas to crib from. Of course, what works in New York City might not work in New Bern. But we can remember that places are meant to be cherished and improved. Including your hometown.

Feature image “Victoria, British Columbia, A Postcard View” by Brandon Godfrey

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