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How to love where you live

POSTED: May 4, 2017 3:02 a.m.
Tiffany Gee Lewis/

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For more than a decade of her life, Annaliese Priamos lived in a small coastal logging town in western Washington near Grays Harbor.

It was, in her words, a crummy little town that had seen better days before Weyerhaeuser moved out and took the jobs with it. High unemployment and drug use were rampant.

And yet, Priamos loved her town. The daughter of a Boy Scout professional, she had spent her growing-up years bouncing from Utah to Idaho, Arizona, Oregon and back to Idaho. Her parents had taught her, in every new place, to jump right in and get involved.

Getting involved is exactly what she did.

When her daughter entered kindergarten, Priamos joined the PTA and volunteered in the classroom. She found a mom’s group with a storied history. More than just meeting for social support, the group organized fundraisers to give back to the community.

Eventually, Priamos started a blog focused on publicizing local events, festivals and deals in the area. This is what truly shifted her opinion about where she lived.

“I was suddenly looking for the good in the community,” she said. “I grew to love these different festivals. (The area) was small enough that I could know from one end of the county to the other what was going on. I immersed myself in it.”

The average American will move more than 11 times in his or her life, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While some will be fortunate to land the dream job in the dream locale, reality might mean decades or a lifetime spent in less-than-desirable places.

Is it possible to love where we live, be it a depressed coastal logging town, a small college town or a large city clogged with traffic?

The answer is a resounding yes, says Melody Warnick, author of the bookThis is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live” (Viking, $26).

As the title indicates, the book delves into the science behind place attachment, “the affectionate, almost familial connection that can form between us and where we live,” Warnick writes. Coming to love where we live takes time, she notes, but it can be amplified by action and behavior.

In short, people can take measurable steps toward falling in love with where they live, be it walking the city, acting out place-attachment experiments or recruiting others to come along for the ride.

Get around town on foot

First off, Warnick says to get walking. In fact, exploring your town on foot might make the single greatest impact on your happiness, Warnick said in an interview.

“Walking or riding your bike is a quick, shortcut way to getting on a first-name basis with your town," she said. "You’re moving at a human, slow pace, in addition to helping you find your way around.”

And, she adds, there’s no set time limit: “I think it works even for people who have been there a long time.”

Walkability is more than just a trend. Multiple studies show that commuting can suck the joy out of a person — whereas “when a former car commuter switches to walking to work, his happiness levels go up as much as if he’d gotten a raise or fallen in love,” Warnick writes.

The site WalkScore.com (it’s also an app) can tell you, on a scale of 1 to 100, how walkable (and bikeable) an area is. However, walkability is popular and often comes with a steep price tag for housing. Or it may be too late to change where you live, be it the country or the unwalkable suburbs.

In that case, Warnick’s advice is to make your city walkable.

“Choose a neighborhood. Notice things. Look at the flowers. Look at the plastic flamingos stuck in people’s lawns, their house and their dogs. You tend to develop a sense of ownership. That’s what place-attachment is all about, feeling a sense of ownership,” Warnick said.

Experiment (again and again)

Warnick doesn’t just dole out advice; she lives it. In fact, the impetus for “This is Where You Belong” came from her family’s cross-country move to Blacksburg, Virginia. After graduating from Brigham Young University, she and her family traversed the U.S. Staring down their fifth move, she began to wonder how things could be made easier.

The result was the book. She admits her biggest fear was that all her place-attachment experiments wouldn’t work.

“This is ridiculous to say, but I began writing the book while I was doing the experiments," she said. "I thought to myself: There is a distinct possibility that my hypothesis is wrong. There’s a part of me that thought: This isn’t going to work. I might get to end and not like Blacksburg.”

Lucky for her, the experiments, which included eating local, volunteering, communing with nature and getting involved in politics, worked.

“Toward the end of the process, I was amazed and gratified to find that I really did love it here. I would feel this burst of appreciation and love for my town," she said. "All those efforts I had made had worked their magic.”

That doesn’t mean she’s perfect at acting on her advice. In one chapter, she delves into the importance of getting to know one’s neighbors, a challenge that, as in introvert, took her out of her comfort zone.

“Modern life has made this difficult for us," she said. "There’s this feeling that if I reach out, they’re going to be stopping by and hanging out all day.” She did make attempts to invite her neighbors to dinner and bring them muffins, but it continues to be an uphill battle.

Creating something for her community was also harder than she envisioned, as she found from her attempt to organize a chalk walk at a community gathering.

“I’ve known people who have so much energy to burn, they’re always boiling different projects," she said. "But that type of initiative isn’t for everyone.”

Still, if you find you’re not a visionary at executing large-scale community projects, “you can show up for people who do, and this is also valuable and needed,” she added.

And if you’re really stuck, there’s always the ice cream test she recommends: “Focus on what the town is really good at. Every town has hidden talents and assets. Take your kids on a test run of all ice cream shops in a 20-mile radius.”

Recruit others to join you

After biking his way from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Mexico, Hank Merrill got down to deciding where he wanted to retire. He hand-picked Salt Lake City because of its outdoor scene.

But that didn’t mean immediate community involvement. In his first two years in Salt Lake City, he built model trains in his basement. Then someone introduced him to the Newcomers’ Club, and he hasn’t touched his trains since.

Now president of the Newcomers’ Club, Merrill constantly recruits people looking to get involved in the community. He admits to recruiting people he meets on chairlifts while skiing.

Once they join the club, he insists there is a niche interest for everyone, from book clubs and brunches to outdoors and food.

Getting involved and enjoying the local scene is how Merrill has come to love the area. He bought season tickets to the theater. He explores the restaurant scene, which he believes has dramatically improved in recent years.

“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Merrill said.

Bloom where you are planted

As for Priamos, after more than a decade in the Grays Harbor, Washington, area, a life transition took her to Utah, a move she admits was extremely hard at first.

She had just gone through a divorce and everything in sunny Southern Utah stood in sharp contrast to rainy Washington. Suddenly, she was at her parent’s home in an upscale neighborhood of St. George, where she found she had nothing in common with her neighbors.

Yet, going off her family motto of “See good. Do good. Be good,” she began applying the same principles that had helped her fall in love with her harbor home.

“I found myself loving the sunshine, the red rocks and the vistas,” Priamos said. “I loved Zion (National Park) being so close. It didn’t matter that (my neighbors) made millions more than I make, I came to love those people. It was definitely my hardest move, but the one that was most needed.”

Now a resident of Roy, Utah, Priamos is finding new things to love.

“I love our quaint neighborhood," she said. "My kids ride bikes down the street and I don’t worry about it. There are kids everywhere. We walk to school every morning and it’s like the children of Israel, a mass exodus to the school.”

Priamos said she remembered as a kid that her parents felt that each place they lived had a purpose.

“I have found that has been key in my life in loving each place I live. I find my purpose in being there," she said. "Your home, your community, your neighborhood, your church: when you learn to make something yours, you learn to love it.”
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