Notes from New Cuyama: Rural placemaking


Learning to love the rural places

One of my biggest areas of growth over the past year has been my ability to lend compassion to rural places. Places that often feel forgotten about. I’d say they have a good reason to feel that way. 

For a long time, I never gave them much thought. I was guilty of forgetting.

For most of my life, I’ve lived in cities. Some of the biggest cities. To me, rural places were often an unfortunate punchline about what life is like in a city with a three digit population. 

Even when I started to develop more of a desire to help people who didn’t experience the same advantages as me, I didn’t usually think rural. I headed off to urban slums in other countries, without thinking much about how much need there is in rural places both abroad and in the United States.

Sometime around the last presidential election, a lot of people started to pay more attention to the now infamous rural and urban divide. All the sudden political chaos seemed to reveal that there was quite a difference in how people perceive the world based on where they live. 

In my own experience, things have generally gotten better over the course of my life, but that’s just my experience. A lot of people in rural areas have good reasons to feel the opposite way.


When I started learning

It wasn’t exactly political stuff that started to open my eyes, but more personal encounters. When I started working at Plant With Purpose a year and a half ago, I started to realize why focusing on rural poverty was so important. 

85% of people in poverty around the world are rural. That’s a massive percentage, and I’ll bet that a good number of the 15% in urban areas are actually migrants from rural areas. 

Rural areas are the ones that have been hit hard by environmental issues and that have seen many jobs disappear. My own visits to rural parts of Tanzania and Thailand started to help me see how detrimental it is when a sense of despair really starts to sink into a place. There’s something eerie and tragic about a population struggling for hope.

The more I got familiar with rural poverty internationally, the more I got curious about it locally. I read books like Hillbilly Elegy, which were a good starting point. But I also got curious about solutions for the widespread problems in rural areas. Job loss. Poverty. Fractured relationships, often among racial lines.


On this note, I was introduced to New Cuyama.

New Cuyama is the poorest part of Santa Barbara county, an area known for affluence and my old home. New Cuyama looks nothing like Santa Barbara, though. It’s out in the desert, has a population of 517, and is definitively rural.

Once the city was a hub of oil workers, and gas was the backbone of its economy. When ARCO left, however, so did most of the city’s jobs. 

On the site of the old ARCO headquarters sits the Blue Sky Campground, and for my birthday, that’s exactly where I wanted to go.

Deanna and I invited our friends Caytlin and Daniel to meet up for a camping trip out there, and that was how I spent my birthday this year.

Photos of this place speak for themselves. You’ll find a batch of five tiny-home style cabins, built on site and hoisted on to trailers. They make for a pretty unique place to spend the night and I spent a while obsessing over their structure and wondering if I wanted to get into welding.


The Snail Hut

Each mini-cabin was unique. Deanna and I wound up in the Snail Hut.

As small as the shelters were, they were surprisingly spacious on the inside- more than enough for us to stash our things in the corner and for Beignet to find a spot on the floor. The bed was roomier than ours at home, and I was surprised with how comfortable it wound up being.

Out in the desert, it got pretty cold at night, but our cabin came with some Rumpl blankets that retained heat pretty well and once we were underneath, we stayed nice and warm. Spending the night somewhere that remote was also a treat. All the stars got closer. SZA & Kendrick style.

In addition to the cabins, the center also had a couple of restrooms, a cantina, a fire pit, some desert gardens, a wood and metal workshop, and a print studio. There was lots of room for the dogs to run around. The cantina was equipped with plenty of seating areas, a telescope, a fridge, and some beer taps. It’s the perfect spot to make a nicer dinner with friends.

It’d be one thing if Blue Sky was just an eclectic campground built on an abandoned sacred site of a suffering town, but thankfully it’s a whole lot more than that.


What is creative placemaking?

Blue Sky is a full-fledged nonprofit, on a mission to regenerate the economy, land, and communities of the Cuyama Valley through equitable partnerships and to share scalable models with other communities.

They use a model called creative placemaking, and from their website, here’s what that means:

Working to create a space that welcomes locals and visitors alike... seeking partnerships with academic institutions to create place-based educational opportunities, while also developing space and tools for professional artists and designers to create work in and with New Cuyama and the Cuyama Valley.

Their aims include economic development through tourism opportunities that collaborate with local-small businesses, working with the farmers, agriculture leaders, and school districts in the area to build a sustainable food system, and promoting access to affordable housing.

It reminded me so much of the work we seek to do with Plant With Purpose, working to transform communities from despair to hope by empowering locals, teaching new skills, building up the local economy, and promoting sustainability in agriculture. 

Their program is extremely multi-faceted, but holistic, sustainable, and constantly adapting. Most of all, it appears to be made with the locals in mind.

We had a blast that weekend, and before leaving took the time to pay some of the nearby businesses a visit, as Blue Sky encourages. We ate at a local deli, explored a thrift shop, and went on some nearby hikes.

Booking a spot at New Cuyama can be done at HipCamp or Airbnb. If you couldn’t tell, I’m a fan of this place and since it’s less than an hour out from Bakersfield, I hope to be back again some time in the future.