Curbside-Chat-with-Chuck-Marohn-350x186This spring, in a proud moment for the whole state of Michigan, Traverse City won the March Madness-style tournament to be crowned the Strongest Town in North America. As part of their reward, Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns will be visiting TC June 7 to present them with an award and talk about what can make the city even stronger.

Marohn’s message is relevant to all League members, so we strongly encourage them to attend the event. See details here: Curbside Chat with Chuck Marohn.

Even if you can’t attend, be on the lookout for a Strong Towns-themed session at the League’s Convention in September. Several cities across Michigan have participated in one or more Strong Towns events, so we plan to showcase their experiences with a focus on what other communities can learn.

I’ve had numerous conversations with colleagues, friends, family and neighbors about my upcoming visit to Boston. The curious ones ask, what’s your work event? When I tell them, proudly, the Harvard Innovations in American Government awards, the nearly inevitable response is some sort of wisecrack. “Innovation and government, that’s an oxymoron!” “How much bureaucracy is involved in the awards presentations?”

Hey, I like mocking government inefficiency as much as the next person. But the frequency of this response is emblematic of a deeper problem in America, which political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call “American Amnesia.” We have collectively forgotten the degree to which we owe our prosperity to proactive government investments in research & development, infrastructure and public health made in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Other scholars take the premise even further. Not only is government an important partner of prosperity, it is the primary driver of innovation. Building on the work of Mariana Mazzucato, Ben Tarnoff puts it this way in The Guardian: “…nearly every major innovation since the second world war has required a big push from the public sector, for an obvious reason: the public sector can afford to take risks that the private sector can’t. Conventional wisdom says that market forces foster innovation. In fact, it’s the government’s insulation from market forces that has historically made it such a successful innovator. It doesn’t have to compete, and it’s not at the mercy of investors demanding a share of its profits. It’s also far more generous with the fruits of its scientific labor: no private company would ever be so foolish as to constantly give away innovations it has generated at enormous expense for free, but this is exactly what the government does.”

So yes, there’s plenty of innovation in government, from the federal level down to the local. Check out the wonderful finalists for the aforementioned Harvard award if you don’t believe me. Or our “how-to” library on this site. Or the Alliance for Innovation. I could go on, but the point is: we need to support more of this innovation rather than waiting for the private sector.


“As local municipalities, we should have the goal that every one of our residents succeeds,” declared Tukwila City Councilmember D’Sean Quinn during the opening public lecture of CNU25.

This year’s 25th Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in Seattle has included a strong theme on equity and inclusion, on ensuring that new urbanism is living up to its principles for all people as it enters its second quarter century.

Throughout the Congress, various speakers have emphasized that equitable placemaking needs to look both the benefits and opportunities offered to diverse members of a community, and also across the various communities within a county or region. Great places cannot be a luxury afforded only to certain groups.

King County’s Targeted Universalism

Quinn spoke in the public lecture on the suburbanization of poverty in his role as an elected official in Seattle’s most diverse suburb, but also appeared in his role as a King County employee in a session on that county’s equity and social justice policies. The county passed an equity and social justice ordinance in 2010, identifying 14 determinants of equity against which to measure their progress towards a fair and just community

The County describes their approach as “targeted universalism”: the 14 factors outline things that should be universal to all in the community–things like “quality education” or “affordable, safe, quality housing”–and then targets efforts to the people or communities who are not yet enjoying those universal benefits.

The nuts-and-bolts application of this principle include an equity impact review for county policies or programs, to make explicit who will experience positive or negative impacts. The county has also incorporated equity standards into their sustainable infrastructure scorecard, an internal accountability document that all capital improvement projects must complete.

Project for Code Reform

One Congress effort I’ve personally been involved in is the Project for Code Reform, an initiative to support local municipalities in targeted, tactical fixes to their development codes that enable the creation of better places.

As the Congress’ CEO Lynn Richards explains,

“The Project for Code Reform is centered on incremental change. Many code reform processes seek to overhaul the entire code. The all-or-nothing approach has significant potential to morph into a contentious and arduous process for all involved … Our approach focuses instead on smaller, achievable changes. This incremental approach lays the foundation for creating great places by addressing the most problematic coding issues.”

The result is not necessarily codes that ensure good place–but codes that have had the worst barriers to good placemaking removed, offering the opportunity for improvement.

From a municipal perspective, this is significant because it offers an alternative approach to potentially pricey and time-consuming efforts like full form-based code rewrites: most of the League’s communities have the capacity to tweak, but not overhaul.

But this is also an equity issue.  Traditional development codes require high levels of expertise and bureacracy-navigating skills by a potential developer, skewing the playing field towards large firms with access to financing and professional resources. Through the project for code reform’s incremental appraoches, we not only hope to expand applicability to smaller communities, but to smaller developers.

Cleaner, clearer codes that provide the by-right ability to develop small projects put development in reach of many more of our residents. By allowing people the opportunity to invest in and shape their own neighborhoods and communities, we both help deepen their ties to each other and our municipalities but also expand access to the upside of neighborhood revitalization and the secure tenure that developer-ownership can provide in the face of potential displacement.

The project for code reform fits well with our existing support of Redevelopment Ready Communities, and our work to expand crowdfunding as a means of participatory placemaking, and we’re interested in hearing from communities that want to road test some of the tools we’ve created.

In the meantime, back in for day 4 of the Congress.

Earlier this week, the city of Ypsilanti released an RFQ seeking developers for one of the sites they identified as a priority through the Redevelopment Ready Communities process. The League created the RFQ document with the support of Beckett & Raeder, Inc., as part of a project, funded by MSHDA through the MML Foundation, to advance placemaking planning into implementation.

Taking plans off the shelf

The first of our development RFQ pilots, recently sent out by the city of Ypsilanti.

The first of our development RFQ pilots, recently sent out by the city of Ypsilanti.

“Planners can make all the plans they want, but it takes developers to execute them.”

This quote on the relationship of city planners to developers in creating communities has stuck with me as much as anything else from planning school. That’s why I’m enthusiastic about these RFQs.

When a community undertakes a PlacePlan, or prepares a residential target market analysis, or undertakes any kind of planning process, they are defining their desired outcomes; a community that goes through RRC then lays the groundwork to ensure they’re not hindering their desired outcomes.

To accelerate the actual completion of these plans, though, the community needs to clearly and actively communicate their expected outcomes, and the work they’ve done. This is the role our RFQs can play.

Traditional stumbling blocks

This project began from a less specific desire to accelerate developments that contribute to a local sense of place, and we arrived at supporting locals with RFQs after conversations with some of our PlacePlans alums, developer partners, and MSHDA and MEDC staff about why things hadn’t worked in the past. Some themes included,

  • Developers often aren’t familiar with the work communities have done—traditional real estate listings don’t elevate that groundwork or communicate the vision.
  • Communities sometimes default to their known procurement processes when trying to communicate with developers, burying the lede under reams of legal requirements and disclosure documents. “Every page has to keep you reading, and if you see it’s 100 pages, you’re not even going to pick it up,” was feedback we got from a broker’s perspective.
  • Local staff don’t have good channels for getting word out about their development priorities: often, they only know a small pool of local builders (or may even lack that!) and don’t know where to find others. “We created an RFQ and put it on our website and sent a press release to the local paper—we don’t know if anybody saw it.” said one city.
  • Similarly, smaller developers may only know the opportunities in their own backyards, and not those just a few communities down the road; larger developers may only have a limited set of “high-profile” places on their radar.

Improving the outreach

The approach we’re taking has two parts, to help address these gaps.

First, we identified a few communities that have been through the Redevelopment Ready certification process, that had identified priority sites in downtown or adjacent neighborhood settings, had done good place-based planning (through PlacePlans or otherwise), had a target market analysis to demonstrate opportunity, and, importantly, had staff capacity to engage.

We are working with those communities to digest the work they’ve already done and tease out the important bits that relate to the target site. We’ve engaged Beckett & Raeder to both prepare concept site plans that provide visual cues of what the community is looking for, and to prepare site-specific fiscal analyses that test those visions against market data—can the community reasonably expect their vision to be buildable as-is, or should they expect a financial gap that will need incentives? And we’re packaging that work into an attractive RFQ document that (hopefully) grabs interest.

BRI prepared three concept site plans for the site, which we vetted with staff and the appointed bodies (Planning Commission and Historic District Commission) that will need to approve any development. The concepts are provided in the RFQ as examples of the city's desired development, but kept general enough to allow the developer creativity.

BRI prepared three concept site plans for the site, which we vetted with staff and the appointed bodies (Planning Commission and Historic District Commission) that will need to approve any development. The concepts are provided in the RFQ as examples of the city’s desired development, but kept general enough to allow the developer creativity.

Second, we’re working on the pipeline issue with support from a number of partners. Both the Michigan chapter of Urban Land Institute and the Home Builders Association of Michigan are promoting these RFQs to their membership, and we’ve also compiled our own contact list of firms active in placemaking-friendly development around the state—over 100 so far, and we’ll continue to expand that. Looking past these initial projects, MEDC has identified a need to expand the developer community active in any given region, through both networking and training, and we’re working with them to help target that need.

As we start to get feedback, we expect we might need to refine either what goes into the RFQ documents, or our approach to targeting developers. Our goal is to figure out a few things that work, and provide some guidance to all of our members about how they can take advantage of it to see their own placemaking goals take shape.  Stay tuned!