How do you give a neighborhood character?

by Tanya B.

Visitor Question: Our neighborhood seems plain. What can we do about it?

Editors' Reply: We elaborate on both neighborhood character and small town character on this site.

But the shorter answer is this: "character" just means something distinctive about your place, which wouldn't be seen in the next town, city, or suburb. You will hear the act of giving a place character called placemaking, or instilling a sense of place.

Some towns have a piece of genuine history or history waiting to be refurbished or just explained and interpreted. When you live somewhere a long time, you tend to take for granted your history, your natural features, oddities about the town's name, unique businesses or institutions, and so forth.

But each of those could be brought to light and highlighted in some way to give character. Maybe a historic house just needs to be renovated, its story told on a marker, landscaped, and opened for tours.

Maybe your distinctive natural feature needs to become at least partly a park, trail, or other public property so people could see it. This is true of many rivers, streams, natural falls, bluffs, and so forth.

If there's just nothing about your town or your suburb that is different, you'll need to try to make a creative addition. If you have an unused, abandoned, foreclosed, or underutilized public property or private property in a prominent location, can you make a small art gallery, museum, or public meeting space? This could be the beginning of some additional private investment if you choose your theme carefully.

If you're on a very low budget, consider something like flower boxes or a common planting theme along the streets. Distributing one or a very few types of bulbs as community beautification might do it for you. Maybe everyone has a similar kind of mailbox or just a distinctive and pretty way of putting their street number on the mailbox.

Almost every place can start an annual festival of some sort. When you do, consider the theme carefully and try to choose something you could build upon. Again, if you're a suburb like 20 other suburbs in your metro area, you'll have to think outside the box and do something really creative. Find an advertising or marketing person in your community and ask them for an idea. See our visitors' submittals on "">best street parties for ideas.

Ideally, a festival theme is carried throughout the year in some way. If you have an apple festival, can every storefront in your downtown give away apples or put an apple in their front window?

If you have any interesting architecture, see if you can obtain permission of the property owners to publicize a walking tour past their homes or businesses. If you have Victorian style houses with gingerbread, start or accelerate a trend of painting the details in contrasting Victorian colors.

A few other architectural types may be subject to relatively inexpensive modifications that would make your neighborhood seem more interesting. Look for the best things individual property owners have done to make their homes look nicer, and consider if there is an opportunity to replicate those ideas on a broader scale.

While you're adding something, don't forget to maintain and to spruce up what you already have. When you say your neighborhood is plain, maybe it just needs a lot of maintenance. Plan clean-ups of the streets, yards, alleys, and neighborhood parks if necessary.

Then add a unifying ingredient, with a plant material or graphic theme often being your best bet.

And read those other pages on the site, and any more too that pertain. Let us know how it turns out.

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