Boiseans are used to hearing a long list of praises about their city: it’s a healthy city, a business-friendly city and a sports’ fan’s dream. In the last decade, Boise has been ranked as a “best” physically active city, bike-friendly city, adventure town, place for paddling and place with urban parks. Such specific accolades have led to the more comprehensive awards of Boise as a “best” place to retire; for innovation, business, career trajectory and economic growth; for raising kids; for low carbon footprint; for music; for its ability to successfully “turnaround”; and most recently its status as a “best U.S. city for coffee lovers” and best place to be outdoors with your family. The picture of Boise painted by this long list of rankings presents a city that is prosperous, sustainable, and positively supporting life choices for everyone from parents to business professionals to retirees. This picture is certainly too good to be true.
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While Boise is, indeed, a wonderful place to live, work, and play, the notion that any city can be “best” at such a wide variety of things all at once is both powerful and inane. It is powerful because people have at their disposal “evidence” that Boise is best at things they love — whatever those may be. It is inane because the simultaneous ways that Boise is portrayed to be best are often incompatible —or more importantly unimaginable together. In other words, we think that it behooves all of us interested in this place called Boise to reconsider what these rankings say together, as a collective discourse, about our city. By remaining thoughtful about the ways in which our diverse accolades can be both beneficial and ridiculous, we can perhaps arrive at a more thoughtful identification of what connects those who are in praise of Boise.
The Economist provided a frame for understanding Boise that may help connect these otherwise seemingly disconnected accolades; “space,” the magazine explained, is something that Boise, as a city, has more to offer than other cities. The article entitled, “In Praise of Boise,” claimed that “wide open spaces and the struggle to settle them are the keys to American culture.” Thus, in a digital age, the idea of space becomes both virtually and physically relevant.
There is an oft romantic notion of the “wild west” narrative that created ownership possibilities where none existed before — just think about how homesteads were originally “claimed.” Boise seems capable of recreating these possibilities, combining notions of “best” that seem wholly incompatible on first glance, perhaps, because it has the space to present itself in wholly different ways — space ready to be claimed (or at least still subject to negotiation rather than already spoken for). While the “best” cities in which to live, work and play, indeed, seem to collectively reflect a culture where individualism and nature — both significant aspects of life in “the West” — are valued most prominently, it may also present Boise as too “wild” and not enough “urban,” or too “remote” and therefore “unconnected” to the infrastructure necessary for economic vitality. These divergences should not be ignored but addressed; how does Boise accurately represent and how do city leaders present all these things? These seem to be important questions that are revealed only by more closely reading the collective “Boise’s Best” discourse — not just individual parts of it.
To be clear, we love Boise. In fact, some of these rankings reflect our own experiences with the city and support our own reasoning when asked to explain why Boise is, indeed, the best. For an alternate, loving view, see Chelsea Snow’s “21 Things…” The collective list of rankings, however, does not necessarily reflect the complex characteristics of a successful metropolitan region as represented in other best city rankings. With Boise’s relatively new growth and development, its status as a small metropolitan region has catapulted its appearance on “best of” ranking lists — all while allowing us to avoid far-reaching expectations of how such an appearance is actually experienced outside of the city itself. In other words, “Top 10” rankings create an ideal image of Boise that enables Boiseans to avoid discussions of its comprehensive challenges, shortcomings and/or areas in need of improvement because everyone’s values are successfully validated in one list or another.
We contend that Boise’s “best of” lists are not that persuasive by themselves, but that in conjunction with one another, frequently appear in everyday discussions about how Boise is a good city in which to live, work and play (no matter who you are). Through the continued and varied ways that Boiseans celebrate our city in everyday discourses (e.g., “Did you hear? Boise is one of the best places to raise your kids? I’m so happy I live here”), we simultaneously cast aside other discussions about related issues. For instance, it seems important that the State of Idaho was ranked 47th out of 50 states in the quality of K-12 education in 2012 and last for school funding equity this year. Although Boise schools consistently rank high on national standards, it is in spite of lagging state policy and funding. It seems appropriate that such a disparity would prompt more discussion, not be ignored because it might complicate a central part of seeing Boise as a “best” place in which to raise kids.
A silo approach to engaging in discussions about an educational system’s connection to our larger communities (and the ability for those communities to be invigorated rather than exhausted) is not useful. By separating out discussions of a community’s possibility to thrive, the ways that Boise should be best decrease Boise’s ability to be best because the individual indicators of success are no longer treated as inter-connected. In this case, a “best place to raise children” hardly seems separate from the resources allocated to support the educational system those children will be encountering. The “best city in which to raise a family” indicators don’t seem to take this into account as a primary consideration for parents (or anyone raising, or thinking about raising a family), thus bringing to question the utility of looking only at this ranking as a holistic reflection of Boise as best in the area of raising a family.
When people talk about what it means to be a “good place to raise a family,” or a “bike-friendly city” or as having “good potential for economic growth,” they inevitably connect their own experiences to the indicators they deem to be significant in making such descriptions meaningful to them. Many times, when discussions about these meanings intersect, people re-create how they understand these categories in the ways they use indicators, such as the ones provided in these rankings, to articulate how life “is” here in Boise. The ways in which people talk about Boise as distinctly best become normalized over time in terms that mirror these published rankings. Thus, how we qualitatively look to these rankings to justify, explain and/or resist others’ understandings of Boise seems to be the primary way in which we use these rankings. Such use does not necessarily focus on methodological rigor or quantitative calculations that attempt to correctly conclude how Boise is (or is not) “best.”
As urban redevelopment debates, fiscal decisions and economic and cultural policy discussions are engaged across Boise, it seems there are plenty of spaces in need of connecting. One way to connect these discussions could be in the way we publicly negotiate — or “settle” — these spaces discursively, or in the way we talk about them. The discursive space surrounding official conversations about how Boise is — and should be — “best” can reveal often overlooked connections between decisions at the level of policy, law and/or promotional campaigns that position Boise as a city worthy of its accolades, and “on the ground” understandings and experiences of the people who make Boise what it is by working and playing, raising kids and retiring, and creating successful communities and successful businesses. Determining Boise’s (potential for) success by measuring some indicators and not others, calculating some formulas but not others and prioritizing some reasons for how we “should” experience our city over others can never provide a complex representation of the diverse group of people who experience Boise. Instead, we think there to be much potential to look to larger “meta-conversation” about life in Boise that we call a “Boise’s best” discourse to reveal alternate possibilities for Boise to be able to present itself as best.
A more abstract conversation about how Boise is — or should be — best is often underestimated as influential for its leaders and decision-makers. Michel Foucault described these taken for granted ways we inform our own explanations about the world around us as a discursive formation. He points out that power relations always influence how we understand the world (and its possibilities) in the spaces of everyday life — in the ways we talk about and make sense of how our world is. Foucault asserts that this process should be meaningful. In this case, when we treat a “Boise’s best” discourse as a living process engaged by anyone interested in participating in it (rather than a static product shaped by those who have access to it), then attention to who contributes to it, who recirculates specific understandings of it and who finds it accessible or inaccessible also become significant. Thus, any one of these rankings can never fully reflect Boise in any significant way. Instead, we contend that we should be focusing on the ways in which a “Boise’s best” discourse is comprised of an ever-growing number of contributions (“nodes” in need of connecting, as The Economist describes them).
We thus see a need for all people interested in understanding, shaping and reflecting on how Boise is—and should be—“best” to recognize that Boise’s identity is bound up with our own experiences with it (including mediated communication about it). Thus, the way we personally “know” Boise may or may not be reflected in any “top” ranking. Rather, the way we position our understandings about Boise in relation to any ranking involves participating in a process of discursive formation about how Boise is, in fact, best. We see what particular experts say about Boise being best to be much less influential than how their articulations of Boise as best are — or are not — useful in helping people navigate their everyday lives. While most people comfortably live as non-expert statisticians, we are always intimately connected to our own versions of everyday life that preface our experiences as more or less “normal.”
If The Economist got it right that our new “struggles for space” are about connecting the physical and virtual nodes that comprise our city and our lives, then we must consider how we are “settling” and “claiming” our open spaces amidst the development of a 21st century infrastructure to connect our home lives with our work lives. Maybe participating in this “struggle for space” is best practiced in the ways Boiseans embrace opportunities to continue to talk about Boise, continually “settling” the West in ways that are “best” for an ever more diverse population. In other words, if Boise’s unique commodity is space, then contributing to a “Boise’s best” discourse — either through formal contributions like this one or through vernacular references to these formal contributions — continues to shape the ways that Boise can be understood to insiders and outsiders alike.
The existence of discursive space, however, is not enough; participation in a “Boise’s best” discursive formation is necessary if we are entering a “race for space” that The Economist predicts. Are we prepared for the consequences of successfully flaunting our vast collective space? Who will be granted ownership of the spaces “in between” our physical and virtual nodes of urbanity? How will our public spaces be affected? Such questions implore an inclusive “Boise’s best” discursive formation that addresses shared ownership, shared value and/or shared vision(s) of Boise’s future if individual experiences with Boise as “best” are to resonate with others. We must consider the benefits of collaboratively participating in the discursive formation of Boise as best rather than accepting the passive opportunity to wholly accept or reject expert declarations of how Boise is best.
In other words, if we simply let different “best of” accolades define Boise’s identity apart from our diverse reflections and experiences with it, we forego our ability to “settle” the spaces in which we negotiate how Boise is and can be connected in many other ways.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.