Big cities aren’t the only places working hard to create terrific communities. I was reminded of this fact when visiting Roanoke, Virginia over the past few days to attend CityWorks(X)po, a conference for change agents and placemakers. Going in, I was completely unfamiliar with the city, but was delighted with what I discovered there during my short visit.
It was the friendliness of Roanoke’s residents that I first noticed. This wasn’t just the small-town Southern hospitality that’s a cliché. The congeniality of the city’s residents seemed more significant, somehow, and more genuine. People had an open manner and authenticity I was unaccustomed to in hectic Washington D.C., with its preoccupation on political affiliations and “optics.”
Then I discovered Roanoke’s downtown area. “It’s only about five square blocks, but they’ve done a real nice job fixing it up over the past couple years,” said Harry, my hotel shuttle driver. That was a bit of an understatement. The downtown public plaza was actually the result of a crowdsourcing project launched at (X)po in 2011, according to conference organizer Amy McGinnis.
By all accounts, it is a success. During my stay, the public plaza at City Market was a hotbed of activity. The Saturday farmers market drew a crowd of hundreds. Aside from the well-utlized public spaces, the downtown area was also notable for its diversity of small businesses.
I found it interesting that the uniformity of gentrification hasn’t taken hold in Roanoke’s downtown. I couldn’t find a Starbucks or Chop’t in spite of myself. I was thankfully forced to go outside my comfort zone to discover the unique and diverse small businesses populating the downtown, such as Mill Mountain Coffee and Firefly.
I met a local small-business owner named Sam Waller (pictured at top), whose window-washing company Glass Monkey uses bicycles as a conveyance. It’s the only business operating by bicycle in the city, and it might be why Sam seemed to be a celebrity of sorts at CityWorks(X)po. “I’m passionate about bikes,” Sam told me. Sam was as open and trusting as everyone else I’d met there. Either there was Prozac in the water supply or something else was going on.
Then it occurred to me: could these Roanoke residents be exhibiting the happiness that is produced by living in a really great city? This is the idea Charles Montgomery has written about inhis book Happy City, which looks at the intersection of urban design and the emerging science of happiness.
It’s also a theory espoused by Richard Florida, who has argued that where we choose to live is the single most important decision we will make in our lives, above who we marry or what career we choose. It certainly seems possible to be. Roanoke was certainly a place that spoke to me in that manner.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. CityWorks(X)po presenter Josh McManus, program director of the Knight Foundation, said, “How did I not know about this place? I was texting friends all morning saying, ‘Roanoke, did you know, did you know?’”
The city isn’t perfect. Without a university and with few large private employers, it still struggles financially. Service industries have replaced manufacturing jobs to a large extent, which is an imperfect substitution. Public transportation continues to be an issue as well. While I was able to take the train from Washington D.C. to Lynchburg, there’s no direct service to Roanoke.
McGinnis said, “We have that small-city problem of public transportation being almost exclusively used by those who can’t afford private options. Walkability continues to be a concern, particularly as you move out from the city center. Roanoke County in particular needs to address pedestrian/bike access.”
On that front, things may be looking up. The 2013 Virginia transportation bill allows for commuter rail to return to Roanoke after 34 years of inactivity.
In the meantime, the southern Virginia city has been attracting hipsters in droves, brought by the allure of a burgeoning artist community, the aforementioned revitalized downtown area, and Roanoke’s low cost of living. It was also named one of America’s Best Small Cities on the Rise by SmarterTravel.com.
It’s appropriate that CityWorks(X)po, now in its fourth year, should take place in Roanoke. Founder Ed Walker describes his conference as fostering “extraordinary achievement in unexpected places and unexpected ways,” and Roanoke truly encapsulates the unexpected location aspect of that phrase –in all the right ways.
Photos by the author.