Connecting People in Little Falls

DSC00581Back in February I wrote a post discussing how difficult it is to have a social life in Little Falls, MN. The city seems to have been designed to keep people apart, with the best gathering places being Walmart and Coborn’s. (Seriously.) We’ve followed strict zoning regulations to keep businesses out of neighborhoods. Due to the hours and types of businesses downtown, residents find little need to be downtown in the evenings. (Great River Arts and the movie theater, along with bars, are the few evening draws.)

This lack of easy places to socialize has been bothering me. After reading Chapter 7 in the book “Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer, now I know why. The chapter is called Urban Friction and it discusses how big cities that have the right kinds of neighborhoods give residents plenty of opportunities to randomly bump into each other. This increases creativity, which in turn increases productivity and innovation.

From page 187: “According to the equations of [Geoffrey] West and [Luis] Bettencourt, every socioeconomic variable that can be measured in cities — from the production of patents to per capita income — scales to an exponent of approximately 1.15. What’s interesting here is the size of the exponent, which is greater than 1. This means that a person living in a metropolis of one million should generate, on average, about 15 percent more patents and make 15 percent more money than a person living in a city of five hundred thousand.” (Lehrer, Jonah, “Imagine”)

The chapter continues by pointing out that there are certainly differences between big cities in their levels of creativity, with some being much more creative than others. What West and Bettencourt, both physicists by training who came to the field of urban statistics, discovered was that the faster people walked in a city, the more creative the city was. The more people had a chance to bump into each other through urban design, the greater their ability to turn those impromptu meetings into activities that generated creative and economic growth.

Cities that “focused on mitigating unwanted interactions, trading away crowded public spaces and knowledge spillovers for single-family homes” experience “poor performance on a variety of urban metrics.” (pg. 190-191)

In other words, if your city is designed to keep people away from each other, as Little Falls is, it’s going to be much harder to advance as a thriving community.

How do we get more people in Little Falls interacting with one another? Is it time to rethink how Little Falls is zoned, perhaps create areas of mixed use in order to encourage more interaction?

Note: As there has been some question about the veracity of portions of Jonah Lehrer’s work (see this article for details:, here is a direct link to the paper “Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities” by Luis Bettencourt et. al., which provides the background on the quotes above:

5 thoughts on “Connecting People in Little Falls

  1. I wonder if what Little Falls needs is more events that bring large groups together locally and also attract outsiders. We have, for example the Arts and Crafts Faire. What if we had a bid event like that once a month especially through the summer, but perhaps also in other seasons. Some creative thinking (and is the problem we don’t have enough creative thinking because we don’t have enough bumping?) could create a continous series of large group gathering events.


  2. Christian – You are right … we don’t have enough creative thinking because we don’t have enough bumping. While large events do bring people to town, they are a lot of work for locals and I wonder how much locals interact with visitors. (I would suspect that in your line of work, you actually interact a lot with visitors, which is a good thing.) It would be helpful to study exactly what large events bring to town in terms of return-on-investment (whether the investment is time, money or other resources).

    When I think about increasing the creative output of Little Falls, I’m trying to figure out how to get more **locals** bumping into each other on a more regular basis. Having a chat with someone once every six-to-nine months in Walmart is not often enough. One of the most active places in town as far as local use is concerned is the public library. While the library is much more open about noise than it used to be (remember librarians shushing people who spoke above a whisper?), it’s still not really conducive to conversation between random people because most of the people are there for quiet activities. I’d say events at Great River Arts and the St. Francis Music Center are good for getting people together, with the bonus that the activities are already creative. But being in a creative situation isn’t necessary for generating ideas. Merely having conversations with random people in coffee shops or at lunch counters (do we have any of those left?) will work. The post office can also be a good place to see people. I suspect that the old neighborhood grocery stores also served this purpose. These gathering places have to serve such an important function in people’s lives (food! coffee! fun!) that they’re willing to leave the comforts of home to visit them regularly.


  3. Pingback: YOCR #9 – Disappointed with Imagine | Mary E Warner

  4. As in many other cases Mary, what you describe is not unique to a community such as Little Falls. Did you ever read Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”? Thought written fifteen years ago, it could have just as easily been published yesterday. Simply put, if people don’t want to socialize, no amount of amenities built in a community will get them to do that.

    I’ve also wondered if it is a problem with us Gen-Xers. Did the willingness to be social, even if it is via online interaction, skip a generation?


    • Hi, Mike – I have not read “Bowling Alone,” although, after reading the description, I need to check it out. Sounds like it goes into some of the factors I surmise led to us Gen Xers’ seeming unwillingness to be social. I’m not sure that we’re unwilling; I think it’s more a matter of numerous societal and city structuring factors that keep us apart. And, hey, if we’re kept apart, we won’t be able to hang out and get up to no good, which means we’re easier to police. We’re also bigger push-overs when it comes to political matters. If we don’t talk to each other, it’s good for those running our cities, states, country because they can do what they want unopposed.


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