Songwriter brings unique perspective to city planning


Dar Williams brings a unique perspective to city planning — primarily because she isn’t a city planner. Williams, a singer-songwriter, has performed in countless communities across the country. She’s seen commonalities that connect thriving towns and cities, as well as those facing existential crises.

Williams will perform in concert with keyboardist Julie Wolf Feb. 27 at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. The following day, Williams will be the second of three speakers in the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs’ City Center Series, where she will discuss her latest book, “What I Found in a Thousand Towns: Why some towns flourish while others fail,” a look at urbanism — from a wanderer’s perspective.

Positive proximity

Dar Williams

Williams grew up in the New York City suburb of Chappaqua.

“I watched my town go through a lot of changes,” she said. “And since then, I’ve lived in a lot of towns. Now I live in the Hudson Valley, about 30 miles from where I grew up.”

A theater kid, Williams moved to Boston as a young adult and was immediately drawn to its music scene.

“I took all of that understanding of theater and put into songwriting,” she said. “It kept on going and growing into what it is now.”

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The idea for her first book on urbanism (Williams has also written two young adult novels for Scholastic Corporation and self-published “Tofu Tollbooth,” a directory of natural food stores) was like a “lightning bolt,” she said.

“I’d watched all these towns go from tumbleweeds to thriving downtown centers. I’ve seen it happen so many times,” Williams said. “Finally, there was a Harvard study that found proximity determines relationships more than politics, values or hobbies.

“That’s not exactly true. Positive proximity determines positive relationships.”

Williams said communities need activities and places that encourage connecting and collaboration. That can be celebrations of regional culture, history and natural surroundings. Even food can create strong communal bonds, Williams said.

“I saw places with positive proximity were thriving and ones with negative proximity were not,” she said. “I started an informal mission to figure out what creates and sustains positive proximity. It became a real passion.”

Reinforcing history

Numerous towns in the Northeast saw jobs leave in droves during the latter third of the 20th century. Phoenixville, Penn., like many communities making up the Rust Belt, witnessed mills shut down virtually overnight.

“It was like a death in the family,” Williams said. “The economy of the town became drugs and prostitution. They dove into their history to bring themselves back.”

The 1958 cult classic horror film “The Blob” was filmed in and around Phoenixville, and the community created “Blobfest,” a science-fiction-filled weekend, tourist attraction and economic stimulator.

According to Williams, the city obtained a historical designation that required property owners “to respectfully renovate old buildings and they filled those with new stories and new life,” Williams said. “… Reinforcing history is a great way to choose how to identify yourself in the present.

“Other ways to embrace identity is through your regional food culture, either as it grows or what it’s been in the past, and through your unique, natural beauty. When people collaborate and embrace these parts of their identity, they tend to find other ways of collaborating — and then you’re really cooking.”

Williams referred to herself as an “eternal fieldworker” when it comes to assessing the health of communities across the country.

“I go back year after year to towns and see how they’ve grown,” she said, adding she’s developed a keen sense for the vibes that make up America’s towns and cities.

“When a musician is seeking inspiration for the next song, every musician I know, they seek certain feelings in towns. Either you feel the warmth or you don’t,” she said. “I was in one California city and was in the greenroom with my guitar player. I said this town has local shops, a farmers market, lots of sun and beautiful architecture — but I don’t feel it.

“It didn’t have that positive proximity and was not welcoming. It was cold.”

Williams said her favorite towns are those that are proud of who they are, yet welcoming to outsiders, as well as those that take charge of their own destiny.

“Phoenixville is a perfect example of community leadership in and out of government,” she said. “They recently had a huge development coming in but felt like the community was holding the reins. They embraced 300 new apartments because they were confident it would only make them a better town.”