Sprawl – we know it when we see it.  We all live with sprawl in some way or other, but do we ever stop to think how it impacts our lives?  Or do we just go through the motions of everyday life and become comfortably numb to our daily activities and surroundings? And it impacts us financially, as well.  We pay a lot more for sprawl development than for compact development.

Sun City West Sprawl 300x225A recent trip to the Phoenix area, hit me harder than usual.  It wasn’t my first time there, but my awareness and critique of how we build communities become increasingly unforgiving as time goes by.  If I were asked to describe Arizona in a few short words, it would go something like this:  cement pavement, strip malls, franchise restaurants, multilane roads (in one direction), boundless traffic, breathtaking views, soothing mountains, relentless sunshine, blue sky, rich history. Talk about divergent narratives – and all of them are true.  I’m not going to espouse why everyone should experience the beauty of Arizona once in their lifetime, I will leave that to the travel books. I just want to share (or vent is more like it) a few thoughts on poor planning – the bane of our everyday life.

I’m not a trained traffic engineer or certified planner, but I don’t have to be – and neither do you – to know what’s working and what’s not.  We just have to stop and think about how we go about our daily lives, and ask ourselves a few basic questions:  how much time do we spend in a car?  Do we have a local coffee shop or restaurant that we can easily get to?  What do we consider to be the heart of the community?  Can we walk to the library?  (Check out Strong Towns, an organization advocating for vibrant and resilient communities, which offers ten simple questions called the Strong Towns Strength Test to test the strength of your community.)

Most of us know someone who has fled the frigid north for the year-round warmer climates.  On my trip to Phoenix, I visited a friend who lives in a senior community, west of Phoenix.  It is an award winning community development which has separated the housing from shopping, restaurants, and cultural venues.  Sound familiar?  With an aging population, there should be less reliance on a car, not more.  So why are they building and expanding (construction can be seen everywhere) the road system?  The lanes are already confusing, and it’s difficult to access stores and restaurants that you see on the other side of the median.   At all hours of the day, traffic is heavy.  I saw no evidence of traffic calming devices or alternative modes of transportation.  That means you have to get in your car (or take your life in your hands in a golf cart) to get anywhere.  Even though a Starbucks coffee shop was only 2 blocks away from where I was staying, there was no way that I or anybody else was going to feel safe walking over there.  Even the most foolhardy would not risk crossing the multilane roads which lacked any clear markings for pedestrians

verrado pic 300x225I did, however, see an example of a planned community, which has all the potential for great community living. It is called Verrado, in Buckeye, Arizona, west of Phoenix. It is built on the principles of New Urbanism.  Once you get off the freeway, you truly enter an oasis of peaceful, walkable neighborhood living, with the presence of bike and walking paths everywhere.  Although there were a fair amount of people in the small town center on a Sunday, a second visit during the week, showed a lot less people.  It was clear that this community is in its infancy.  More businesses and restaurants need to open to attract more people before it becomes a true destination.

Of course, we don’t have to go to Arizona to find examples of uncontrolled sprawl.  We can go anywhere in this country and find it, including right here in Michigan.  We are becoming an older nation, and unlike previous generations, as boomers age, they are choosing to age in place.  That means that communities will have to be ready to meet their growing needs. There is no time to waste.  We need to build more mixed-use communities, retrofit our suburbs, and consider alternative modes of transportation that will accommodate these challenges.  And in the end, we will be providing a great quality of life for all generations.

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During the first week of September, I had the privilege of attending an international conference in Buenos Aires that focused on streets as public spaces and how they can drive urban prosperity. This is the second of a series of three conferences called The Future of Places, funded by Ax:son Johnson Foundation and partners UN Habitat  and Project for Public Spaces. Following the conclusion of the third conference in New York City in 2015, a blue print will be presented which will offer proposals for what it will take to meet the demands of our growing cities around the world and how the challenges of future cities can be met. In 1970,  only 37% of the population were living in urban areas, but if global trends continue, cities will be home to 60% of the world’s population by 2030. With up to 80% of a city made up of streets, the focus of this conference was centered on designing streets to serve more than just moving vehicles or pedestrians from one location to another. It was about reimagining them as public places, making them attractive and safe for all types of users, and as places to hold events.

Over fifty nations were represented among the 300 or so participants, who were planners, architects, academics, consultants, and social entrepreneurs, all converging to discuss public space and placemaking from their own unique perspectives. What was so compelling for me, was that despite the diversity of nations represented from all continents, there was one thing that we all had in common: we could all agree that placemaking is really all about how we live.  It is a process that puts the human experience before all else.  As one presenter stated, “All cultures share the same reactions to public spaces. We touch, feel, and smell the place.” 

The three and a half day conference was an eye opener, to say the least.  It incorporated several tours of placemaking, from examples of improved pedestrian and bike lanes to creating public spaces in the overcrowded districts that housed the very poor. We listened to speakers who told stories of just needing basic infrastructure, which for them would mean a better quality of life living on the streets, to those whose were making transformative changes in their communities through placemaking.

The challenge for all is connecting good decision-making to good policy. What I walked away from was a profound sense of camaraderie with people from around the world and a deep sense of pride for what we are doing in Michigan.It was a real affirmation that we have a lot to learn from each other. Clearly, our challenges and victories were very different from each other, but from the poorest streets in Mumbai to some of the wealthier neighborhoods in the developed world, we all had something to learn from each other to take back home.

Dan Burden, a notable long-time friend of the Michigan Municipal League and co-founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, has caught the attention of Burden - Birmingham 2the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, he was honored with a 2014 White House Champion of Change award for his tireless efforts to make pedestrians and bicyclists an important part of the transportation equation. It is a recognition well deserved.

Dan’s dedication is unyielding. His travels take him to communities all over the country for more than 300 days a year. Many of those days have been spent here in Michigan, leading walking audits designed to uncover neighborhood opportunities and find solutions. He brings people together from all sectors, engages them in conversation, and inspires them to reimagine the future of their community.

Burden - BirminghamAlong with several of my League colleagues, I have had the privilege of accompanying Dan on many of his walking audits. Every community has its own unique assets and challenges, so I learn something new each and every time. With his bright road construction safety vest and measuring tape in hand, he leads a group of stakeholders and local officials up and down sidewalks, through parking lots and alleys, and across busy streets, offering up all the possibilities. With his years of experience and knowledge—and contagious enthusiasm—even the naysayers start to believe. Step by step, Dan is truly making our communities more livable and walkable.

Congratulations, Dan!  We appreciate all the great work you have done and continue to do in Michigan. Thank you for being one of Michigan’s greatest cheerleaders.

Throughout the first weekend of May, it is a time to celebrate Jane Jacobs, an inspirational leader among urban thinkers.  It is celebrated through an event called Jane’s Walk.  These urban walks are locally led walks giving residents the opportunity to explore their own communities and connect with other residents.  Jacobs felt that a community-based approach was the foundation of city building.  Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities remains as relevant today as it did when it was first published in 1961.

Since its inception in Toronto in 2007, Jane’s Walk has spread to thousands of participants walking in neighborhoods and cities around the world.

A friend and I decided to go on the “spaces between buildings” walk, which took place on Sunday, May 4, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Our small group of nine was fortunate to have two urban professors leading the way.  I’ve lived in this community for over 30 years, so I wasn’t sure that I was going to discover anything new.  But I did – small walkways and alleys tucked between and behind buildings, a painted garage; inspiring graffiti; and a long decorative sidewalk between a student high rise and the back of a church yard, that guided one along like the yellow brick road.  They were great examples of negotiating that fine line between public and private space.  Every community has empty areas can easily be activated.  Engaging the community on how to redine those spaces, is what is so powerful.

If your community would like to host a Jane’s Walk, it’s easy to organize.  Click here where you will find everything you need to have your own event next year.  It’s a good way to educate the community, engage in conversations, and exhibit some community pride!