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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!

I got goose bumps watching giant paper mache creatures come to life, limited only by their creator’s imagination. It was the 8th annual Festifools, an event that takes place on the first Sunday of April to celebrate April Fool’s Day.  For one hour, these majestic puppets marched to the beat of music up and down Main Street, often stopping to interact with the throngs of spectators.  Although it is a well-orchestrated event requiring hundreds of hours of preparation, the beauty of it is that it has the look and feel of a random, spontaneous, “let’s get together” street party that brings out people of all ages.

Festifools photo 1Mark Tucker, a University of Michigan art teacher to mostly non-art majors, was searching for a novel way to bring his students together with community members to create something unique and exciting for his “Art in Public Spaces” course.  The result was the Street Theather Art (START) project.  Through his work with a neighborhood theater group, he got the idea to create a student puppet-making workshop assisted by community volunteers which would culminate at the semester’s end with a public parade in downtown Ann Arbor.  With the whole concept not really clear in his head, and not knowing if they could even really deliver, his encouraging talks with the business community and the city spurred him on – and Festifools was born.  Because of its enormous popularity, a second event was added:  FoolMoon, a nighttime luminary festival that takes place on the Friday night before the Festifools parade.

Tucker saw the importance of actively encouraging students to work with the community and used his students to bring the arts to the community in a fun, whimsical way creating an engaging and educational experience for all ages.

Festifools - clownsCultural Economic Development is one of the 8 assets that the League has identified to help create desirable and unique places to live.  It’s an event like Festifools that not only brings people together, but contributes to the long-term economic health of a community and region.

The League had the opportunity to go behind the scenes and visit the studio where the puppets are made as well as participate in one of the several workshops held downtown that invites the community to come in and make their own luminary.  We had a chance to hear all about this creative experience from Tucker himself and we will be telling his story in more detail in the future.  For now, check out the video and get a flavor of what these majestic puppets have to offer.  I promise that you’ll get goose bumps too!