Imagine spending a week visiting some of the strongest towns in America. What would you see? What might you learn?

 Acorn Alley in Kent, OH is a pedestrian walkway filled with shops and cafes, making productive use of a small space.

Acorn Alley in Kent, OH is a pedestrian walkway filled with shops and cafes, making productive use of a small space.

Strong Towns member Roger Horn did just that this July. Roger says he’s always been interested in city planning and sits on the planning commission in his town of Olympia, WA, as well as being active in his neighborhood association. He wanted to tour some examples of successful towns to get new ideas to bring back home.

While we have yet to encounter a community that can answer Yes to all 10 questions on our Strength Test, Strong Towns staff were able to point Roger in some promising directions. We invited him to explore the finalists of some of our previous Strongest Town Contests, and he found a critical mass of communities in the Midwest. With that in mind, he set out on an adventure, flying from Washington to Cleveland, after which he traveled over 1,000 miles to visit six inspiring communities.

Here are some lessons he learned and favorite things he experienced on his journey, which included stops in Kent, OH; Sandusky, OH; Valparaiso, IN; Holland, MI; Muskegon, MI and Traverse City, MI.

A Healthy Town Needs a Healthy Heart

The overarching theme in every town Roger visited was a successful, thriving city center. Your downtown is the heart of your community, and if the heart’s weak, the rest of the body suffers.

In city after city, Roger saw active downtowns, filled with people, restaurants, shops, public spaces, natural beauty, and good sidewalks for everyone to travel on. Roger spent much of his trip simply walking around each downtown and observing what was happening.

 Central Park Plaza in Valparaiso, IN is a focal point of the city where residents can gather.

Central Park Plaza in Valparaiso, IN is a focal point of the city where residents can gather.

In downtown Kent, OH, Roger was floored by Acorn Alley, a tiny cobblestone-lined pedestrian walkway, chock-full of shops and cafes, and bookended by a community plaza. In downtown Sandusky, OH, Roger observed a number of beautiful historic buildings being renovated for new uses as homes and offices.

In Valparaiso, IN, a downtown park provided a focal point for residents to gather, and Roger got to see a farmers market in action in the park, too. In downtown Muskegon, Roger checked out a row of innovative, small-scale chalets, home to a number of local businesses serving residents and tourists alike. 

The bottom line: If you want a successful, economically prosperous town, start with the heart. Look at underused buildings and figure out how to fill them with economically productive shops and homes that will be valuable for your community. Think about the public spaces in your downtown—from sidewalks to parks—and make them into inviting, safe, accessible places to be.

A Strong Town Needs Strong Citizens

Another consistent presence in each of the towns Roger visited was a sense of hospitality and warmth coming from strong citizens who were excited to share their community with a visitor.

 Downtown Holland, MI is full of shops, restaurants, and pleasant places to spend time. As a result, it's also full of people. Holland has even ensured that people can safely and easily walk around its downtown 365 days a year by installing snowmelt sidewalks throughout the area. 

Downtown Holland, MI is full of shops, restaurants, and pleasant places to spend time. As a result, it's also full of people. Holland has even ensured that people can safely and easily walk around its downtown 365 days a year by installing snowmelt sidewalks throughout the area. 

Roger had a wonderful time with Strong Towns member Elias Crim in Valparaiso and got a bike tour of Traverse City from Strong Towns member Russ Soyring. In Holland, Roger wasn’t able to connect with a resident before his visit, so he simply walked into City Hall and talked to the receptionist. She introduced him to city planner Jenna Elswick, who graciously offered her time to discuss the city with Roger.

Finally, in Muskegon—again without a local guide—Roger sat down at a brewpub and, within minutes, was invited to dine with some residents at a nearby table. He talked with them for several hours, and they shared their thoughts about the city past and present.

You can tell a community is strong by its residents. Strong citizens who love and advocate for their communities are a vital element of any place that wants to grow financially resilient.

The Work Isn't Done

Amidst the attractive, welcoming aspects of the towns on Roger's route, he also found some challenges. Holland has been home to dangerous crime and gang activity. Muskegon's blossoming downtown is still lined with struggling neighborhoods and vacant lots. Valparaiso, meanwhile, is in the throes of controversy over what form revitalization of its historic neighborhoods should take.

The work to become a strong town and maintain economic resilience is never over. The towns that succeed will build on their assets, make the best use of what they have, and think carefully about their futures, one step at a time. 

Sometimes, the way to make your town stronger is by getting a change of scenery and seeking ideas from other communities. That's certainly what Roger found. He was inspired by the people he met and the towns he saw on his journey, and he plans to bring these lessons back home to Olympia. Then it's time to get to work.

(Top image of a farmers market taking place in the ice arena in downtown Valparaiso. All photos courtesy of Roger Horn.)