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.

James Harper