Active Strategies Makes Move To Serve More Communities

Meeting the Demand for Community Livability and Outdoor Recreation Strategies across the U.S.

For Immediate Release

[St. Louis, Mo. March 26, 2018] Active Strategies, a consultancy focusing on outdoor culture, announced today that is expanding its capacity with the addition of Andy Williamson, who will serve as the firm’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives.  

The addition of Williamson signals a move by Active Strategies to better support more communities across the U.S. in becoming better places to live, work and play. The step also illustrates the firm’s commitment to bring together a team of experts with real world, on the ground experience working with rural and urban communities to help meet the ever increasing demand for more vibrant, healthy and active lifestyle opportunities for their residents.  

“The addition of Andy to our team will expand our ability to offer a more comprehensive set of services to our parks, municipal and outdoor community clients around the country,” said Greg Brumitt, Active Strategies founder and President. “We’re excited to have him on board to help build strong vibrant outdoor brands and cultures, that in turn help our clients retain and recruit businesses and the talented active people they seek.”

Williamson brings a broad range of experience and skills to Active Strategies and will play a key role in engagements related to trails, strategic planning, programming, outdoor recreation and cycling.  He comes to Active Strategies from the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), where he recently served as the Director of Programs and Great Lakes Region Director. During his 6-year tenure at IMBA, Williamson helped communities across the country become more active and vibrant through mountain biking and sustainable trail strategies. His efforts drove multiple major mountain biking infrastructure projects and helped communities create trail-centric comprehensive destination branding and marketing strategies. Williamson is well-known and active in the trail and cycling industry, serving on many national coalitions that support grassroots organizations and agencies in fulfilling their vision.

“The opportunity to join the Active Strategies team is an exciting next step for me,” said Williamson. “The career path that I’ve chosen, or that chose me, is one where I have the opportunity to share my passion for outdoor recreation for the betterment of a community. I look forward to the opportunity to work with even more communities across the U.S. as part of the Active Strategies team.”

For more information on Active Strategies services and team contact Greg Brumitt at greg@activestrategies.net or visit our website at www.activestrategies.net

About Active Strategies

Active Strategies is a firm focused on creating great quality of life for communities through the use of open space, community design, culture development and active lifestyle strategies. It was formed in 2013 to help communities, park and recreation, tourism, and economic development organizations develop active cultures and vibrant brands that create an atmosphere in which great places, organizations, and communities can grow. Active Strategies offers capabilities in outdoor recreation and active living design leadership, place activation, outdoor destination and community branding , strategic and program planning garnered from over 25 years in park, action sports and active lifestyle industry leadership.

GO EAST, MY SON!

Quite a few of us involved in the outdoor recreation culture and industry have dreamed of living in the proverbial ‘western mountain town’ described in this article. I have been among them. The culture of where I live, for me is the key to happiness. It’s why I became interested in how these cultures develop and how they impact communities in mostly positive ways. I like to live where the outdoor access is great and the culture is a little crunchier and yes maybe more progressive than the run of the mill place.

But having frequented these towns (as late as this month in Colorado) and having lived, worked and played in Vancouver BC (riding Whistler weekly) and Asheville, NC, I’ve had the chance to experience some of the mountain town culture. But as a recent Outside Magazine article, The Outdoor Lover’s Obsession with the Next Dream Town (https://www.outsideonline.com/2277501/where-next?utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=onsiteshare ) alludes to, many of these ‘great places to live’ have been overrun with the moneyed elite all dressed up in Patagonia (or the even more exotic mountain brand de jour) with no place to go. Yeah there’s some serious outdoor athletes in these places…some even Olympians. Real people doing real things outdoors for sure. But lets face it; today many of these places are becoming more Disneyland that real. Many lack the diversity in demographics and economic opportunity, not to mention the basic ability to afford a home and a decent lifestyle.

Yes I have at times in my life, lived in some places I just didn’t ‘feel’ and they certainly didn’t ‘feel’ me (I didn’t hang in those places very long). But I have pursued the great place to live in another way. I’ve tried to go where the mountain town isn’t and have tried to create the access and the culture I crave where it wasn’t. I have believed for some time now that the outdoor industry, its industry associations and the outdoor and trail advocacy groups I have been a member of, supported, and worked with over the years need to get over themselves and the mountain west and get real about creating real access in real places like Dayton, St Louis, Cincinnati and Detroit.

As important as establishing outdoor access is in the large eastern metros, (all Metros for that mater) we also need to consider certain rural communities where agriculture is in transition and where ecotourism and public land creation could be a solid economic development strategy for the future. In particularly are those small towns near major metros that could act as weekend get-a-ways and culture hubs.

After all, 255 million people live in the Eastern US; the 37 states east of the Rockies and the Mountain West. Yes the access is great out west; heck most of the public lands in the US are located in the 13 western states. For an example, Colorado has 26 million acres of Federal public land, Illinois less than 500,000. The middle of the country being a little flatter and more agricultural has not benefited as much as the west has in Federal and State investment in public lands. So we know why a lot of the outdoor people and culture, not to mention businesses ended up out West and way many more are still moving there.

But now its time to reinvent outdoor recreation and the outdoor recreation industry. We not only need to think about how we create better public lands access in the east, but also how we integrate outdoor recreation access into the urban grid in fundamentally new ways that will create many more urban outdoor recreation enthusiasts. That’s how the outdoor and bike industries can both grow and at the same time help the middle of the country be more vibrant and healthier… as well as a little bit more fun too.

Don’t get me wrong there are a lot of places that have taken matters into their own hands and that have become great places to live with great outdoor access. One of my former homes, Asheville is a fantastic example. It’s not only a place with great public outdoor access, but also Asheville is a place that has managed to establish itself as a hub of the outdoor industry and for that matter the craft beer industry. And certainly we heard about what other former rustbelt communities like Duluth, Chattanooga, Dayton and others have done and are doing to reinvent themselves. When I left Dayton in 2013, after spending 12 years there running an outdoor initiative, there was one craft brewery and no whitewater parks…now there are two whitewater parks in Dayton ( and a 3rd 20 minutes away) and at last count 17 craft brewers. Simply evidence that people have decided that Dayton is a good place to stay and make an investment.

One of the newest players on the scene in the last 5 years, Bentonville Arkansas is so hot right now that several industry players have mentioned to me that they think that Bentonville is getting a little over cooked with media coverage. Bentonville, with the support of the local Walton Family Foundation and IMBA are really pursuing this new idea of integrating outdoor recreation, mountain bike trails in this case, into the community in fundamental ways, rather than thinking about trails as something that just belongs in a park. But the jury is out as to whether Bentonville and NW Arkansas can take their great work to the next level and fully convert their emerging active culture into a fully blown outdoor culture and industry play. I think they can and they will.

Sure I haven’t found feet of powder and millions of square miles of National Parks and Forests in the places where I work today to create better access…but what I have found are great rivers that are waiting to be rediscovered, near brownfields and park land that are begging to be opened up to a growing group of trail runners, hikers, and mountain bikers.

Most importantly what I have found and continue to find in my hometown of Edwardsville and the larger Metro St Louis area, is a core group of great outdoor people that are passionate about our potential outdoor opportunities. We have the chance here to create thousands of new outdoor enthusiasts as we build new greenways, mountain bike trails and reintroduce the rivers of our area to a new class of outdoor enthusiast.

Kayaking on the Great Miami River in Dayton

This of course means more to St Louis and many eastern cities than just the chance to mountain bike or paddle. It is chance to create a fundamental shift from a culture of sports watching (we’re a great baseball town you know) to a culture of active living. That means improved health outcomes, a better environment and a vibrant community that can recruit and retain talent. I believe it will happen here. But it will happen much faster if the outdoor industry, its industry associations and advocacy groups figure out how to engage and influence a more open and enlightened metropolitan leadership in order to collaboratively fund and engender new access and program innovations that have the potential to expose thousands of new people to the active outdoor life style that can and does change communities and lives.

Eco-Economic Development

 

 

An Existential Challenge

There is an economic development battle going on in the United States among regions that, on its surface, is about who can attract vital businesses and the educated work force those businesses seek. But if you look deeper, this battle is really about which regions, and even smaller communities, can develop a rich set of quality of life amenities that today’s “mobile consumer” is seeking. In many cases, this economic challenge is existential for our nation’s smaller cities and towns.

 

These communities, many in the middle of the country in the rust and corn belts, are struggling to establish relevancy in today’s knowledge and global economy. Yet, the most innovative of them are using their own unique assets to develop quality of life approaches to stake out their place in the market.   Today’s businesses, in their efforts to attract and retain highly skilled and motivated workers, are attracted to communities that are strengthening their appeal to a discerning labor force that demands more from the places where they live than a paycheck and a house. However intuitive this seems, this thinking is still beyond the practical reach of many communities.

 

Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution says rustbelt communities must reinvent themselves to survive1. But they must do it by “focusing on the fundamentals.” “They have to use their geographical advantages and build as much as possible on “anchor” institutions such as universities and hospitals.” In other words, identify, improve, and leverage their existing resources.

 

It is somewhat surprising that many struggling communities continue to follow a traditional community and economic development path in the face of increasing evidence that developing quality of life assets is becoming a ‘must-have’ for a community’s successful reinvention. Many talk a good “quality of life” game, but touting quality of life is not enough. Businesses today and the talented work force they seek aren’t buying the old economic development sales pitch, “Hey we’ve got a railroad, come live and work here!” Today’s regional economic development efforts have to start with the question: “Is our community truly a great place to live?” Leaders must deal honestly with the answer to that question and get to work on efforts to develop a dense network of quality of life infrastructure on the ground. Ultimately, the goal is to create a vibrant environment and a brand that can drive both community pride and an attractive regional brand.

 

Even if they have economic development initiatives in place, many of these struggling communities have economic development plans that focus on work-only efforts, as apparently they believe that the live and play elements aren’t really important in achieving their goals. Or, they don’t fully appreciate the cause and effect that community vibrancy and culture has on the psyche, morale and downright attractiveness that translates into people retention, business growth, and changing the game in their communities. To many, economic development is all about the next factory, tech start-up, or big box retailer coming to town…and yes, that’s part of the picture…but the real challenge is what conditions must be put in place for a community to truly reinvent itself?

 

As it becomes more difficult to attract business and population from elsewhere, communities must learn how to leverage their existing or potential assets in ways that can help them change their culture in order to break out of old patterns and begin to develop human resources and grow businesses at the grassroots. As the economic environment becomes even more competitive and the industrial recruitment pie grows smaller, communities have to rely on themselves and their own assets for future growth.

 

While there are an abundance of quality of life strategies that communities can choose to pursue, the development of an integrated active living culture is showing great promise as an effort that can be transformational for struggling communities. The real beauty of an active culture development initiative is the fact that change, innovation, and growth can come from within the community and is not dependent or subservient to the machinations of the corporate industrial market. Every community can’t attract an auto plant, but each can build their own active lifestyle culture that can act as a catalyst for grassroots growth.

 

Ironically, many of the elements that make up a healthy, vibrant community today are anathema to traditional big-box, corporate focused economic development. What most upwardly mobile Americans are looking for today is local, handmade, natural, green, and active. These are places with cultures that feel welcoming and are easy to brand and differentiate from other places. They are not the miles of strip malls, fast food, and even the “lifestyle” centers. They are indeed places that exhibit unique urban design and regional character in architecture, retail, entertainment and outdoor recreation and in the community’s overall approach to land planning and usages. Communities striving to compete must break out and blaze a different trail.

 

Natural Livability?

Livability doesn’t start with the built environment; it starts with the natural assets of the region. It’s the beaches, rivers, forests, hills, creeks, and mountains that define a regional topography. National trends in population shift and regional growth supports the argument that the most important component of community quality of life, and what is really driving growth is how a community leverages its natural resources to create a healthy active culture and brand for itself. There is a reason why many communities from the Rockies west, Mason Dixon line south, and Appalachian east continue to grow at the expense of communities in the middle of the country. Yes, some of that is about how our country was settled and developed; certainly technology and globalization’s impact on the industrial middle is key. The flight from unions to right to work states certainly factors in. Like my home state of Illinois, the Midwestern states aren’t known for dramatic topography, and for the most part are dominated by agricultural land uses that precludes the existence of large scale land conservation as is seen in the mountainous west and eastern Appalachians. The underlying fact is that the continued migration west and south has partly been driven by the existence of highly accessible public lands and the active cultures that great outdoor access engenders. Warmer weather, proximity to mountains, beaches, whitewater rivers, ski areas, and the cultures that emerge are fundamentally what is driving economic growth. And, the statistics support this. From 2010 to 2015, the US Census Bureau found that all but one of the top ten states (District of Columbia is included as it has more population that Vermont and Wyoming) in terms of percentage of population growth were either west of the Rockies or southern states2:

 

Top Ten Growth States: 2010-2015 –

  1. North Dakota
  2. District of Columbia
  3. Texas
  4. Colorado
  5. Utah
  6. Florida
  7. Nevada
  8. Arizona
  9. Washington
  10. Idaho

 

That trend continues for the top twenty growth states with 18 of the 20 being in the west or south. Why is that germane to this discussion? Because, for the most part, those same states have the highest quantities of conserved public land, much of it in the form of federal and state parks, conservation and recreation areas. Conservation equals access and access is the opportunity to recreate close to home. For millions of Americans, this represents quality of life.

 

The Quality of Life Case for Land Conservation

If you look around the country and examine the characteristics of the most vibrant growing regions, the first thing that sticks out is their access to the outdoors. Most of the communities that are known, or emerging, as great places to live are blessed with significant portions of near-by conserved lands. It’s not a coincidence that eight of the top ten percentage in growth states in the last five years are also in the top ten states with the most federally held land, and all are in the top 20 growth states. These states are blessed with thousands of acres of National parks and monuments, US Forests and Bureau of Land Management areas. These lands, many in close proximity to major metropolitan areas, provide great opportunity for recreation access for locals and tourists alike. They are becoming more and more a place where people are moving to live, work, play, and retire. Places like Salt Lake City, Denver, Boise, Portland and Seattle are all located in a sea of public lands that drive local quality of life. And, while federal ownership is most prominent in the west, southern states also have significant federal holdings. Following the spine of the southern Appalachians, communities from Washington DC, south to Richmond, Knoxville, Asheville and Chattanooga, are all benefiting from proximity to terrain conserved by the federal government in the form of national parks, Tennessee Valley Authority projects, parkways, and US Forests. In addition to federally held lands, the nature rich states also hold significant acreage in state and local parks, forests, and conservation areas which add to their advantage.

 

Top Ten States with Federally Held Lands:

  1. Nevada 85%
  2. Utah 65%
  3. Idaho 62%
  4. Alaska 61%
  5. Oregon 53%
  6. Wyoming 49%
  7. California 49%
  8. Arizona 39%
  9. Colorado 36%
  10. New Mexico 35%

 

Conversely, eight of ten states with the lowest percentage of land held in conservation by federal state and local authorities are located in the middle of the country, and rank in the bottom half of states by percentage of population growth since 20103.

 

But, while the west and Appalachian south enjoy land conservation advantages, many Midwestern communities are taking action on their own. They are creating conservancies, conservation districts, land trusts and other public-private partnerships (P3s) to conserve land and connect people to the outdoors. This has the ability to change how residents view their own communities and how others view them.

 

Eco-Economic Development

So how does conservation and good land stewardship support community qualify of life and economic development where leaders are savvy enough to invest in and promote it smartly? In just one example, the Outdoor Industry Association found that in rural western counties with more than 30 percent of their land under federal protection increased jobs at a rate four times faster than rural counties with no federally protected lands4.

 

To illustrate the link between conserved lands, the active culture that access to land engenders, and the development that is attracted to those active cultures, let’s look at one of the more obvious examples of how conservation drives recreation, leisure, tourism, economic impact and investment in a community: the Colorado mountain town. Skiing and land conservation are inexorably linked. In the early days, the Forest Service worked with mountain communities to develop access to skiable lands and then later to develop ski area infrastructure including roads, lodges, etc. Today, in places like Aspen, Vail, and Breckenridge, we see the culmination of almost 80 years of ski area community and economic development driven by the existence of US Forest Service land conservation. There is no better example of an outdoor driven destination than a Colorado ski town.

 

In fact, the State of Colorado, as a whole, recognizes this as well, and along with the States of Utah and Washington has opened outdoor industry offices to leverage and grow their advantages in the outdoor market cluster. These three states understand that where there is great outdoor access, there is or can be a dense ecosystem of outdoor gear designers, manufacturers, and retailers supporting and growing the outdoor economy.

 

The outdoor industry has not missed the gaze of the federal government; recently the Senate passed the Recreation Economic Contributions Act, which requires the Commerce Department to include the outdoor recreation industry in the Federal government’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculations. The outdoor industry’s inclusion in GDP will change the calculus of public land uses and initiate a growing understanding of the $700 billion outdoor recreation industry’s economic impact…mostly due to the opportunity to recreate on public land at all levels.

Reinventing the Culture and the Brand

 

So how do we take the lesson of these naturally blessed regions in the west and south and use it in rural towns and rust belt cities across the Midwest? Much of it is about changing the attitude of residents and leaders in a way that creates excitement, engagement and an environment to try new things. The initial challenge in many of these communities is the negative outlook and inferiority complexes that exist in the community…a sense that change and the good things they see happening elsewhere can’t happen there. Breaking down and overcoming this negative thinking is an incremental process based on small wins. Linking small progress over time in context to a bigger vision, allows a community to build confidence and create new collaborative processes and networks that are essential to meaningful change.

 

In the beginning, it’s really a matter of stepping back and assessing what components of active culture are present in your community today, and what kind of land based conservation (or urban brownfield reclamation) is in place or could be possible in your area. People can’t be active without a place to be active. These places can become gathering spots and the people using them can become a community’s first activists. As with all planning, assessment is key. Understanding and identifying assets and potential assets that a plan and a vision can be built on is the first step.

 

Much of the success we see in rust and corn belt communities is not just about land conservation, but about leveraging the negative for the positive. Community design that encourages and allows active recreation close to home…everyone’s home is key. It really takes rethinking how the community is designed and how people move around in it.

 

While the rust and corn belt will never be Colorado, there are great examples across the middle of the country of communities using their lakes, rivers, wooded terrain and even abandoned railroad corridors and urban brownfields to create fun places to recreate that is exciting to their residents and changing how others view them.

 

But conserving land, building a greenway or restoring a tired park isn’t the end…it’s the beginning. There has to be a larger vision and a connected strategy that integrates and builds on assets and engages, excites and mobilizes citizenry.

 

In Dayton, a local conservation agency launched a major outdoor recreation initiative billing Dayton as the Outdoor Adventure Capital of the Midwest. Many laughed, but not long after beginning the effort, it became the centerpiece of a plan to revitalize downtown Dayton, using that early vision as an outdoor destination was a motivator and a guide to make their downtown revitalization happen. But, more importantly, the accumulating successes encouraged residents and leaders to do more, which in turn created bigger wins and an excitement about Dayton’s potential.

 

This kind of active visioning can help build an integrated initiative, that can help develop a broad set of active lifestyle elements necessary for culture shift. This interdependence of elements points to the need for communities to integrate their community and economic development efforts into one seamless strategy that mobilizes the community toward a set of comprehensive goals, rather than a set of independent actions.

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As the foundations of the initiative are put in place and small wins accumulate, community excitement rises and the culture gains strength. Young residents may decide to stay and get involved. Retention begins to be a reality. Typically we see a growth in local initiatives and organization focused on leveraging and pushing progress, if a strong framework has been built. As things progress, attraction begins to happen. The people that decided to stay open businesses; the word spreads and others seek out the rising community.

 

So the real key to community reinvention and the foundation of a great community brand is the local culture. Culture is the character of the community – it makes it open or closed to new ideas, a collaborative or difficult environment in which to work. Most importantly, when strong active cultures exist in the community, there is an environment that makes positive thinking and action possible. In the end, your community’s culture is your brand, like it or not. In case after case, the impetuous for community change is about getting people out of their houses, into the streets, parks, and trails doing active healthy things and into the cafes and breweries afterward. It is a catalyst for community change. It is a beginning.

 

Across the heartland many communities are working hard to integrate traditional community and economic development efforts with the development of active lifestyle cultures. These strategies that make communities more livable and attractive are becoming crucial components of long-term efforts to enhance competitiveness. They are a vital bridge to the new economy these communities are striving to reach.

 

Community sustainability, land and water conservation, green infrastructure, local foods/urban farming, share and maker markets, important bike/pedestrian friendly urban design, access to the outdoors and outdoor recreation are the core tactics that make up an emerging active culture. These initiatives can be a community’s introduction into thinking about community resiliency. In this broader context, community resiliency becomes a multi faceted goal to achieve a state where natural, economic, and cultural assets are in balance for the benefit of the larger community and environment.

 

Challenges remain, as these cultures, while potentially transformational, can lack diverse participation and is only the beginning of a community’s transformation. Funding can be especially challenging in some areas where state and local governments do not have a tradition or ability to fund cultural and quality of life initiatives. However, quality of life efforts are typically less expensive than other forms of pubic works and much can be achieved through volunteers. Active culture development is as much an attitude and brand adjustment as it is economic development. In my experience, establishing a climate of change is critical for emerging communities to turn the corner towards positive growth and development. A transformed culture is a signal to itself and to the world that this community has shed its traditional skin and is ready to join the ranks of the innovative and progressive.

1 The Economist; Reinvention in the Rustbelt; July 11, 2015

2 US Census Bureau

3 US Census Bureau

4 Outdoor Industry Association

Nature Makes the “Mountain” Town

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Current River, Mo 1977 Author is in back middle 

As I wrote in my last blog, “Its About Nature Stupid”, those of us so fortunate to have frequented America’s “mountain towns” and outdoor recreation destinations know the vibrancy and the attraction that their mix of access to nature, the outdoors, and active culture creates. I love the buzz of a great outdoor town. The people with the requisite Labrador Retriever mix hanging out in the cafes or tooling by on a converted beach cruiser. The craft beer and great food. The music and the craft beer. And then there’s the craft beer…

But we know the fundamental source of that outdoor culture don’t we…yeah it is the nature and the access to places to play outdoors that make these famous communities what they are. So what turned these former mining and lumber camps into outdoor destinations? What drove the cultures and the allure of these towns that now make Oklahoma City, Chattanooga and Duluth want emulated them?

Well like always, first it was the access. By the middle of the 20th century, over 50 years of land conservation in the form of the National Park Service, US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, etc. had made the truly great outdoors accessible. The development of thousands of state and local parks and trails by New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Work Progress Administration (WPA) created local access across the country.

But the access alone didn’t create the culture we seek and the industry that made it possible. In the years after World War II, veterans and their families were enjoying a huge economic surge fostered by the pent up consumer demand of post-war America and the benefits of the GI Bill. Their new suburban lives, based on the growth of the American corporation, provided this generation the unique luxury of leisure time. Leisure time and the emergence of the American automobile with the Interstate highway system gave post-war Americans the time and mobility to get outside.

Risk takers and entrepreneurs like Payson Kennedy, the founder of Nantahala Outdoor Center and Vail Resort founder Pete Siebert, a sergeant in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II led the way and thousands followed.

Having experienced family vacations to the great national parks, Boy Scout canoe trips, and picnics in local parks, youngsters from the Boomer generation took it one step further pioneering the move outdoors. They struck out for places like Bishop, Leadville, Boulder and yes Burlington and Asheville too. Drawn by the work of the “greatest generation’s” efforts to build the early outdoor recreation industry, kids moved west into Colorado and California and worked in the summer camps of western North Carolina. These young boomers were ski bums, they worked in the molybdenum mines of Leadville, they were camp counselors in Brevard or worked as day laborers and waitresses in Vail or Aspen. Some didn’t bother to work and just hung out in Yosemite’s Camp 4 and built the climbing industry.

As the industry grew, so did the opportunity for careers and bigger adventures. As places like Vail and the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), and concerns like The North Face and Patagonia became thriving businesses, so did the outdoor activities we loved. Skiing, eventually snowboarding, whitewater kayaking, backpacking and cycling all grew up in the last half of the 20th century. The bike itself morphed from the Schwinn Orange Crate and 10 speed Collegiate of the 60’s to the carbon machines of today. And mountain bikes, which dominate my cycling time these days, had just started to happen in the mountains of Marin County, just north of San Francisco. I remember when Jim Fixx, who wrote the book on running was a major star in the early 1970’s. When I was a kid, if you saw someone running down the street you would wonder who was chasing them. We went from aluminum Grumman canoes in the 60’s to roto-molded plastic kayaks in the 80’s. In the 1990’s, kayaks changed from long (13 feet) to very short (6 feet) and are going back to long again. For me, I look back and wonder how all this happened in less than one lifetime…mine. Certainly the culture of the 1960s and 1970s had a lot to do with it, it was in fact a time of change. It was a back to nature movement then that has in a sense been resurrected by the millennial generation. This current generation is both flocking to the urban core and returning to the organic farm, all while seeking authenticity of place and experience.

As the pace of life has accelerated due to the emergence of digital communication innovations, like email, smart phones and social media we are seeing participation in the outdoors change. With seemingly not as much time to recreate because of constant accompaniment of one screen or another and the demand of the gig economy, amazingly we are seeing participation in some pursuits actually rise. Not because more people are taking the time to head to the remote backcountry initially, but because the outdoor industry has innovated and brought the adventure to us. This urban access to outdoor pursuits is creating a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts and is fueling a new urban outdoor industry.

Innovations in urban outdoor recreation are everywhere these days. Climbing gyms like the Urban Krag in Dayton and So Ill in St Louis are introducing urbanites and their kids to climbing in the Midwest. The explosion in metropolitan-based mountain bike clubs is helping mountain bikers create their own access by working with local parks to build sustainable trails close to home. The development of truly urban mountain biking via compact bike parks, indoor riding and here-to-fore unknown urban trails is bringing riding to the people. In the realm of paddle sports, outfitters and clubs are using local lakes and rivers to give people the first taste of paddling through programs like Try Kayaking and other paddle sports discovery programs. Whitewater parks, both in-river structures and artificial behemoths like the new $45 million park in Oklahoma City, are exposing the masses to whitewater like never before. And the rise of municipal outdoor initiatives like the one I founded in Dayton, Five Rivers Outdoors, or Chattanooga’s Outdoor Chattanooga and others in Richmond, Asheville, Knoxville and Cleveland are attempting to grow culture and brand their communities as outdoor destinations.

Creating urban access to outdoor recreation has been my passion since working at NOC. I have been pursuing the question of how to develop and deliver outdoor recreation opportunities at the urban scale since the late 1990’s. What I have found as I have worked at this, is that outdoor recreation has this magic, colorful and high visibility ability to get people excited and that in turn can change the conversation in communities that are seeking their own way forward. The vibrancy created by getting people outside and helping them experience and accomplish something they never thought they would do in their own community is compelling.

Finally, developing access to the outdoors in communities that are distressed economically and culturally has the potential to solve these community’s most pressing problem…the negativity and inferiority complex that permeates thinking in rustbelt towns and cities. This feeling that nothing great will ever happen here blinds the community and robs it of its ability to see its inherent advantages and what could be possible for the future.

I’ll write more on urban access to nature, the urban outdoor culture and the conservation vs. preservation struggle in my next blog.

It’s about Nature, Stupid

For my first blog post on the new web site I thought I would start where I think much of community vibrancy and in many cases where a community’s advantage begins…and that is with a community’s natural assets. We all know the villages, towns and cities that have overwhelming natural appeal.  These names are familiar with many and famous with those that value nature and the outdoors; towns like Boulder, Burlington, Asheville, and Aspen. Their natural appeal has established their brand and their economic direction early in their history. These communities like so many around the country are located where they are because of natural formations or assets like rivers, forests or mountains.

Asheville, North Carolina, a place where I have had the great pleasure and opportunity to live was settled along the banks of the French Broad River, which early on formed both a means of transportation and human survival. A destination for the genteel southern aristocracy for decades, they flocked to Asheville first by coach, then rail and later by car and plane. The wealthy from the coastal low country and later Florida, spent summers at destinations like the Grove Park Inn to avoid the oppressive malarial summers of the south. Asheville set in the beautiful French Broad River Valley at 2500 feet above sea level, provided an escape from southern visitor’s flat, swampier homelands providing mountain vistas and miles of clear running streams and rivers.

Late in the 19th century, George Vanderbilt found Asheville and built his now famous estate, Biltmore there. While doing it, Vanderbilt amassed over 120,000 acres of some of the most diverse temperate forests in the U.S. that make up a good deal of what is now Pisgah National Forest. While he was at it he also managed to be a catalyst for the formation of the first U.S. forest and the U.S.’s first forestry school lead by Carl Alwin Schenck, a native of Darmstadt, Germany, who studied forestry at the Universities of Tubingen and Gissen, receiving his Ph. D. in 1894. Schencek who arrived at Biltmore in 1895, to manage Vanderbilt’s massive estate, was convinced that forests could be logged sustainably without destroying the forest itself, as had been the practice up to that point in time. Today both Biltmore Estate and Pisgah National Forest along with the aforementioned Grove Park Inn form the foundation of a set of cultural and natural assets on which Asheville trades to this day. The cool of the summer, the mountain vistas, quick flowing creeks and rivers and the businesses that served the adventurer were the attraction then and remain so today.

It could also be said that part of our country’s Conservation movement began there and remains there in the form of 1000’s of acres of several National Forests and our most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These conserved lands and rivers remain the basic access and opportunity for outdoor recreation there, in turn outdoor recreation helps fund conservation there and is and can be even more a reason why normal people will continue to encourage and support further land and water conservation in the future (more on this in a future blog). These two ideas and efforts are increasingly symbiotic in today’s society and important to the survival of towns like Asheville.

It is on these foundations that mountain communities like Asheville have built their vibrant, active cultures today. Since the early 1970’s, towns like Asheville and Boulder have become the launching points of the outdoor recreation movement and industry that began and still thrives there today.

About an hour west of Asheville down beautiful US Highway 19/74 lies Bryson City, North Carolina just south of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park and just west of it the Land of the Noonday Sun, the Nantahala River Valley. At the site of a small gas station and motel near the lower reach of the river, Payson Kennedy, a Georgia Tech librarian began what is now one of the largest whitewater outfitters in the world, The Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). This outdoor recreation mecca drew me and many others to climb, mountain bike, backpack and particularly whitewater raft, canoe and kayak there. Later as NOC’s Director of Business Development in the late 1990’s, I had the opportunity to witness the thrill of visitors from all over the U.S. looking for a little adventure in their summer vacations. More importantly for this discussion, Asheville was a draw for both young and older adventures that just had to live in such a vibrant place year round. I was one of those gypsies who made it to Asheville in my early forties having learned to whitewater kayak a decade earlier. It was there while working as NOC’s Asheville-based business development representative that I began to see that natural assets and the active culture that those assets engendered could be a key to virtually any community’s vibrancy and economic resurgence, whether they had mountains or not. I took those ideas and eventually they became my thesis while completing a degree in Urban Planning and Design at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Design and Architecture, DAAP. That thesis called The Culture Factor formed the basis of my work both in Asheville and Dayton, Ohio and now in my advocacy and consulting work with Active Strategies. It is the idea that basic access to the outdoors, supported by programming and promotion is all that is needed to build excitement and vibrancy in a community. The emergence of an active culture can begin a process that builds community capacity, encourages entrepreneurial activity and in the end can change how a community thinks about itself, allowing it to then change how people outside the community think of them. In the end it’s about the community’s perceived brand, its quality of life and its ability to adapt and thrive in the face of natural, sociological, and economic change.

There are hundreds of tactics and strategies that communities can employ to start this process of change for them selves. The approaches are as numerous as the unique cultures and assets in communities all across the country. Today small cities like Dayton, Chattanooga and Duluth, all with rustbelt pasts compete effectively with the Ashville’s of the world. Yes true mountain towns retain distinct outdoor advantages. But these other more “realistic” destinations are using active lifestyle culture to attract the creative, entrepreneurial individuals that any business or community needs to thrive in today’s shifting knowledge economy. The trick for any community is to identify the best of their assets and then leverage them for the community. It’s good for emerging communities to remember that it IS all about their nature (nice play on words huh) and ultimately nature IS about the economy stupid, as Clinton campaign adviser James Carville so smartly observed.

In future blogs I’ll talk more about the link between natural assets and culture and what the future of outdoor recreation could look like, particularly in communities that don’t think they have great natural assets like Asheville.

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