If you haven’t ever been to Missoula, Mont., you might want to pay the city and its 66,000 residents a visit. After all, it’s one of the American Planning Association’s five Great Neighborhoods of 2017.
A decade ago, the APA launched the Great Places in America initiative as a way to recognize unique and exemplary streets, neighborhoods and public spaces — three essential components of all communities.
Each year, there are five designees in each category, and judging criteria includes the presence of affordable transportation options, the promotion of community involvement and accessibility and thriving economic opportunity. In addition, architectural features, accessibility, functionality and community involvement are taken into consideration. There are 275 Great Places designated to date, and they are located in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“Our Great Places in America designees highlight the many facets that make up planning — from community engagement, quality of character and economic development,” said Cynthia Bowen, AICP, president of APA in a news release about the 2017 designees. “These neighborhoods, streets and public spaces illustrate how a community coming together creates lasting value.”
The Heart of Missoula — the city’s main downtown corridor — placed in the Great Neighborhoods category due to being a “thriving, vibrant center of the city and an outstanding destination for the Rocky Mountain West.”
Situated as a pitstop between Glacier National Park and Yellowstone, Missoula touts an eclectic mix of longtime residents, university students, artists, musicians and tourists passing through. The city has capitalized on its natural elements and unique location to wow residents and visitors alike.
“Our city is very much a mix with the amenities of a large city, but the feel of a small community,” Laval Means, Missoula Planning Services manager, said. “Missoula is the only designated city in the county so there’s a regional draw for shopping malls, cultural activities and health care here, but it’s still small enough to have that community flare, care and connection.”
One of the city’s defining features is the Clark Fork River, which runs clear through the Heart of Missoula. A number of parks and attractions are located riverside, and Means said the community really embraces its location.
“People really cherish our river,” she said. “We’ve really enhanced the park system along the river, specifically one really large park that sits right downtown.
They’ve created a standing wave system there that’s used for kayaking, and a lot of stand up river surfing, too. It’s interesting and unique and a big draw for us. The bike paths along the water provide alternative ways to get around town, and we have some overlook decks on the river where people love to stop and watch the activities there and that happens almost all year-round.”
The University of Montana is located in Missoula, which not only brings thousands of students to town each year, but with them comes culture, diversity and outside perspective, all of which adds to Missoula’s community.
“The relationship between the university and the city is key in vibrancy, connection and culture around the city,” Means said.
“We have a strong arts and culture and music scene here, largely thanks to the students. That piece makes us even more vibrant and growing, too.”
In addition to a vibrant community and engaged residents, Missoula was already on the map for sustainable practices and multi-use facilities, and it continues to move forward with future revitalization and beautification plans.
According to the APA website, Park Place, an international award-winning parking structure built in 2013, provides 333 parking spaces and includes a locally owned market and restaurant. It also features 85-kilowatt solar photovoltaic panels on the roof that provide 80 percent of the energy needs of the building, local art and recently installed electric vehicle charging stations.
Major plans are under way to revitalize a former waste disposal site and industrial area adjacent to the river. The $150 million Riverfront Triangle Development will construct the largest conference center in the region and include housing for all income levels; space for offices, retail and hospitality; as well as improved riverfront parks and trails.
A small-town vibe combined with big-city amenities and forward-thinking leadership solidifies Missoula’s position as a unique, desirable place to live. And residents tend to agree.
“We get out and talk to the community about what’s special in our community, and the key points we usually hear are about our environment, location, setting and landscape,”
Means said. “But they also talk about the care put into the community, the eclectic sense of the community, the diversity of the community. Something aside from the physical presence — a sense of helping each other out and being in this together is really cool.”