Vail Valley Voices: What makes a place special? |

Vail Valley Voices: What makes a place special?

Connie Woodberry
Vail, CO, Colorado

Everyone who likes where they live thinks their place is special. But what really makes a place a special place?

One way to tell is to ask how well your place passes the sidewalk test. That is, what do people tell you about their town if you stop them on the sidewalk?

So take a walk down a busy street in your community. If you don’t have a busy street, then that probably starts answering part of this question, anyway.

Will the residents stop you to make a point about the inefficiencies of the town or do they greet you with a smile and a story about the great things the local high school students do?

Do they welcome the strangers who come to their shops or make it clear those strangers are a nuisance?

Can people not wait to come back? Or, do they not stop talking about your place when they leave?

In their book, “Well Being: The Five Essential Elements,” Tom Roth and Jim Harter examined the results of the 2011 Gallup Well Being Poll, which asked thousands of people from more than 180 countries and from many life situations what the best possible future would look like and how they felt about their lives — a fairly large sidewalk test.

The results were strikingly similar across countries, cultures, religions and economic positions. People want:

— To like their work and what they spend time doing each day.

— Strong relationships and a social network that they can count on to navigate through life.

— A reasonably secure financial and economic life.

— The health and energy to enjoy the physical pleasures of life.

— Community connection and engagement, a sense of living in a good place where you have some say and input into communal life.

Like most truths, they seem blindingly obvious once stated. As Tom Roth says in his book, “They all describe some things we can do something about.”

It is when we go into where people experience the greatest well being that it gets interesting, and in some cases elicits the responses “of course” and in others: “You’ve got to be kidding.”

According to the Happy Planet Index, which tries to work out the measurable equation of happiness based on well-being, life expectancy and ecological footprints, people in Costa Rica are as happy, if not happier, than in upmarket Boulder, which is ranked as the happiest place in the U.S. by yet another Gallup Poll. Lincoln, Neb., beats just about every large city in the U.S. for happiness, and Fort Collinsians rank their happiness up there with Nicaraguans.

So what makes these places and subsequently the people in these places so special?

My own doctoral research, combined with research conducted by the University of Illinois, University of Adelaide and others, has found that places that possess a number of objective prosperity factors are or have the capacity to be special places. It should come as no surprise that the factors, that determine community well being, mirror the personal well-being elements.

A snapshot of the factors for a special place to live include:

— A balanced and connected community.

— A healthy natural environment.

— Sustainable economic opportunities.

— Development (the built environment), which understands and balances its footprint.

— Leadership, which embraces engagement from the community.

Like the personal well-being factors, just as Tom Roth says, these are all things we can do something about.

In a world where doom and gloom take center stage, and let’s face it we are all guilty of seeing the glass as fully empty lately, the good news is that the conversation on the sidewalks of special places, or places on their way to becoming special places, can be conversations that reflect a community that is able to express its sense of well being and communicate that well being to others.

That is why our company, Elevate LLC, along with 30 international, national and local speakers, will be presenting the Elevate Vail 2012, Creating and Sustaining Special Places Symposium, Sept. 25-27. The speakers will join a select group of special place makers and place caretakers sharing their insights, cautionary tales, as well as exceptional examples of “doing something about” special places, in a very special place indeed, the Rocky Mountains this autumn.

Places are limited so please register early.

Connie Woodberry is CEO of Regional Breakthroughs Australia and Elevate LLC in the U.S. She can be reached at or 970-471-6455. For more on Elevate, visit

Support Local Journalism

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User