HGTV: Unlikely Champion of Small-Town Urbanism

How Walkability and Community-Building Are Going Mainstream

As my family gets ready to close on our first home this summer, we’ve joined the time-honored tradition of going down the HGTV rabbit hole for design inspiration. While I expected to gather ideas for color schemes, furniture arrangements, and landscaping, I didn’t anticipate discovering HGTV’s significant impact on small-town urbanism. What started as a quest for aesthetic guidance turned into a revelation about how this popular network is championing the revitalization of small-town America, particularly through its newer shows like Home Town and Home Town Takeover.

HGTV, or Home & Garden Television, has long been a staple in households across the country, offering a mix of home buying, renovation, and design shows. House Hunters, one of its flagship programs, has been a mainstay for years, captivating viewers with its straightforward premise: following individuals or families as they search for their ideal home. While this show provides insight into various real estate markets and personal preferences, its focus is primarily on individual home buyers and their choices.

However, the network’s more recent offerings, such as Home Town and Home Town Takeover, have taken a different approach. These shows go beyond the confines of private residences and delve into the heart of small-town communities. They celebrate the potential of these towns by showcasing the charm of walkable urbanism and the power of community-building. The stars of Home Town, Ben and Erin Napier, focus on revitalizing their hometown of Laurel, Mississippi, one house at a time. Their efforts highlight how individual renovations can collectively uplift a community, making it more attractive to residents and visitors alike.

Home Town Takeover, an extension of the original Home Town, expands this concept on a larger scale. This show sees the Napiers and other experts traveling to a different small town in need of rejuvenation. The first season, set in Wetumpka, Alabama, demonstrated how targeted investments in infrastructure, businesses, and public spaces could breathe new life into a community. By renovating key properties and encouraging local engagement, the show illustrates the profound impact of thoughtful urban design and community-driven efforts.

Wetumpka, Alabama: “The Alleyway” connecting Hill Street and Company Street before (top) and after (bottom) HGTV’s Hometown Takeover project. Photos: Google Street View

One of the core principles promoted by these shows is the value of walkable urbanism. Walkable urbanism refers to urban areas designed in a way that prioritizes pedestrian accessibility, ensuring that essential services, entertainment, and work are within a short walking distance. This design fosters a sense of community, as people are more likely to interact and engage with their neighbors and local businesses when they can easily walk around their town. Home Town and Home Town Takeover repeatedly emphasize this concept by revitalizing main streets, creating public gathering spaces, and supporting local enterprises.

In doing so, they remind viewers of the benefits of living in close-knit, walkable communities. These benefits include reduced reliance on cars and thus, of course, decreased emissions, but also enhanced social cohesion, as people are more likely to meet and form connections with their neighbors. Additionally, walkable communities often see a boost in local economies, as residents are more likely to spend money at nearby businesses.

The welcome surprise of HGTV’s focus on small-town revitalization comes at a crucial time. Many small towns across America have faced economic challenges, population decline, and a loss of identity due to car-centric land use patterns which tend to spread destination points apart to the extent that a car becomes the only way to reasonably access them. By shining a spotlight on the potential of these towns and the development patterns that support walkability, HGTV is helping to reverse these trends. The shows not only provide practical examples of how to rejuvenate small towns but also inspire viewers to appreciate and invest in their own communities and to demand similar development patterns in newly built communities.

Anaiah Matthew is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. He previously authored The Walkist, a newsletter exploring the experience of walking through the eyes of a city planner while touching on topics of philosophy, sports, psychology, hobbies, and more. In addition to his writing, Anaiah is a planning and development practitioner with two decades of experience across the public, private, and consulting sectors. He lives and works in the Austin, TX metro area.

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