In the Flint Hills of Kansas — where I was helping to build a new regional planning organization from scratch — the last vestiges of truly native tallgrass prairie in the United States sank deep into the soil. A frequently seen illustration showed the significance of the roots of these prairie grasses, roots which extend at least as far down into the soil as the grasses grow tall.
By contrast, grass that may appear “greener” is often shallow and chemically dependent, dying easily without the frequent application of fertilizer. Truly healthy grass has deep roots that are nourishing and interconnected and can weather all seasons. It is this deeper kind of landscape that needs to be carefully cultivated in Northwest Indiana now.
In our hiring experience, lower taxes and housing costs can be a tipping point for young hires in making a decision to work in Northwest Indiana rather than in the Chicago neighborhoods where many prefer to live. But these lower costs are not the main draw.
We do indeed have a wide continuum of housing price points in Northwest Indiana, but frankly, we still lack a wider variety of housing types and options, and we have gaps in the kind of desirable living environments that go with them that provide for denser, more walkable, and more accessible communities.
The primary draw for relocation is into a rooted network of things: Natural assets and pathways to appreciate them. Solid communities where an automobile is not necessary. An “analog” maker and craft scene that allows for a digital detox. And, of course, the proximity of a major metropolis and the ability to get there without a car. No one is looking to move somewhere that has more strip shopping centers and asphalt than what they already see every day.
As is becoming more and more of a truism, the talent we want to attract is choosing first where they want to live and only afterward deciding where they want to work.
Extolling low taxes and housing prices help paint the picture of the benefit to living here, but these by themselves aren’t likely to entice people to leave communities where they feel the higher taxes they pay have at least provided them with more of the amenities they want than they can find across state lines.
To help “sell” Northwest Indiana, we have to look at our region with the eyes of someone who does not live here, who is just passing through on their way to “Pure Michigan” or elsewhere. What we do have — a stunning sand dune ecosystem, spectacular trails, an increasing number of vibrant downtown centers — gets passed over among the lesser images that we put up to those who pass through our region, who size up Northwest Indiana as little more than a land of accident chasers, fireworks shacks, slot machines and so-called “gentlemen’s clubs” (a misnomer if there ever was one).
Imagine if these drive-by images were instead given over to scenes of the deeper things this region has to offer where one would be comfortable raising a family or spending retirement, of folks walking their dogs on interesting sidewalks near "third place" coffeehouses, of the Indiana Dunes National Park and Cowles Bog and Pinhook Bog and sandhill cranes, of groups of people kayaking our increasingly clean and clear waterways, and of other deep places that cultivate real community and connection. Almost overnight, the image of the region would change dramatically.
Fortunately, the region is having deep discussions about working together to provide more “quality of place” in our cities and towns, developing more downtowns with amenities that can be walked to, and increasing the connections that make the line between a world class economy and Northwest Indiana more and more permeable.
This is the story we need to tell and the image we need to put up to encourage others to be part of the transformation. We’ll only get there by careful cultivation, but it’s what the region needs in order to go deep.