This week, the League released the latest issue of our Review magazine. I’m proud to announce that it includes a new feature, “PlacePlans: Where Are They Now?”, which gives us an opportunity to check in with some of the cities who participated in the MSHDA-MSU-MML PlacePlans pilot program and see what progress they’ve made.


In this issue, starting on p. 21, the focus is downtown Jackson, where we explore what factors laid the groundwork for their burgeoning downtown development boom. You can read the whole thing at but here’s an excerpt focused on the lessons other communities can learn from Jackson:

While every city is unique, many core principles of place-based redevelopment port well from one community to the next. Jackson’s experience highlights the following lessons that apply broadly:

  1. Prioritize investment areas as a community and stick to that vision

City Manager Patrick Burtch credits the City Council with in Jackson with coming to a consensus several years ago that investing in downtown, the City’s core, is the top priority. Burtch equates downtown with the “nucleus of the cell” and says that “the cell dies without it.” Investing public dollars always comes with public relations hits, says Burtch, but your elected and appointed officials must “be willing to stay on that path, because you have to spend money to make money.”

  1. Public space investments create positive momentum and catalyze large private investments

John Burtka, President of Grand River Brewery and partner in several of the ongoing downtown developments, cites the Dig Jackson investments as the crucial launching pad because it told the world, “Hey, we’re serious!” Burtch and Burtka agree those investments changed the mindset of the private sector about Jackson.

  1. Visuals are crucial inspirational tools

Pushed by Burtch, the Beckett & Raeder team developed design renderings for Dig Jackson that went far beyond the bounds of normal streetscape improvements, into master planning and the beginnings of a form-based zoning approach. Burtch says those plans have been invaluable in convincing skeptical community leaders and investors to participate. “3D architectural renderings provide a vision that is not always easily understood by those that are typically acting in differing disciplines,” he says.

  1. Engage anchor institutions, even those not located in the priority geographic area

The Jackson Anchor Initiative is an excellent case study on the power of getting important institutions rallied behind, and often leading, the community’s vision. In Jackson’s case, it has led to significant investments in downtown from institutions that are not even located there. According to Dr. Burtch, “the Anchor Initiative provides a significant measure of political coverage for a City Council that must make decisions regarding public investment in the urban core that are easily misunderstood”.

  1. Communicate through every medium possible

The City engaged the University of Michigan’s Citizen Interaction Design program to develop an excellent set of communication tools about the Dig Jackson project (see examples at, helping community leaders to allay fears about the disruption and costs associated with construction.

As the weather turned warmer and sunnier late this week, Theresa Zajac knew she had trouble on her hands. As Vice President of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, she was working to convene a group of neighborhood residents, business owners and other interested parties to discuss housing needs and redevelopment of vacant land on Friday evening, as part of the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Legacy Charrette program. The event was scheduled to take place at a local high school, but she was afraid the weather would make it unlikely that many people would choose to be inside on a beautiful summer-like Friday night. So she thought on her feet, reaching out to local business owners and invited guests to change the plan: the neighborhood meeting would be outdoors, on the patio of a local favorite bar.

Her last-minute change worked. A multiethnic, multigenerational and multilingual group of people who care about Southwest Detroit gathered in a casual, fun setting and got down to business. The topics they covered weren’t light: environmental justice, crime and low income housing, predatory housing speculators, immigration policy, the state system of funding cities, to name a few. But the setting andIMG_3421 the camaraderie enabled the group to tackle them with enthusiasm and optimism.

It’s an example of community engagement done well, a tricky accomplishment in today’s world of distractions competing for our time. The League has observed and participated in many of these efforts and we can say the same old public meeting, Monday night at city hall, often doesn’t work. It’s important to think differently if you truly want to get community conversations going. So be like Theresa and improvise a bit. And you can’t or don’t have time, ask your target audience to plan the party. Just don’t be surprised when they show up.

This work, called “Building affordable and market rate housing in Southwest without displacement,” is being done as a lead up to CNU24. The project was led by Dhiru Thadani from Washington D.C. with support from NederveldZimmerman/Volk Associates and City Form Detroit.


The League has partnered with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) and the Michigan State University Land Policy Institute (LPI) on numerous initiatives in recent years to promote investments in quality places across the state.

Now, our friends at MSHDA and LPI have produced a new free guidebook, titled Placemaking as an Economic Development Tool, to capture many of the lessons learned from these initiatives. Everything you ever wanted to know about placemaking, including underpinning research, elements and processes of placemaking, regulatory tools, the four types of placemaking, and more are in this book.

Placemaking as an Economic Development Tool is an excellent resource for local government staff and elected and appointed officials. While every community is faced with a different set of challenges, this tool can be used to help provide knowledge of placemaking initiatives that could be adaptable to every community’s unique situations, and shows it does not require extensive time and money to make a difference or create a “sense of place.” The techniques and tools discussed in this guidebook will help to improve local quality of life and economic competitiveness by assisting in creating vibrant places where people are drawn to live, work, play, shop, learn and visit.

The guidebook is available as an eBook in electronic format (PDF) only. To receive access to your free download, complete the Limited Use Agreement form (download here: and send it directly to LPI. Each person wishing to download the guidebook must complete and return this form. Further instructions are included on the form.

If you’d like to discuss how to further utilize this guidebook and apply the lessons to your community, please contact Luke Forrest.

Ann ArborThis week, the Center for American Progress, in anticipation of the coming anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, released a report highlighting the work of 50 “Storm-Ready Cities” across the country. Storm-Ready Cities are those that have taken steps to plan for and adapt to increasingly frequent extreme weather. At the League, we were pleased to see that the Center recognized two of our member communities, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, for their leadership and vision. Congratulations to the leaders of those two cities!

Grand RapidsHowever, the list of communities in Michigan that are tackling this important issue does not start and end there. A growing number of other local governments are taking the steps necessary to become Storm-Ready. For example, the City of Marquette and the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission have each recently developed climate adaptation plans with the assistance of MSU Extension and the UM Graham Sustainability Institute. The City of Monroe is working with its neighboring townships and LIAA to integrate resilience into its master plan. And the City of Flint is tackling climate adaptation as part of its new Imagine Flint process.

The League is cosponsoring a conference February 25 & 26 at the University of Michigan-Flint that will showcase the work of these communities and others. To be notified when registration is open for that conference and to learn more about the resources available on this topic, join the Michigan Green Communities network.