We’re excited to see phase three of the Robina Plaza project underway in the city of Berkley. For the past two years, we’ve partnered with the community to explore their vision of transforming the intersection of Robina at 12 Mile into a more pedestrian-friendly plaza. Learn more about the 2014 pop-up visioning here, and the 2015 design feedback project here.

pumpkinsRobina Plaza came about during the community’s master plan update process a few years ago. Through resident engagement and research, the intersection was identified as a potential catalyst for development; it could become “the place” people think of when they picture downtown Berkley and give people a place to hang out, host events, eat take out, run into friends, or just enjoy some quiet time.

Over the past few years, there has been positive support for converting the space into a pedestrian-only plaza, so this fall, the city temporarily closed the road and is testing traffic flow, parking, deliveries, how people use the space, and local business performance. The city closed one north and south block of Robina (keeping 12 Mile open, of course) on September 19 and is re-opening the road on November 18. Information the city and DDA collect during this time will inform what comes next for the space.

animal-showPop-up activity and testing out closures like this are crucial steps a community should take before making a big, long-term, and expensive decision to close a road permanently. We commend the city and local leaders for being open to this sort of creativity and really doing their research before making a final decision.

The Berkley Parks & Recreation department has taken the lead on activating the space. They put out furniture and decorations (some of which was rented from the League’s PlacePOP program) and are hosting numerous events throughout the closure.

Parks & Recreation Director Theresa McArleton said her department hosts about 15 major events each year in their community building and parks across the city. She said being right downtown in Robina Plaza supports a different and exciting vibe that has made their fall programming incredibly successful.

“The space is easily walkable from multiple neighborhoods, and kids from all elementary schools have participated in events,” McArleton said. “You can see parents excited to see each other and just relax in the seating we put out, while kids run around safely in this new fun hang out space. Seeing people use the space in these ways has been very gratifying.”

Collecting feedback

craftingThrough each event, organizers are doing their best to collect comments, feedback, concerns, and new ideas for the space. One of the biggest issues that has come up is who will maintain the plaza – who will keep the space clean, plants watered, and furniture tidy? Some nearby business owners are also concerned with who will be using the space during non-event times, how they’ll accept deliveries in the adjacent alley, and how the plaza will impact their business. All concerns they’re able to test out during this temporary closure.

Some residents are also having a hard time picturing what the space could look like in the future. The furniture and activities Berkley is using is a little make-shifty – which is low cost, fun, and eclectic – but also concerns some residents that the permanent changes would be similar.

To help future communities on this front, pop-up experts at Better Block just announced Wikiblock, a free, open-source toolkit of designs for benches, chairs, planters, stages, fences, and kiosks. If you don’t have a great carpenter in your community who has the time an energy to build all this from scratch, Better Block’s designs can be downloaded and taken to a makerspace where a CNC router (a computer programmed cutting machine) can cut them out of sheets of plywood in minutes.


the-spaceSince McArleton and her team are doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the plaza, I asked her what tips she could share with other communities interested in doing a similar project:

  • Give yourself plenty of time to prepare – Berkley’s prep-period was a bit short because by the time they decided they wanted to test the closure this year, it was already late August. With more time upfront, communities can build an inclusive steering committee to help generate ideas, do outreach, and host events, which can make staff commitments lighter and possibly lead to better implementation.
  • Have a big launch party – Get people in the space right away so people know about the project and come back on their own. Fun and social launch parties with food tend to bring a crowd!
  • Make it family-friendly – If kids are happy, parents are happy. Programming kid-friendly events will be sure to get families in the space, but make sure parents and adults without kids are also welcome – because they’re the ones who will likely be spending money at the nearby businesses!
  • Be realistic & flexible – Like anything else, expect some people to dislike the activities, designs, and project as a whole. Try to pay attention to naysayers and dig deeper into the specific issues they’re having that can better inform the project’s implementation. Similarly, when people offer new ideas, really take them into consideration. If you can, test out the new idea and see what everyone else thinks.

After this test period is over in mid-November, the community will determine clear next steps and we’ll be sure to share updates on the project here on our placemaking page.

mlppOn October 10, the Michigan League for Public Policy hosted a half-day forum, Race, Poverty & Policy: Creating an Equitable Michigan. We were blown away by many of the speakers and resources so we wanted to share a few with our members:

  • What is racial justice? – Keynote speaker and Race Forward President and Executive Director Rinku Sen defines racial justice as the “systematic fair treatment of people of all races that results in equitable opportunities and outcomes for everyone.” She also gave some great pointers on how to talk about race by shifting the focus from an individual’s prejudice or intentions to the bigger question of what’s causing inequality and how are people impacted? Learn more from her presentation.
  • What’s the government’s role in achieving race & equity? – MLPP hosted an entire breakout session on this question and there’s still way more to talk about. The entire presentation was impactful, but we were most excited to share the work Ottawa County Administrator Al Vanderberg is doing in his community with Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and the Government Alliance on Race & Equity. LEDA is leading an organizational system review of equity in Ottawa County’s HR policies and practices, as well as getting all 900 employees trained in cultural intelligence. View the session’s Powerpoint slides here and see Vanderberg’s portion towards the end.
  • Racial Equity Impact Assessment – Sen shared this important equity tool communities across the country are using to evaluate how government decisions and actions will impact racial and ethnic groups. For example, the Minnesota School Board requires an equity impact assessment to be performed before every policy and program is implemented. Similarly, the Oregon State Senate passed legislation in 2013 requiring the Criminal Justice Commission to issue a racial impact assessment when requested by a state legislator.

There’s so much more to say, and equity and inclusion is an area in which we should all be focusing our attention. Here at the League, we plan on bringing you more tools, speakers, discussion groups, and resources on this topic in the coming months and at future events. For now, check out our Review issue on equity from late 2015. Please also let us know what tools you’re looking for, topics you want help exploring, or discussions you want to host in your community. Feel free to comment below or email me directly at scraft@mml.org.

At this year’s Convention, we invited Scott TenBrink from the University of Michigan’s School of Information’s Citizen Interaction Design program to speak about engagement, and specifically online or app-based engagement tools. The CID team has spent the past few years working in Jackson, where students have tested innovative projects and learned valuable lessons about implementing in-person and online engagement strategies. With more than 50 people in attendance and great conversation after the session, we definitely thought the information was worth sharing with a wider League audience.

Engagement means different things to different people and there are many diagrams that try to identify and illustrate the many types of engagement. Scott shared a unique diagram, below, that he and his CID team created. Click here to see a larger version of the diagram.


“It is a work in progress,” he said, and they’re still playing around with the hierarchy, but I think the types of engagement available to municipalities are identified well here.

Selecting an Online Engagement Platform

Many municipalities are eager to try out online engagement tools and apps as a way to enhance in-person engagement opportunities. Scott cautions that online engagement should never replace in-person strategies, but should only enhance other methods.

There are a lot of online tools available, and the list is changing daily. To give municipalities an idea of where to start, the CID team created this comparison table, which identifies more than 25 online platforms and the type of engagement they offer.

Scott also shared a list of recommendations and questions local leaders should consider before selecting an online engagement tool:

  1. Research your audience – who are they and how do they want to engage?
  2. Identify the type of engagement you want – use the pyramid diagram as a guideline.
  3. Identify your available resources (data, communication channels, staff, etc.) – review the process and resources necessary to implement your preferred engagement method. Do you have capacity and organizational infrastructure to implement properly?
  4. Start with a prototype – test out a product before you spend a lot of money. Make sure it’s doing what you hoped and you have the resources available to properly implement the method.

Continuing the Conversation

Many at Scott’s session were interested in learning more from their peers about online engagement tools they’ve tried and lessons learned from the experience. If you’ve tried out a product and are interested in being part of a user group discussion, let me know! The League would be happy to host and facilitate peer-to-peer workshops to explore topics like this further. Should we host a small event, start a Facebook group, or hold a video conference chat? Let us know how we can help keep the conversation going! Feel free to contact me at scraft@mml.org to let me know how you want to be involved.

Last week something pretty cool happened: 200 people attended a community visioning workshop in Vassar, MI. The city has a population of about 2,600, so a 7% turnout is a success worth celebrating.pavilion

This visioning event was pretty unlike most organized through a traditional charrette. When I first sat down with the local steering committee as part of our PlacePOP initiative, leaders said they wanted to host an event people actually wanted to come to. They named the project Vassar Vision and decided to host their first event as a “Taste & Talk” to combine two things most people love: food & talking! The Taste & Talk was held on the project site and had barbeque, ice cream floats, games, and plenty of social time. Ronald McDonald was even there.

There is a lot that went into the event, and there’s still a lot to come. However, here’s a quick look at what made the Taste & Talk so successful:

The Place: Ready for Change

Corner Deli is opening downtown Vassar this summer and owners gave out free samples during the Taste & Talk.

Corner Deli is opening downtown Vassar this summer and owners gave out free samples during the Taste & Talk.

Vassar is about two square miles of Tuscola County, located about 15 minutes east of Frankenmuth. Like almost every Michigan community, Vassar lost people, industry, and business in the crash and is working hard to rebuild what was once there. But they don’t just stop there; residents want Vassar to be better than it ever was.

What’s noticeable about Vassar is that people seem excited and ready for change. At the Taste & Talk, my colleagues and I heard zero negative comments. When was the last time that happened at your community meeting? (I’m sure there were a few naysayers present, but we certainly didn’t hear them.)

This past October, council hired a new city manager, Brian Chapman, and encouraged him to go big. He’s young, smart, and off to a strong start in the community. Vassar is also experiencing a pretty unique boom in their downtown. Six new businesses have just opened or are about to open on the same small downtown strip. Residents are thrilled to have a new downtown boutique, coffee shop, and restaurant and they want to make sure these businesses are here to stay. After seeing downtown businesses close in the past, people who love Vassar are eager to step up and do what they can to make sure these businesses succeed.

The Project: Building Momentum, Generating Ideas, Expanding Capacity

After seeing information on the League’s PlacePOP program, Chapman invited me to lead a placemaking workshop this past February. During the workshop, about 30 local leaders learned about placemaking and brainstormed how Vassar can better prioritize place. Attendees broke off into discussion groups and every group identified the same location as an area in need for some TLC. I’ve actually never seen that happen before.

Attendees brainstormed hundreds of ideas during the event.

Attendees brainstormed hundreds of ideas during the event.

The T. North Pavilion area is adjacent to downtown and encompasses a pavilion, play structure, gigantic parking lot, river, drain, and a few miscellaneous buildings mostly used for storage. The pavilion gets some use throughout the year for hockey tournaments, basketball, farmers market, and concert series, and the play structure gets used by kids and young families in the warmer months. The rest mostly just sits there.

When every workshop group identified this area as a top priority, the city took action. They hired the League as project manager to act as a neutral, outside facilitator and to prevent already over-worked city staff from having to manage a new project. Chapman put together a foundational steering committee to guide and make decisions on the project, and the steering committee continues to grow as more and more stakeholders get excited and involved.

Vassar Vision, carried out from late March through September, is an engagement-based process that will develop a concept design and programming plan for the T. North Pavilion area. The project also serves as an important way to unify the community, have fun, and find new leaders who can take the lead on current and future community-wide initiatives.

The People: The Most Important Part

Rebel Soul opened downtown Vassar this spring and gives residents and visitors a unique shopping experience.

Rebel Soul opened downtown Vassar this spring and gives residents and visitors a unique shopping experience.

As in every community, there are some incredible people who make up Vassar. Sandy Keys, for example, is an elderly woman almost solely responsible for getting all nine of the Taste & Talk’s food vendors to host a free tasting table. Although Sandy spent May traveling the country for her grandchildren’s graduations, baptisms, and more, she never stopped doing outreach for the event. “I’m just a volunteer,” Sandy tells people, but it’s clear she’s a lot more than that.

Star Filkins recently opened her boutique, Rebel Soul, in downtown Vassar. Star and her husband moved back to Vassar to be closer to their family as they raise their kids but the transition back home was harder than they expected. As a young mom who had lived in many other places across the country, Star felt there wasn’t much in Vassar for her. She decided to open her shop because she wanted to start building community for herself and for people like her. “This is where I live, where I work, and where I’m raising my children,” Star said. “I’ve seen how awesome other places are and I want Vassar to be like that.”

The owner of Vassar Theatre gave out free popcorn during the event.

The owner of Vassar Theatre gave out free popcorn during the event.

Andreas Fuchs re-opened the downtown Vassar Theatre late last year, which now acts as an important downtown anchor. Andreas thinks of his theatre as more of a gathering place than a movie theatre. “It’s very clear to me that theatre is about community,” he said. “Yes it’s also about movies but it’s more about people. People see movies!” Andreas brings free popcorn just about wherever he goes and hosts costume parties, giveaways, and discussions based on the moves the theatre shows. It’s people like Andreas, Star, and Sandy who make the community what it is.

The Taste & Talk event was both fun and effective, and it happened because the steering committee has ownership and decision-making power over the project. Andreas, Star, and Sandy don’t care about charrettes, they care about their community. And they, along with the rest of the steering committee, hosted an event that was right for Vassar.

I’m looking forward to seeing our design consultants work their magic as they review the hundreds of ideas attendees generated about the use and aesthetics of the space. We’ll be back doing more creative engagement in August as part of Vassar’s Riverfest. I’m guessing it will be another unique and impactful event!

Visit Placemaking.MML.org/PlacePOP for more information on the PlacePOP program. Stay updated with Vassar’s project by joining their Facebook group.