Missoula vs. Northampton, or the Power of Citizens

Trip Start Jun 25, 2008
Trip End Aug 02, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Montana
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Nine days into our Missoula habitation, I got some time off from mom duty. Of course, I've had the odd moment - a jog almost every morning, and time when kids are watching DVDs or one is asleep and the other deep in some project. But this was scheduled time, time for me to do as I wished.

What I wished was to gain some more insight into what makes Missoula tick. Why is it such a fabulous town? And how can other towns learn from its example? Of course, part of the answer to the first question is irrelevant to the second. Missoula is fabulous because of all sorts of things unique to it. For one, it is the only thing going for miles around. Sure, there are small towns down in the Bitterroot Valley to the south, and if you travel north you'll come to the Flathead Reservation towns: Arlee, Ronan, St. Ignatius, Polson, an abrupt shift in culture as you encounter this nation-within-a-nation. But Missoula is a cultural center. With the University of Montana, a bigger concentration of nonprofits than any other U.S. city, great shopping and entertainment, and all sorts of regional banks and offices, it is necessarily the focal point for many who live within 50 miles of it, at least. And Missoula's geography and topography make it easy to bike or walk wherever you want to go. It's a flat, flat valley (it used to be the bottom of the enormous Glacial Lake Missoula, which left "bathtub ring" marks all up the hillsides surrounding town) of only a few miles across. It is set into extraordinary natural resources - more secret to the rest of the world than Glacier National Park to the north or Yellowstone to the south, but gorgeous nonetheless. (In fact, it holds the distinction of being the closest urban center to a wilderness area - the Rattlesnake - in the U.S.) Because of this, and the University, its population is young, active and willing to donate their time to make their home a little better. In fact, when I stopped into the Missoula Downtown Association offices to ask my two questions, one woman thought a moment and said, "The people who live and work here are willing to put in a lot of time to make Missoula great. Half the paycheck is just living here."

Well, it's obvious. A stroll down the main street, Higgins Avenue, reveals hundreds of posters advertising festivals, concerts, shows galore. Every Wednesday lunchtime brings a food festival to Caras Park, the riverside permanent tent and festival area. Thursday evenings (yes, every week, at least in summer!) are given to local music and more food and drink. Tuesday evenings are free band concerts in Bonner Park, the university-district park full of towering maples, a band shell, a handicapped-accessible playground and a free sprinkler park. Almost every weekend brings some other festival to Caras: Children's Festivals, brewfests, antique car shows. I can't imagine the human-power needed to organize these time after time. Not to mention the three weekly farmer's markets. One, going for years, features at least fifty local farms (mostly Hmong immigrant-run) full of fresh produce. Two others have spun off from it - a separate craft market, and a downtown, plugged-in (for refrigeration, not music) meat-and-cheese market.

And things are still growing. Since I left ten years ago, Missoula has added: the aforementioned sprinkler park (plus two others), an outdoor water park with three slides and other attractions (only $5 a day, or you can get multi-use passes even cheaper), a skate park dubbed one of the top 5 nationwide, a series of wide, well-marked bike lanes on major streets, an annual Marathon (including a kids' marathon, where kids run 25 miles during the course of a whole year and then complete the final 1.2 on Marathon day), a ball park, a year-round, indoor water park, a Children's Museum and even a now-famous kayak play spot known as Brennan's Wave, right on the Clark Fork river downtown.

But no amount of gushing about how extraordinary Missoula naturally is, or how dedicated its citizen organizers, will bring such treasures to my own city. As I mentioned earlier, there are things about Northampton that simply can't match what Missoula's got. For one thing, we have tons of hills, making biking more challenging (or at least seem more daunting) to our citizens. And Northampton is one of many smallish cities in the area, along with Hadley, Easthampton, Southampton, Amherst - the list goes on. Our resources are spread throughout these towns; my favorite restaurant might be in one, the most fun kid café in another, the place to get my fiddle fixed in a third. It takes a long time to get between them on a bike. (And a bus, but more on that later.) Also, it seems that western Massachusetts' citizens, while they like to have fun, are much more focused on the daily grind. Higher property values and taxes (no, I'm not condemning the sales tax, but it is fun not to have one in Montana) and an older adult demographic mean more folks spending a lot of life on work.

So - what to do if you, or I, love places like Missoula and want to bring that flavor home? Phil Smith, the bike/pedestrian coordinator for the city here, had one answer. "It has to be fun," he declared. "Thirty years ago, there was no biking culture here. It didn't get created by telling people they should ride instead of drive. It gained momentum because some people started doing it and we made it fun - bike/walk/bus week festivals, incentives, things like that." He also underscored the importance of a few committed people making a difference - something I need reminding of when the world's problems look too big. Apparently the biking culture, or at least the bike lanes, around here can be traced back to one plucky Forestry School student who, in 1976, researched Missoula traffic and proposed a series of bike lanes. He was not taken seriously, but he planted seeds that came out of dormancy twenty years later, when another group of citizens proposed bike lanes.

Same with a lot of other efforts. The new Parks and Recreation facilities - the splash park, sprinkler parks, indoor water park, skate park - were, I'm told, voted on as special bond issues. "We don't have tons of money here," one man on the street told me, "but we want to spend it on our quality of life. I don't know how much longer people will keep voting for these kind of things, but it's nice to have them."

It seems, then, that there are two major ingredients to Missoula's success which are portable: citizen initiative, and the snowball effect. In other words, it takes someone, or a few someones, to think of something great and carry it forward. (And we have lots of such someones in the Pioneer Valley, if not Missoula's concentration - the founders of Valley Green Feast and RideBuzz, to name a couple of recent efforts.) Then it takes patience, while people try out these new ideas, consider them, see whether they're an improvement in their quality of life or not. If they are, someone else can take them to the next level.

Does that mean I see low-cost, community-run water parks and an actually functional transit system (yes, I promise more on that later) in the Pioneer Valley's future? Maybe. Or maybe our successes will come in different forms. Perhaps what I see in my own future is more important. Am I going to wait and hope that other places can have Missoula's sense of fun and joy? Or am I going to be like that forestry student thirty years ago, speaking out for ideas whose time has not yet come?
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sherwoodk on

I wonder how many cities there are out there like Missoula. Sure sounds like a great place to live, though from what you said, maybe it's only been like it is in the last few decades. It's heartening to think that a few committed people can make changes like that.

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