If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who are. –Wendell Berry
As time went by, I also realized that the particular place I’d chosen was less important than the fact that I’d chosen and focused my life around it. Although [where I live] has taken on great significance for me, it’s no more inherently beautiful or meaningful than any other place on earth. What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it’s flat or rugged, rich or austere, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which its bounty is received. –Richard Nelson, The Island Within
Have you recently moved somewhere new, and still feel out of place? Or maybe you’ve been residing somewhere for years, decades even, and yet haven’t developed a sense of being rooted there. You may live in a town or city, but don’t feel you belong to a real community; you don’t feel as if you’re embedded within a context of meaningful relationships, environment, and culture.
While “at-homeness” might seem to be something that will come automatically with the passage of time, like every good thing in life, topophilia — a love of place — takes intentionality to develop.
Like coming to love another person, developing affinity for a certain place involves intimately getting to know it. If your current home base might be compared to a lady, you want to learn all the details about her, whether profound or mundane. You want to know her background, how she came to be the way she is. You want to enjoy the prominent foot she puts forward, while uncovering her little-known secrets. You want to really come to an appreciation for her strengths, not only to most fully enjoy them, but as a buffer that creates more tolerance for her flaws.
It’s not only possible to kindle this kind of topophilic love affair with “sexier” places chock full of well-hyped advantages, but also with so-called undesirable communities that aren’t on the cultural radar. Just as people who may initially appear lowly and unappealing, but have warm and welcoming personalities, come to seem more attractive the more we get to know them, so too can sleepier, less vaunted locales.
Even if you don’t think the place you’re currently residing is your “one and only,” to have and to hold ‘til death do you part, it’s still worth trying to develop a deeper relationship with it. A strong sense of place and rootedness is a worthy satisfaction to pursue, even if you know it won’t last. Cliche as it is, you really ought to try to bloom where you’re planted, for however long you’re planted there.
I know it’s possible to feel like casual, distant roommates with your current hometown, rather than intimate partners in life; even after 7 years of living in the Denver area, I have sometimes still felt like a foreign interloper here. But that’s diminished the more I’ve taken proactive steps to put down roots. Here are 7 I suggest to sink your own real or adopted hometown deeper into your heart.
1. Get to know the history of where you live.
A sure recipe for feeling like a transient spectator somewhere, is to treat a place as if it only sprang into existence once you moved there. By instead making a concerted effort to get to know the history of your neighborhood, town, and state, you’ll gain a greater gratitude for it, feel more like you belong, deepen your understanding of why things are the way they are, and develop more confidence in navigating its contours — both literally and figuratively.
Perhaps the easiest place to start in discovering the past of a place is by reading. Local bookstores often carry lesser-known regional histories that sometimes get as local as individual neighborhoods. Be sure to even delve into novels set in the city or state you live in; reading Centennial and Plainsong did more to help me understand Colorado than just about any non-fiction book could have.
It takes more than reading to get a feel for a place’s history though. That’s just a start. Visit state and national parks and monuments (and battlefields and trails), stroll through the nearest history center/museum, take a guided walking tour of downtown, and just generally get your feet on the ground to do some firsthand exploring (see #2). Don’t be afraid to drive two hours to go see something for one; even the drive time itself will enhance your understanding of the place you live — remember, there’s power in liminal spaces.
2. Explore on Foot or Bike
Few things will open your eyes to the details of your city like exploring its streets, neighborhoods, and trails via the power of human locomotion.
More days than not, I get outside for a walk, run, or bike ride. These excursions have helped me see the real beauty of where I live on a slower and smaller scale (that is, beyond just the mountains on the not-too-distant horizon). I’ve discovered little streams and patches of meadows riddled with wildflowers, as well as a bunch of small parks and playgrounds for the kids that I otherwise would never have found.
Carried along by foot- or pedal-power, you’ll naturally come to notice things that you would have missed had you been traveling by car. You’ll be able to really look around and engage all your senses. You’ll say hello to the people you come across, who are in fact your neighbors, even if you’re a few miles from home. Plus, it’s just fun to look around while walking — at the houses, at the sky, at the flora and fauna.
3. Embark on Microadventures (Even to Chintzy Places)
Even in your backyard there are new adventures, new sights, new perspectives: you just have to make the small effort to go and discover them. –Alastair Humphreys
Microadventures, as coined by modern-day explorer Alastair Humphreys, are expeditions in and around your locale that take only a few hours to a day. It could be a nighttime bike ride, a walk on a new trail, a visit to an overlooked museum, or any number of other outings. The idea is that adventures don’t have to be grand in scope to be fun and fulfilling.
A few years back the McKay family took up the habit of weekly microadventures, and Brett and Kate found that they “really enjoyed exploring more of [our] local community, and ended up feeling more connected to, and pride in, living in Oklahoma.”
Make it a goal to get out for a small adventure in your area once a week. Drive to a tacky roadside attraction, look at a map (a paper map!) and pick a park or small museum to visit, rent a canoe or kayak and paddle a nearby river or lake. All of these things will enhance your understanding of your community, and further your ties to it.
One of the very best ways to develop topophilia is to get out into the nature of a place, and really experience its unique weather, landscape, and environment. There’s something about getting the dirt of the terrain up into your nostrils, and coming to know how the air feels and smells at dawn and dusk, that really moves a place into the marrow of your bones.
But don’t neglect an area’s less wild and more popular spots either. When you live somewhere, it’s easy to take its tourist attractions for granted; if you’re not careful, the people who regularly visit you might come to know the cool things to do in the area before you do! You should know your hometown so well that you become an expert in making recommendations to your out-of-town guests as to what things to do there and what things to avoid. At the same time, being well acquainted with your city’s must-see attractions initiates you into a sort of club amongst the locals too, and you can actually end up feeling left out if you’ve not done them — hence our own family’s continued embarrassment of having never experienced Casa Bonita here in Denver.
4. Read the Local Paper
Most towns, even the small ones, have a local weekly newspaper. They’re often a touch boring and the writing sometimes leaves something to be desired, but they’re a treasure trove of the ins and outs of what’s going on in your community.
Be it information about volunteering, fun events and festivals on the calendar, restaurant openings, job listings, or simply news that might not be important to the larger region but sure is in your neck of the woods — the local newspaper is highly undervalued.
In the past, the little newspaper that lands on our driveway on Thursday mornings has been relegated to the firestarter pile without so much as a glance. But lately I’ve been making an effort to at least skim through it, and I sure feel that much more like a real local rather than a transient interloper.
If you remain a “consumer” within your city, you end up only seeing one “strata” of it — socially, geographically, and experientially. A great way to get more immersed in a place — to get a behind-the-scenes look at some of the locations and institutions you might otherwise just use superficially or pass by altogether — is to volunteer.
Teaching at church, tutoring at a school, coaching your kids’ little league team, helping at a soup kitchen, sorting books at the local library (I do this and it’s great fun) . . . whatever it is, your town has needs, and you certainly have skills that can help fill those needs. Not only will you be providing a service, but you’ll see immense benefits yourself too. It’ll be impossible to not feel a greater sense of care and responsibility towards the place you live and towards the people you live near. At the same time, you’ll meet different kinds of people than you might otherwise rub shoulders with, as well as like-minded and equally passionate fellow volunteers who might become your good friends.
6. Be a Regular Somewhere
In our younger days, my wife and I liked to venture out to as many new places as we could — breweries, coffee shops, trails, etc. While some novelty is still fun and important to us, what’s held even greater reward has been in becoming regulars at some favorite local spots.
You’ll get to know people — both employees and regular patrons — and you’ll get to hear the scuttlebutt around town. When you frequent a place, you won’t mind paying the higher prices of independent shops and you’ll even come to tip more at restaurants and coffee shops because you genuinely care about the people whose livelihood depends on your business.
Beyond that, you’ll gain a special sense of belonging. When the barkeep or barista asks how your kids are doing and comps you a drink now and then, you’re conferred a certain status that can keep you powerfully rooted to the place you live. One of our greatest human desires is simply to be known; being a regular helps scratch that itch.
7. Find Other Ways to Meet People in Your Community
Many of these things — volunteering, frequenting a local shop, even having a regular walking route — will inherently help you meet people. But sometimes you just need to intentionally get out and see some local faces. Attend your neighborhood block parties (even when you don’t want to), sign up for the 5K happening downtown, chaperone a kids’ field trip if you’re able. There are so many things you can do to just get out there in meatspace.
And really, you don’t even have to make friends (right away, at least). Just knowing the faces in your community offers some sense of recognition and makes saying hi at the grocery store a little friendlier instead of a little awkward. Research says we come to like people out of sheer familiarity alone. There are plenty of people in our neighborhood who I wouldn’t consider good friends, but that I can recognize when out and about and have a friendly conversation with. It’s just another one of those things that helps me feel like I belong here — more rooted — and therefore increases my feeling of topophilia for this northwest suburb of Denver; though we were strangers when we met, the more I get to know her, the more I’ve come to love her.
Listen to our podcast with Melody Warnick about the art and science of loving where you live: