Social innovation tends to flourish in communities that are creative, tolerant, and highly educated. In particular, research shows that communities that are home to major universities as a dominant presence are more likely than others to exhibit these characteristics. Such “College Towns” are also much more likely to create and adopt innovations that are environmentally sustainable and socially acceptable.
Read about college towns by clicking below.
My own professional interests have always included a focus on community development and creativity. After living and traveling to some great places, I am able to identify and describe some real differences that can only be found by experiencing life in different communities. I hope this will help you gain insights into what might be the best place for you to live. For now mine is in Carrboro-Chapel Hill, North Carolina (home of the UNC-Tar Heels).
This article will focus on the role of social institutions on quality of life for individuals and communities. I hope you enjoy and learn. My first is a tribute to my relatively recent (three years) hometown of Carrboro, NC (twin with Chapel Hill.)
It is amazing how different the culture and vibes are here compared to the more corporate Raleigh and family-friendly Cary. Click on this link to view a PDF Version of a presentation I have shared with community leaders entitled: C2HC2 (Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Chatham County) as the Creative Corner of the Research Triangle Park
I moved to North Carolina over 20 years ago after spending most of my life in the upper midwest. With two young children we moved to the fast-growing suburb of Cary (a.k.a. Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.) This is a great place to raise kids but is actually rather bland spiritually and boring socially. After divorce, I moved to downtown Raleigh hoping to find a cool community of people. Unfortunately, the NC state capital is not a creative or cool place – rather it is a conservative and capitalist mecca. This is explained in the powerpoint noted above.
So a few years ago I moved 25 miles west to the community of Carrboro, North Carolina, – the twin town to the great college town (Chapel Hill.) Carrboro is an island of progressive lifestyles and values within a generally conservative and lagging state. I have already analyzed how the Creative Corner of the Research Triangle Park is significantly different and better than the more industrialized and isolated communities to the east. This is particularly important given that this part of the US is considered in the top five of places to live on many indices – including creativity.
I had the chance to write a monthly column for my local newspaper – The Chapel Hill News – called the Creative Corner. I had three published and one that were written but not published. Like most news paper, this one is barely alive. Plus I had trouble finding other people to say what I wanted. Anyhow, I hope you will enjoy these. The first three are linked to the news paper. The last one is in the full text of this article. You can download the complete PDF of the series here Creative Corner Column
Community farmers markets represent a social innovation that is both new and old. In early days people would come to the community center to shop around the same times. This was a major social innovation that promoted community. Most parts of America no longer work that way. As a result, local farmers markets represent a popular and successful social innovation.
CARRBORO — Before supermarkets and restaurants brought us foods from around the world, people produced and consumed food locally. The Carrboro Farmers’ Market and a network of family farms provide the foundation for a simpler and more sustainable community.
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CARRBORO — A lot of thinking can go into making things happen spontaneously. Communities have always had hubs of social activity and commerce. Even as the Internet expands, people still long for more personal interaction. “Informal interaction is critical for both individuals and society and works best when people engage each other in a relaxed atmosphere,” says Thomas Thiemann, professor of business at Elon College. “We really need places where unanticipated meetings with friends and neighbors can occur.” Thiemann describes such community centers as “third places” because they are neither home nor work, our first and second places.
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CARRBORO — Town’s development review invites wide community input. People who gather downtown will have more options once the 300 East Main Street project is completed. Carrboro will gain a third major landmark, alongside Weaver Street Market and the Town Commons. Just as this project will redefine downtown, it also shows how a community responded to major change by balancing competing views and values
College Towns Foster Creativity and Cohesion
Chapel Hill News – Never Published – January 31, 2009
CARRBORO – Our community consistently ranks at the top of various lists about best places to live because we are a “college town.” We owe our progressive and positive quality of life to the cultural climate created by UNC-CH students and faculty.
The university is the hub of a creative community and touches our lives in many ways. A uniquely American innovation, college towns have at least 20 percent of the population directly associated with the university.
In our case, 44 percent of Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents are current faculty or students. Such talented and motivated people enhance our intellectual and social climate in many ways that go far beyond sports and entertainment.
As our dominant institution, the UNC campus serves as an intellectual community and public learning space – much of it open to the public. Our historic, scenic campus also serves as a recreational and historic site. However, beyond campus we can see many important impacts of the university on our quality of life. People are the heart and soul of any community.
Andrew Perrin, Associate Professor of Sociology at UNC-CH, explains how intellectuals are often the driving forces behind creativity. “Having people whose job is essentially cerebral is really good for making the town interesting and unusual.” UNC-CH is known as a “flagship university” which accounts for the large and diverse graduate-student population.
Flagship universities attract the best and brightest students and faculty from around the world. They typically have strong programs in art, music, or literature that attract young people who see college as more than just a path to a job. Graduate students are real assets for building community creativity and cohesion.
Amanda Kaufman, who is pursuing her masters in public health at UNC, explains how graduate students enhance our community culture. “We are very involved in community service groups throughout Carrboro and surrounding areas.”
Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton explains that Carrboro is not actually a college town. “We have the best of both worlds in that Chapel Hill has to deal with the negative consequences of having a University such as football traffic and keg parties.”
Kaufman explains. “I love living in Carrboro because not only can I walk to the grocery store, bars, and live music venues, but I can also rest assured that I will pass several smiling faces during my stroll. I’ve met many of my now close friends by spending time hanging out and/or studying at Weaver St Market.”
With so many students and highly educated adults college towns foster development of distinctive businesses: trendy shops, used bookstores, ethnic restaurants, and plenty of bars. These attract visitors from around the region and further enhance our economic sustainability.
Carrboro has been particularly successful at fostering creative businesses and services. Mayor Chilton explains that “we benefit from all these young minds creating art, music and novel institutions. Bluntly put and admittedly oversimplified, we get all the grad students and Chapel Hill gets all the undergrads.”
The college years are a time for individual awakening and social discovery. Experiences that trigger growth occur not on campus but in the broader community. Kaufman, who also teaches art classes in Carrboro, notes the community garden as an important innovation. “Participating gives me gardening experience and allows me to meet like-minded folks that live in the neighborhood.”
The supply of convenient and affordable housing is limited in our community – as it is in other college towns. Kaufman feels fortunate to have found an affordable house close to downtown Carrboro that she share with two other students. As a professor, I feel the same good fortune in also finding an affordable rental home.
However, UNC sociologist Perris explains that keeping rents low requires people who own property to forego appreciation in value. “It’s always a test of the commitment to residents’ values whether they’re willing to “put their money where their mouth is‟ and devote significant resources to keeping housing affordable.”
Our community gains if young people find it affordable to establish their lives here. Perrin encourages more policy innovation and community involvement – which is often what young people bring to the table. “I’d love to see a series of public discussions around issues like affordable housing, which would really underwrite a kind of democratic revival.”
College towns are sought out because they are tolerant, cosmopolitan and diverse. Kaufman notes that many graduate students actually want to stay in Carrboro after graduating. “There is so much to love about this town. People realize this and don’t want to leave.”
So let me summarize some of the lessons we can learn from the case study of Carrboro, NC (a.k.a., The Paris of the Piedmont.) Cool and creative communities tend to share the following important characteristics:
- Close connection to the land and local food supplies
- Strong liberal arts University with global prestige
- Tolerance and respect for progressive points of view
- Third places where people can hang out and have fun
- Locally owned business and creative institutions
- Sustainable transportation and development approaches
- Open and participatory political decision making
- Several alternative free news papers
- Thriving music scene with free downtown concerts
- Innovative and inspirational culture and climate
Keep reading the HipHappy Times to learn more about what makes communities cool and creative.