On Trust

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We met with someone this week that gave us their opinion on why community development isn’t happening in our neighborhood. He told us of his experience with division, and how he felt that either side of our main street was disconnected from each other based on going east or west. He felt community development couldn’t begin until we come together and formed a line through the center of the main street, and residents, business owners, and community members from either side of town walked down the middle to shake hands and look each other in the eye, maybe even smile about it if we’re lucky. He explained that he felt, in our southern town, that a black man and a white man need to be able to look each other in the eyes when the cross on the sidewalk. He said it doesn’t happen now. 

This is big, and we often don’t take the time to think about this side of community development. We like to think up mural concepts. We like to plan the community gardens. We like to plan big events for our downtowns. 

But, truthfully, none of that matters. None of it has legs without this first.

We need to trust each other.

We need to see each other. Actually see each other.

Our urge to see people as people needs to outweigh our urge to look down at the sidewalk when we walk by. Our desire to interact with our neighbors needs to be stronger than our desire to check our phones instead.

Our work includes graphic design and branding projects, public art projects and placemaking initiatives. These things feel soft to many, and even to us at times. It’s easier to gravitate towards the harder side of our work: fill the buildings, write the reports, finish the deliverables, check the boxes. But at the end of the day, it’s even softer than we realize because people and communities, their living, breathing pieces and parts, are soft. It’s about the business owners and the young newly weds that walk their dog downtown. It’s about the high school kids that like to hang out in the park. We do the work that we do for the people, to feel safe and be able to thrive.

The products and the deliverables don’t need us.

“Many cities, these days, seem to have people living on the surface of life but hardly in its soil, diluting the deepest questions of life in television monologues and reality shows, amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman would say. But this city feels different. It feels like these people have come up with different answers to the why questions.

Houston makes you feel that life is about the panic and the resolution of panic, and nothing more. Nobody stops to question whether they actually need the house and the car and the better job. We can’t see the stars in Houston anymore. We can’t to the beach without stepping on a Coke bottle, we can’t hike in the woods, because there aren’t any more woods.

We can only panic about the clothes we wear, panic about the car we drive, sit stuck in traffic and panic about whether or not the guy who cut us off respects us. We want to kill him, for crying out loud, and all the while we feel a need for new furniture and a new television and a bigger house in the right neighborhood. We drive around in a trance, salivating for Starbucks while that great heaven sits above us, and that beautiful sunrise is happening in the desert, and all those mountains out West are collecting snow on the limbs of their pines, and all those leaves are changing colors out East.” -- Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts

On Branding

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We don’t normally write project-specific blog posts, but we wanted to share a bit of news, and also a bit of our hearts, on an exciting launch that happened this past weekend.

Motley has been working with Gibsonville, North Carolina to complete a marketing analysis study and some other behind the scenes work, but one of our favorite initiatives with them is  their new messaging campaign. We were commissioned by the Town of Gibsonville to create a community brand that would unify businesses, residents, community organizations, tourism efforts and everything in between. Gibsonville is home to an award-winning tattoo artist, renowned instrument repair, incredible antiques, a chocolatier, French cuisine, and so many other amazing businesses, and we were up for the challenge of creating something that found them all some common ground. 

Motley met with community members, business owners and town staff to field ideas for a tagline and visual designs that they felt most embodied Gibsonville’s history, present, and future. After several rounds of feedback, we landed on a brand that represents the town now and for years to come.

Something fun about this project is that the brand follows an open source model. This means that anyone can download the logo in a variety of file formats for themselves from gibsonvillenc.com and print their own t-shirts, make koozies, paint a mural, make a yard sign - anything goes. This tool is created by the community and for the community to help form place attachment and build town pride.

So what?

Towns and cities are ultimately looking for ways to drive economic development. Maybe their budgets don’t allow for fancy incentives, maybe they’re looking to create a snowball effect as opposed to a one-time investment or maybe they’re just looking to try something new. We think that community branding makes this all a reality by defining what makes an area unique and attracting a community of residents and businesses that shares that same vision.

So it isn’t even really about creating the trendiest image or stringing the right words together.

It’s about discovering what truly makes an area unique, even if it’s currently lying dormant, and then building a platform and strategy around it that nurtures and attracts others who share those identified values and vision.

“Despite this highly competitive, Amazon-courting world we live in, cities and districts can actually benefit by going in the opposite direction. Do this by engaging with the public and, together, clearly defining who they are and who they want to be. Then, invest in the brand, and tell that story in a way that attracts others who share the same vision. This is what will save small towns and what's redefining the most successful districts and communities across the country.” — Ryan Short, Forbes Councils

On Storytelling

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I just finished reading the book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott and it has me thinking a lot about storytelling. It’s a phrase I (and a lot of creatives) throw around a lot, but my job is far from reading bedtime stories.

Every culture has its own stories or narratives, which can be shared as a means of entertainment, education or cultural preservation. Great storytelling is the practice of making the people reading or hearing these stories care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. 

What if we looked at life as a story? What if we broke down our day-to-day into characters, settings, plot, conflict, climax and resolution? 

You’re the protagonist in the story of your life, of course, but what about everything else? Place carries the weight of it all -- the plot, conflict, climax and resolution -- it has to take place somewhere. Geography plays a role in our lives, and often our experiences are tied to a spot on the map.

That one beach in Florida where your family vacationed.

The Corner Mart where you used to get ice cream every summer. 

The dive bar where you had your first drink.

The little park bench where you met your best friend.

The parking lot where you found your family dog.

We love the memories associated with these seemingly little nowhere spots, but what if we loved the places too, just for being there to let it all unfold? Places are more than where we buy groceries or grab a coffee; they’re where we build a business, start a family, celebrate success, and feel utter loss.

We know that places have history, but when we untangle it a little, make it less of a textbook and more of a folktale, it invites us to pay attention to the intricacies that make it unique.

In Bird by Bird, Lamott writes, “One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.”

If you could tell the story of a place, the one you call home, how would you tell it? Asking this question could awaken a whole series of questions that can bring out the possibilities of a place. This practice can assist in helping us see new things in a place that may not feel new at all.

Another question that is important to ask is, who needs to hear this story? Our moms, aunts and co-workers hear our stories just by being a part of our lives. However, if you had an adventurous childhood and feel that it made you a better person, don’t you think the parents of this generation would want to hear about it? If you opened a business and were overwhelmed with the support from the city, community and customers, wouldn’t you want the other potential entrepreneurs to know that it’s possible?

Know your story, know the value that place holds and know that there is power in telling that story.


On Places in Process

We love experiencing other towns, seeing residents and locals in their space and observing how they interact with their place. We also look at things like trashcans, streetlights and banners. We look at the local shops and the curated mix. We look for diversity: of people, cultures, age and socioeconomic status.

But we think more than that, we look for devoted communities. We like to look around and see the potential and what could be. How can we make our mark on the community? This isn’t necessarily how other people travel, but because of our work, this is the inescapable lens with which we view the world.

Sometimes it’s nice to go to places that are completely built out, ready for tourists just like us. Their storefronts are full, the Edison bulbs are hung, brick walls are covered in murals and the sidewalks are full of people excited to be there, in no rush to leave.

But sometimes, it’s better to go to the places that challenge us, the places that invite us in to ask questions and imagine what was and what could be.

We recently visited friends in Baltimore, Maryland. For most of the day, we walked around neighborhoods that had great bars and cool art. They were activated with markets and festivals, and every corner seemed to offer some new development.

At the very end of our trip, we stopped in Sowebo. Y’all. We’re not kidding when we say this neighborhood was exactly what we were craving throughout our time in Baltimore.

Sowebo is an older arts community that has mostly vacant storefronts and lots of residential space with community members who have been there for decades, even generations, unwilling to leave this little corner of the city that they’ve claimed as theirs. It has soul but is losing momentum. But what Sowebo has is undeniable potential and an identity that is impossible to miss. Places like this engage you to imagine what else could be here. What else could live and thrive and complete this place?

The spaces in our life that are 100% developed and pretty are great, needed even. But more so, if we believe that places reflect the people that make them up, then I think we as humans are meant to be in places that are in process. Because so much of our own lives are always in process. Luckily, cities allow us to be a part of this process and even require our participation to move forward.

Ultimately communities have to be a place for people, where they can be invited in to leave a little bit of themselves: a bit of their creativity, a bit of their emotion, a bit of their humanity. As we came back home to our own neighborhood after traveling, we’re asking ourselves what our community is asking of us. How can we better engage? What creative work, act of labor, or act of love could change our community for the better? How could we work in tandem with our neighbors, with our elected officials? How is our place calling to us? This is not solely to make places better but to be more fully human and leave a creative, unique mark in creating a home.  Not only to fix our place but to be more fully ourselves, to give our values and our creativity and our mark, a purpose.

On Intention

We’re a little shocked we haven’t written this blog post already.

Intention.

This is the heart of our work, the “Why?” and the “So what?” of our profession.

We’re taught growing up that work is about productivity. What are you producing? What are the deliverables? We’re learning every day, in our work, and yours too: intention matters. How you go about doing your work can be more meaningful than the work that you actually produce.

What does this look like in actuality? If you are commissioning the coolest mural project in town, but you’re doing it just to make your city look cool, it probably won’t stick. And when you get stuck with city or community resistance, you don’t have a story to tell, you just have an aesthetic that you’re trying to achieve. In community development, aesthetics are only meaningful when they tell the larger narrative of a community. Cities and towns are who they are because of the people they house, employ, and welcome. Their identity is relational, not their murals, their breweries, or their bike lanes.

Something that can be so easily forgotten is that community members are complex and intuitive. They can see straight through an ill-intentioned or un-intentioned project because they, better than anyone, know the past, present, and future of the place they call home.

Getting back to the basics of why you are doing the work helps to inform and implement successful projects. Why do we want the new business or the fun happenings downtown? Is it for economic gain for your town’s bank account? If so, your residents will likely be unresponsive. Or, is it because you want residents and visitors to have a safe, fun place to go and build community?

It is absolutely imperative to be intentional with our processes to ensure communities are being served and helped, not unconsidered and misplaced.

“People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”  ― Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

On Places Loving People

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Creative placemakers often talk about the importance and value of people loving their place. How people can benefit from finding meaning in the location that they live. How when people engage with the community, local businesses, arts and recreation, they feel more attached, leading to more fulfilled lives.


This is all true. And great. And it holds incredible meaning.


However, I want to hit pause on that perspective and think about the other side of things for a moment. This perspective is one that our city managers, planners, designers and politicians hopefully are constantly checking in with. It’s a bit more big picture, but I think it’s very helpful to think like this as a community member as well.


We talk so much about people loving their places, but what can be said about places loving their people?


This is going to sound like an odd concept. But what about places can show love and care and comfort and passion for its people?


The first question that comes to my mind is “Are our places built physically (or welcoming) for people?”


Depending on where you are, you might say no, not at all. This could be because you live in a city built for cars or for industry. Or, there might not be grocery stores for miles around. If there are no food stores, how are we supposed to support people living in these spaces?


The second question that comes to my mind is “Are our places built emotionally (or having value) for people?” This includes all people. From a community developer or designers mind, the question might look more like, “Who are we building this community for?” This question is heavy. In light of all the injustices in the world, are we cultivating places that love our people? Or, are we building places to only love our white people, our cisgender people, our educated people, or our able-bodied people?


Something that we are still working through at Motley, is what happens when your place doesn’t love you back? What happens when you are stuck in a community, due to family ties, lack of resources or a slew of other reasons and your place is not only not a place you want to attach to, but also is active in hurting or keeping you from a fulfilled life?


I think about a mayor I sat down with a year ago. Their community had a two million dollar need to repair just their water system infrastructure. Surrounding communities were sucking the good things out and taking and claiming them as their own. There was a business community on the very edge of the town, but it served a higher socioeconomic community who all lived in the towns adjacent.


What happens then? When your place leaves you disappointed and discouraged? So very not full of love, support, representation, and the things we need as human beings?


I wish this was one of our peppy blog posts, one that leaves you excited about community development, public art and good people in good places. But we think it’s important to begin thinking about the health of your relationship with places.


Sometimes places aren’t good for people, and sometimes people aren’t good for places. We invite you to explore what this means in your own personal context. What is your relationship with your place? How does the place where you live affect you, both physically and emotionally? And, if you have a great relationship where you live, do others as well? Because the health of the community depends on your neighbors’ place attachment, not just your own.


On Security

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
-- Maya Angelou

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Safety and security are rarely what we talk about here, but it is at the heart of what we focus on in our work. When you feel good about where you live, if you feel safe, then and only then are you able to thrive, participate and live into the community you are surrounded by. Residents and businesses living and operating from a place of security, and not fear lead to art, economic growth and community engagement. But these things cannot happen without open hands and minds that aren’t scared of the past, present and future.

Motley has worked with communities that have population demographics split right down the middle of these two mindsets. Half of the community is secure and operating from a place of health and emotional attachment to the place. The other half is struggling to engage because of prejudice divides, economic instability, cultural difference or a list of other reasons. Motley’s goal in every community is for everyone to feel safe and included, to then be able to engage and thrive in the place where they live.

Unbalanced attention might seem unfair or even unattainable, but really, in order for the entire community to move forward, the ones that were left in a space of insecurity need to be brought up to to a safe place.

This is where we utilize creative placemaking. Placemaking can take form in many ways. You’re already participating in and benefitting from placemaking in your day to day life: city events, a mural, a community garden, bike lanes, a good park, an Instagram account, a strong local business community -- all of these things make us feel like we can call a place home and feel good about it calling it home. These initiatives only increase place attachment and secure feelings towards our community that are healthy. These initiatives can provide a place, a platform, and exist as a tool for others in the community to reach a place of security.

The result of placemaking is the difference between walking into a home that is furnished with pictures on the wall and stepping into a shell of a house that has all the possibilities but is unpainted and unlived in. Placemaking is the human touch, it’s the family photos, it’s the chipped paint on the walls. It’s turning a place from “Maybe I can see myself here,” to “This is mine!” In this, it’s important whose picture you see on the wall. Could you see your entire community here, or have you created a place for only some of them?

So, next time you’re painting a mural, or posting on Instagram, think for just a minute -- is this going to engage my whole community, the community that is already safe, or could I use this tool and this time to engage with those that are still working to claim this community as theirs?

On Endings

Ever since I was little, I’ve always hated when things would come to an end. It could have been an experience as big as a three-month summer camp, or something as small as a movie - it didn’t matter, I hated endings.

The worst part about it wasn’t even the ending itself, but the days or moments leading up to it. The moments that come before an ending are where the reflection happens, and for me it was the time when the immense joy for where I was set in and the attachment was at its strongest, making the end that was closing in even tougher to bear.

As my internship with Motley is nearing its close, these emotions are coming up all over again, except this time with a little bit of a twist.

After years and years of fearing change and the endings of experiences that I truly loved, I have started looking at endings from a different perspective. Instead of fearing that experience being over, I started imagining the ways that the experience would live on in my future. This mindset changed things. It transformed invading fear into unwavering appreciation, and deep sadness into joyous reflection.

This new mindset was perfectly reflected on an even larger scale through Motley’s mission to revitalize downtowns.

Working with towns struggling to find their voice showed that the fear of one chapter ending can be turned into the excitement of a new one starting. Motley enters communities with bright hopes and new ideas. They don’t see old towns as an end, but instead as an opportunity to rebuild using the most unique characteristics that the place has to offer.

This is an important lesson, not only for community developers and placemakers, but for all of us. It’s important to view ending in a positive light. To create a desire to find out what great things could lie right on the other side of an ending chapter. We must not fear the end, but know that they are placed intentionally on a path to beautiful change and valuable improvement.

And as for me, I am no expert at this yet. But I am working to love endings because just like an old town looks for a new direction to chart its future, I will carry with me where I have been into whatever places I get to call mine down the road.

— Lindsay

On Place Attachment

On average, people move twelve times in their lifetime. Thirty-six million Americans move each year. As humans, we aren’t very attached. We view where we live as temporary so we don’t invest.

We want to get you thinking about a better, more attached way of life. We’ve created a bit of a place attachment quiz to help you assess how attached you are to the place you call home. Count how many times you answer “Yes” to the following statements:

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  1. I feel rooted here and it feels like home.

  2. I like to tell people about where I live.

  3. If something exciting were happening in this community, I would want to be involved somehow.

  4. I don’t want to move anytime soon.

  5. I don’t need to use my GPS to get around.

  6. I feel like there are things to do and look forward to spending my nights and weekends here.

  7. I know and can depend on my neighbors.

  8. If I have an idea, I know the proper channels to take to make it happen.

  9. I know and feel loyal to the local business community here.

  10. I care about the future success of this town.

Placemaking is an investment, and more than just dollars, placemaking requires time, energy, dedication. Knowing how to get around without your GPS shows your dedication to learning your place. Engaging with your local business community shows you’ve invested time here instead of leaving town every weekend. Investing time, dollars, energy and resources are exactly the kinds of things that turn a place from good to great. Vibrancy cannot and will not exist without your participation. We want you to be in the driver's seat.

If you’re not connected to your town, do you know why? Can you recall a place where you have been connected in the past? What was the difference? And how you can implement that here, where you live now? Ask yourself these questions, and ask them often. Consistently gauge your attachment to where you live and make the effort to determine why it may be lacking. This will transform your longing to be where the grass is greener, to feeling deeply rooted in your community and the role it plays in your personal identity.

On the Softer Things

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When life and work get busy, the intangible, softer ideas are the first to go. We know this and it proves itself over and over again. The details and the fine touches are the things that get cut when we start to feel rushed and overwhelmed. But this is exactly what placemaking is, the things that make everything run a little smoother, look a bit nicer, impact deeper.

We are so driven by numbers, data, and results in our culture. We know what we need, but we’re busy and we cut corners to get it. We get rushed making dinner, we throw it in a bowl, we forget the garnish, we skip making the table and decide to eat on the couch again. The food is there and it does but the trick, but the welcoming and inviting touches are lost. We get focused on the conclusion and what we have accomplished instead of the processes and final details. We work toward the destination.

In this work, it means we look forward to the day when our downtowns are thriving, with sidewalks full of people, builds full of local businesses, and streetscapes full of art. We work to make sure our coding is inclusive and our infrastructure is ready for foot traffic. We recruit businesses that can pop up quickly instead of courting startups that have our communities values in mind. We forget that downtown revitalization really centers on people. It revolves around people’s stories, their passions, their investment, their spending power, and their day-to-day lifestyle.

We want to make sure that we are putting the intentionality and details into our work. These details make the whole of the work we do worth it through the narrative of bringing people into the story. If we focus our work there, the businesses we recruit and the sidewalks, become that much more meaningful.

When we bring people into it, everything becomes a soft science. You study lifestyle and where sidewalks are needed, instead of cost per square foot.

This is where we get tripped up. Because people bring a certain headache to things and slow down every project. Initiatives drag when we involve people because they have feelings and opinions. Businesses slow when we include our community because they want to be remembered too. They have their own dreams and precautions for their town.

But the work is worth it.

This week, as my schedule fills and the Post-it notes on my desk clutter up my headspace with tasks that are yet to do, I am writing this to remind me, too. The work is worth it, but only if we include people into the equation. It’s an empty shell of a project if we are only working for the destination and the end game. We might just get to the end and realized that we have completed a whole project void of people and void of passion.