Placemaking: Ann Marie Hohenberger

Our 2012 annual community conversation took a look at the concept of placemaking and the findings from the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community project which reveal how attachment to place drives economic vitality – and how understanding those attachments can direct the ways in which a place chooses to change and grow .

This series features reflections from community members who attended the event. We hope their stories will inspire you to define your version of this community’s narrative and use it as a lens through which to view decisions that will impact the character of this community.

Name: Ann Marie Hohenberger
Age: 34
City/County resident? City
Occupation: Freelance business writer; server at Hamiltons’ downtown
How long have you lived in Charlottesville? 17 years

Why did you come here?
I went to UVA as an undergrad. I visited on a spring day and immediately fell in love with the natural beauty here.

What do you love most about where you live?
I love “small city” life. I can bike almost anywhere I need to go, but I can still live on a tiny, quiet street with a view of Carter’s Mountain. Every day there’s an incredible variety of events – music, theater, community meetings, clubs & activities – and no matter what I choose, I’ll probably run into someone I know.

My favorite thing about this area is the enthusiasm for local food. As an aspiring urban homesteader, I’m so grateful to talk with farmers at the market and start learning all the things I missed growing up in the suburbs. Then I can go to a restaurant and glean ideas for cooking with pastured meats and seasonal produce.

Any takeaways from the Placemaking event?
One statistic that particularly stood out from the Soul of the Community studies was that, on average, 40% of people felt no attachment to their community. That sounds like a massive, widespread failure to serve everyone’s needs, rather than just the needs of certain segments. What a loss for the community to have so many people uninvested in the well-being of their neighbors and neighborhoods.

Bringing that home to Charlottesville, our efforts at placemaking can’t focus only on the aspirational narrative – qualities like sustainability, or support for music, art & innovation. If we want to foster more overall attachment in the community, we need to ask ourselves why the City’s poverty rate is nearly twice the state average. What can we do to bring disconnected and disadvantaged folks into a richer connection with their community?

The Soul of the Community research says there are four top attachment drivers which connect a person to their place: aesthetics, openness, social offerings, and education. Of those four things, where are we most successful and where do we need more work?
Aesthetically, this area has a lot of natural advantages in the landscape and our historic architecture. We have a great array of education resources, from the University to smaller groups like Community Bikes and the Charlottesville Trade School. Whether those opportunities are distributed well among our residents, I’m not sure.

Similarly, we’re blessed with plenty of energetic folks putting together social offerings – arts organizations, activity clubs, music venues, festivals. But going out to events can be a big investment of time and money – whether it’s the ticket price or just getting the night off from work, eating out, or paying a babysitter. As an alternative, I’d like to see more spaces that foster unplanned, neighborhood-based socializing.

The idea of socializing naturally with neighbors also connects to the openness factor. I’ve met a lot of people over the years who say they’ve never had trouble meeting new friends until they came to Charlottesville. There are strong social networks here, lots of wonderful friendships, but those networks often seem closed to outsiders – whether the “outsider” is someone who just moved here or someone in a different walk of life.

If placemaking was central to our decision-making, what might this community do differently?
Forming a community narrative is one of the fundamental steps in placemaking, so knowing what people in the community really want is paramount. The City has certainly made efforts to listen, through neighborhood meetings as well as surveys. But again, going out to an event can be a luxury, only available to those who have the free time. Even staying informed about local issues isn’t always an option. I ran a small local business for several years, and even though I love this community and wanted to be more involved, I just didn’t have the time or energy left over.

So meeting people where they are, in order to have the conversations that inform our community narrative, is a challenge. But I think we could do more to listen through the existing institutions where people already congregate – like clubs & associations, churches, local shops & restaurants, and social communities online.

As to what we might do differently in light of those conversations, I’d love to find out! I’m part of a local grassroots group, Transition Charlottesville Albemarle , that meets regularly for placemaking conversations and initiatives. We focus on building community resilience in areas like food, transportation, water, and renewable energy. So personally, I hope to see those ideas echoing throughout the community.