Vassar is a unique place. The small city, with a population less than 2,700 people, had six new businesses open in just over a year. The one-block downtown now offers a variety of experiences with a historic movie theatre, coffee shop, boutique, pet groomer, ice cream shop, gym, specialty bakery, and a variety of bars and restaurants. People in Vassar are friendly, community-minded, and truly excited about the city’s future.

In late 2015, the Vassar City Council hired a new City Manager, Brian Chapman. Chapman felt the community’s excitement and knew he had to support existing businesses, get the new ones in smoothly, and make sure the downtown would thrive. To Chapman, that meant transforming Vassar from a place people drive through, to a place people drive to. So he decided to focus on placemaking.

The site plan in it's current form is on the left, and the Vassar Vision concept plan is on the right.

The site plan in it’s current form is on the left, and the Vassar Vision concept plan is on the right.

Download the full report here

Download the full report here

After leading the PlacePOP project over the past many months, Vassar City Council unanimously approved to support the Vassar Vision public space concept plan earier this week. We’re very proud of the work we’ve done in Vassar and look forward to following the public space enhancements throughout implementation.

The Vassar Vision 2016 PlacePOP Concept Plan report shares detail on the project site, methodology, concept plan, implementation recommendations, and community impact. We also want to share lessons we learned while working in Vassar, which we hope can help other local leaders implement successful placemaking projects in the future.

Lessons Learned

  1. Use a steering committee and give them power – Vassar Vision was initiated by the City, but the majority of creativity, outreach, and heavy lifting came from the steering committee. These volunteers were trusted advisors and decision-makers, and they worked hard because they felt ownership and pride in the work. Vassar Vision is their project.
  2. Local business owners sampling their food during the Taste & Talk.

    Local business owners sampling their food during the Taste & Talk.

    Get business owners to the table right away – Business owners have an incredible stake in the success of Vassar’s downtown. The steering committee identified right away that improvements to the project site needed to reflect nearby business owners’ needs and hopes, as well as the needs of residents and visitors. The committee kicked off the project with a successful and unique visioning event, the Taste & Talk. Here, incoming and existing business owners hosted tables with samples or products displays. At each table, we had a map of the project site and asked people to write down ideas of what could-be in the space. More than 200 people attended the event, which had the feel of a festival, rather than a city meeting. The Taste & Talk was a perfect way to invite business owners to the table and illustrate the value the community places on supporting these important community institutions.pullquote

  3. Use an outside facilitator to educate and manage the steering committee – Sometimes what people think they want and what placemaking and economic research suggests doesn’t always align. Bringing in an outside facilitator from the League helped bring an “expert” to the table to share research, case studies, and trends, to help residents and business owners see what could-be in Vassar. Most importantly, the steering committee needed to be well managed and facilitated, something city staff or volunteers don’t always have time to do. The support the League offered allowed the project to move forward smoothly and effectively.
  4. Create a brand and marketing campaign – After one of the first steering committee meetings, the group selected the name, logo, and color scheme for Vassar Vision. They wanted it to be identifiable and to stick so they could use the brand throughout implementation phases. It’s quick, easy to remember, and meaningful to the community.
  5. Plan events you actually want to attend – Visioning events and community meetings are rarely thrilling, unique events. It was important to the steering committee to host fun, creative, social, and engaging “meetings” that people would be excited to attend after work or on a Saturday afternoon, which they so successfully did through their public engagement events like the Taste & Talk.
  6. Engage like crazy and apply the feedback to the design renderings – The Vassar Vision project spanned for eight months and included about three idea generation events and at least six formal feedback opportunities. After each, the design team applied what they heard into the next version of the design and sent it back for further review. It takes time and patience, but fosters the best results.

    Collecting feedback during Vassar's annual RiverFest.

    Collecting feedback during Vassar’s annual RiverFest.

  7. Collect feedback in different ways The steering committee collected ideas and feedback by hosting a stand-alone public event, participating in an existing weekend festival, hosting meetings, sharing online surveys, having informal discussions, posting renderings in businesses, and presenting at formal council meetings. This ensured that a wide range of residents knew about the project and were able to participate in way that best suited them.
  8. Use existing community events as a way do more engagement – The steering committee took advantage of the annual RiverFest as a way to reach a wider audience. RiverFest already attracted hundreds of people to the project site so the steering committee set up boards and had volunteers grab passersby to share information and collect feedback.
  9. Collecting concept plan feedback before a City Council meeting.

    Collecting concept plan feedback before a City Council meeting.

    Test ideas through pop-ups – At RiverFest, the steering committee tested some of the ideas people came up with in past events and showed what could-be through temporary improvements to the space. They put out lawn furniture, games, and art to help people understand how much nicer the space could be with just a little effort.

  10. Have fun It’s clear many steering committee members enjoyed the work they were doing. They were proud of the project and had fun doing it. If people enjoy the work they’re doing, they’ll often work harder, longer, and create a better product. Similarly, keeping Vassar Vision on a clear timeline helped people realize the end was near. Working on forever-committees can allow people to lose momentum and focus. Make sure to create benchmarks, celebrate successes, keep it social, and don’t make it too much work for just one or two people.

 

 

 

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.

Lessons

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.

engagement-pyramid-text

“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.