Milan’s downtown Tolan Square is a great example of tactical placemaking. Two summers ago, the city turned a piece of this street into a plaza with nothing more than a few heavy planters at each end and some picnic tables. For a budget of around $5,000, the community suddenly had a town square and events space—and one that could be undone quickly if the experiment turned out not to work.

A good space + a reason to be there = placemaking. (And a "coffee-off" is a great reason, in my opinion.) Photo from Milan Coffee Off.

A good space + a reason to be there = placemaking. (And a “coffee-off” is a great reason, in my opinion.) Photo from Milan Coffee Off.

The plaza hosts the farmers & artisans market, as well as events ranging from the Let’s Chill winter festival to the “Coffee Off,” Halloween movie screenings, and youth theater demonstrations.

After the first year, the city asked a local market research firm to evaluate the project. A survey of residents, business owners, and visitors found that the benefit of having the plaza outweighed the frustration of having the block closed to car traffic, as well as providing recommendations for how to improve on this existing level of approval. (For example, having more activities geared towards children would balance the frustration of parents who used to use this block to access the nearby elementary school.)

Tolan Square is a demonstration that placemaking projects don’t have to be grand and flashy—sometimes, smaller efforts can make a big impact on a place. It also points to the importance of programming public spaces: people value the space more than they mind the traffic inconvenience because of what happens there. As the evaluation found, people who participated in events at the plaza regularly were much more likely to state strong support for it. With the approach of conscious discussion, evaluation, and incremental change Milan is applying here, Tolan Square should continue to improve and contribute to downtown in years to come.

Building on success

One thing that stood out to me, both in the evaluation the city did and in my casual observation as a visitor stumbling onto the space, is that the business mix around Tolan Square may limit its impact on downtown. This is not an issue specific to Milan, by any stretch—many small downtowns struggle to create critical mass of storefront businesses that are predictably open in the evening and weekend hours when most retail activity occurs.

A street plaza can be created quickly an inexpensively: take one street and add a combination of barriers and seating to make clear that it's a space for people, not vehicles. Making it successful, though, requires programming activities in the short-term, and nurturing businesses that can mutually reinforce that activity in the long-term.

A street plaza can be created quickly and inexpensively: take one street and add a combination of barriers and seating to make clear that it’s a space for people, not vehicles. Making it successful, though, requires programming activities in the short-term, and nurturing businesses that can mutually reinforce that activity in the long-term.

As the evaluation noted, certain downtown businesses—those that were open evenings and weekends, and sold food and drink or retail shopping experiences—see significant benefit from the plaza. The evaluation report includes quotes from business owners:

“When the farmer’s market turnout is low, my sales are still double that of a typical Friday. But when the farmer’s market has a big turnout, my sales are triple.”

“On the best day of Winterfest, my sales were 15% greater than my previous best sales day in history!”

…but the evaluator also notes that “most downtown businesses are not positively affected” by events in the plaza, because they are office/service businesses that do not rely on (or generate) significant foot traffic, or because they are not open evenings and weekends, when events in the plaza typically occur.

The experience of the businesses that are successfully taking advantage of the plaza shows both the power of placemaking to support a healthy retail district, as well as an opportunity for new businesses to take advantage of the foot traffic generated by Tolan Square and its events—I look forward to coming back for some of these!

 

Many of our communities are identified by what they make—my hometown of Chelsea is instantly identifiable as the home of Jiffy Mix—but for too many, that identity is past tense: the plant closed, and they don’t make that anymore. The skills and passion for making something remain, though, and can be tapped to grow both good jobs and good places through a focus on many small businesses to replace the few big ones.

ReCast City’s Ilana Preuss has worked with communities around the country to understand small-scale manufacturing sectors. This week, the I-69 Thumb Region hosted a workshop with Ilana to look at how we can cultivate these businesses locally.

 

When the wind is right, I can smell this small manufacturer's roaster from my house--free advertising! (Cross Street Coffee in Ypsilanti)

When the wind is right, I can smell this small manufacturer’s roaster from my house–free advertising! (Cross Street Coffee in Ypsilanti)

Preuss defines a “small-scale manufacturer” as any business that makes something physical that can be packaged and sold, with between one and twenty employees. This can be anything from microbreweries to jewelry makers to small tool-and-die shops.

Why small-scale manufacturing?

The benefit of “small” is that the owner tends to live where their business is (or, in some cases, the business is in their home), so is more rooted in the community than a branch of a large national employer—and, if they do pick up stakes and leave, the blow to the community is limited.

The benefits of “manufacturing” are several. They hire locally, and the jobs grown this way tend to pay significantly better than the service sector. They bring money into the community when they become large enough to distribute, whether through traditional channels or online direct sales. They often source raw materials locally (especially in food products), supporting suppliers in the community.

As part of a placemaking strategy, these businesses can utilize spaces that would require too much buildout for traditional retail, filling in gaps in a small downtown; they don’t rely on foot traffic for their primary business, but they can create it, helping to support retailers and cafés around them. And, their products are often unique, helping to build recognition for the entire community.

Pollinating the small production sector

At the League’s Convention this fall, keynote Michael Shuman urged the adoption of a “pollinator” approach to local economic development: supporting small business growth by making connections between people and resources within the community.

Preuss’ session in Lapeer was a how-to on this theme, walking participants through the steps to identify and grow this sector in their own town. These include:

  • Build from local skills, resources, and history—cultivate the seeds of small-scale production that are already in place, rather than trying to force new ones from zero
  • Make connections between existing businesses—introduce the hot sauce maker who needs a commercial kitchen to the breakfast and lunch café in town whose kitchen is idle in the evenings.
  • Code for small-scale manufacturing in your zoning and building codes—or at least make sure your codes don’t block this activity. (ReCast City’s blog includes links to sample ordinance language from Omaha and Nashville.)
  • Provide financing and underwriting—this will often be through local actors willing to put a stake in the community. Local banks, individual investors, or investment crowdfunding through MILE are likely targets.

Preuss spent the day after this regional session working with the city of Vassar to apply this process to their local opportunities. We look forward to seeing what grows as a result, and hopefully in seeing more great examples across Michigan!

For a taste of Preuss work, check out this video of her presentation in Grants Pass, OR:

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For several years, MML has talked about the importance of eight asset areas that help communities succeed and prosper in the 21st century.  One of those critical assets is being a “welcoming” community; recognizing that our global economy is fueled by the talent and ingenuity of people not only born here, but from around the world.  Last year’s research by Public Sector Consultants on behalf of the League found that:

  • Foreign-born workers and students have positive effects on “local employment, levels of educational attainment, populations, and incomes”
  • Communities with more foreign-born residents see greater capital investment;
  • Communities with more foreign-born workers—whether permanent or temporary—see higher employment for native-born workers as well; and
  • Foreign-born students attending Michigan colleges are three times as likely to stay in Michigan post-graduation as out-of-state students, creating long-term economic benefits for the communities they locate in.
From Corktown to Mexicantown, southwest Detroit shows off its residents' origins.

From Corktown to Mexicantown, southwest Detroit shows off its residents’ origins.

The question of being welcoming to immigration is also a factor in statewide economic prosperity. In his State of the State address, Governor Snyder laid out a goal of returning Michigan to 10 million people by 2020. Michigan Radio has noted that we’re on track to hit that target, but that our state’s economy depends on adding people in the labor force, not just to the total—if our population growth is only among retirees, parts of our state risk stalling out their economic recovery as they run out of workers, while others continue to miss out on any recovery altogether.

As it stands, Michigan Radio cited Lou Glazer of Michigan Future Inc. as explaining,

[under the status quo] that growth will largely be in older Michigan citizens who are retiring. “The challenge is growing the working age population – that’s really where we’re going to have trouble at the moment. We’ve got more people leaving the labor market than entering the labor market, so if we’re going to focus on population it really needs to be focused on working age population,” Glazer explained.

There are basically two ways to do that. The first: attract young career starters. The second: immigrants from other countries settling here.

 

The League’s own placemaking work has most vocally focused on the first of these two factors, stemming the “brain drain” rate of young residents with college degrees leaving the state. But recognizing the economic importance of this global diversity, many of our communities have passed policies or implemented programs over the years to help make their communities more welcoming to all people.

In recent weeks and days, the conversation around these policies has picked up as communities are evaluating how their local policies intersect with their residents’ immigrant status, and there has been increasing media coverage of some of the policies our cities and villages have adopted or are considering related to being a welcoming community, particularly to immigrants.

Communities prioritize local public safety over immigration status

Most recently, the city of Ypsilanti has made headlines for a “don’t ask” ordinance under consideration that would “bar city officials and police from asking about a person’s immigration status. Exceptions would include hiring processes, or when immigration status is relevant to a criminal investigation or government program eligibility,” as Michigan Radio summarizes. Ann Arbor has a similar ordinance dating to 2003, and Detroit and Hamtramck have ordinances from 2008 to this effect.

An Ypsilanti mural by teens from the Washtenaw Interfaith Council on Immigrant Rights  illustrates their experiences and struggles. (Photo by A2 Awesome Foundation)

An Ypsilanti mural by teens from the Washtenaw Interfaith Council on Immigrant Rights illustrates their experiences and struggles. (Photo by A2 Awesome Foundation)

In each case, the cities have cited the contributions that foreign-born residents make to their communities. But, in addition, they say that having city officials focus on immigration status during unrelated interactions can create an atmosphere of distrust or fear that actually worsens public safety—even visa or green card holders can feel intimidated or threatened by having their status brought up without cause.

Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton explained his own department’s policy this way to MLive,

“Our mission is to help keep a safe and secure community, so we believe we most effectively do that by identifying criminal behavior,” he said…

The Sheriff’s Office’s policy of not worrying about immigration status, similar to the city of Ann Arbor’s policy, is intended to foster cooperative relationships between local law enforcement and immigrants who otherwise might be reluctant to report crimes if they had to fear their own legal status might be questioned.

When local law enforcement decides to get involved in federal immigration matters, Clayton said, it tears at the relationship to the community, and immigrants go deeper into the shadows and become more susceptible to predators who might also prey on other citizens.

Whether it’s in encouraging witnesses to report crimes, or making sure properties meet building and fire safety codes, these local governments believe asking about immigration status is both irrelevant and could have a chilling effect that hurts the community. Even legal residents, they say, could be discouraged from coming forward if they fear being profiled as immigrants.

With regards to federal and state actions regarding “sanctuary cities,” however, several of these cities have specifically denied that label, saying that term suggests a disobedience of federal laws that their local policies neither promise nor deliver.

Tools available to local governments

The League has received several inquiries from members about policies related to diversity, welcoming and immigration.  In response to these requests, we have compiled these examples of policies from several Michigan communities that may be of interest to members:

We have not evaluated the merit of these types policies or the impacts relative to state or federal law. Each community has different needs and should consider what policy and program options best help them become welcoming places.  As always the League encourages our members to consult their municipal attorney when considering adoption of any local ordinance.

Center for Automotive Research recently presented their draft findings on what connected and autonomous vehicles mean for our communities, as part of the November Stakeholder Summit for Prosperity Region 9 (the “Greater Ann Arbor Region”).  The research team’s work has largely been guided by the discussion at the League’s September Convention on Mackinac, where we used a breakout session to hear from members about the concerns they had in thinking about how to adapt to self-driving cars. A final report is expected in January, and will be the topic of a session at our 2017 Capitol Conference.

“Nobody wants to be Betamax”

Of course, many of these findings will still be hypotheticals—what CAVs could mean—since we’re still very early in the development and adoption curve. As the CAR team noted, truly automated driving is still not available on the market, even in limited and access-controlled conditions like freeway driving, let alone in wide enough use to understand people’s reactions to it.

Current CAV technology is at "level 2", supporting human driving. Actual automated driving is anticipatedin the next 5 years, but is not on-road yet.

Current CAV technology is at “level 2”, supporting human driving. Actual automated driving is anticipatedin the next 5 years, but is not on-road yet.

The most ambitious promises from companies like Tesla suggest options may arrive in the next few years, but widespread use is likely years beyond that: CAR’s Eric Dennis noted that automotive technology typically takes up to 30 years to reach 90% saturation of the on-road fleet of vehicles. And, as one participant noted during discussion, “nobody wants to be the Betamax,” the road agency who invests heavily in the wrong direction by guessing too early what needs to be done.

For example, in September the question came up, will US DOT or MDOT be offering funding to pay for all the new striping needed on streets for automated driving to work?  CAR’s Dennis noted that striping is “beneficial, but not necessary” for current approaches to automated vehicles, and that AASHTO and SAE are working on guidelines for CAV-oriented lane markings—cities and other road agencies should probably not rush out to preemptively stripe every local street in advance of such guidance.

But nor should we be passive observers

A wait-and-see approach to developing technology has its limits, though. Letting driverless tech alone choose the pace and direction of change, and make demands on our communities, will not yield the best results.  Instead, we should be thinking ahead about how to incorporate the opportunities this tech could offer: planning, not reacting.

Is this the entrance to a great downtown, or a grand prix starting line?

We’ve been down the road of letting mobility tech call the shots before, by letting cars drive development patterns for the past half-century.  We’ve built bypasses around our towns in the name of traffic flow, and watched our Main Streets dry up for lack of customers when everybody drove around town instead.  We’ve turned neighborhood streets into pairs of one-way multi-lane drag strips, making it potentially fatal to walk across the street to visit your neighbor. We continue to tear down historic buildings in the name of having “enough” free parking, punching holes in our communities. Sure, all of this means that we can get places 30 seconds faster, but only by making huge steps backwards away from creating great places.

Planning for CAVs, rather than letting them plan for us

As our cars become self-driving, we should make sure that this change works for our communities, rather than making our communities work for autonomous driving technology—we need to plan intentionally to utilize these new technologies for our benefit, rather than simply wait and see what changes the technology wants us to acquiesce to.

Dr. Lisa Schweitzer captures this in Choice and Speculation an article in the latest issue of Cityscape:

“According to most speculation, driverless technologies will “transform” things. Technology is always the actor, like some unalterable force that sets the terms by which cities and human life will unfold. [However,] Individuals, governments, and businesses have choices about how they create, sell, and use technology…We have choices about how we distribute the benefits and burdens wrought by driverless vehicle technology. Those social, economic, and political choices can influence human life in cities just as much as, if not more than, the technology changes, and those choices will shape the technology as much as the technology will inform and influence choice.”

On this note, the work we’ve been doing with CAR and PSC helps to capture our local policymakers’ concerns about driverless tech, and to compile what’s known about the state and trajectory of that tech, and we look forward to presenting those findings.

Building on this foundation, though, we’ve got plenty of work left to do in figuring out those social, economic, and political choices ahead of us. This technology will offer monumental changes in how people might live our lives, and we have to recognize the limits of policy in societal change–but that limit is not 0.

I’ll be writing more on this in future posts, but welcome your thoughts in the meantime on how we accomplish this, whether in person, via email at rmurphy@mml.org or on Twitter @murphmonkey.