This week, the LOCUS coalition of real estate professionals released “Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros” at their Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. The report continues to track the sea change of residential market demand and economic activity away from “drive ‘til you qualify” single-use development to “walkable urban places” (“WalkUPs”).

The NoMa neighborhood of Washington DC shows off with wide sidewalks that include shady seating and landscaping for stormwater management, a broad selection of restaurants and food trucks, a new Metro stop--and lots and lots of people.

The NoMa neighborhood of Washington DC shows off with wide sidewalks that include shady seating and landscaping for stormwater management, a broad selection of restaurants and food trucks, a new Metro stop–and lots and lots of people.

It may come as no surprise that metro Detroit ranks in the lower third of metros for its current offerings of these economic hubs—but the report also looks at development trends, placing Detroit at 8th out of 30 in its prospects for future development.  (Just after Seattle and San Francisco, for those keeping score.)

“While Detroit experienced the most substantial and well-publicized economic decline over the past decade, its future for growth in walkable urban development seems promising . Recently, it experienced some of the fastest-growing GDP and job growth among metros, much of it in revived WalkUPs, particularly in downtown and Midtown”

In addition to the high-profile developments in Detroit’s Downtown and Midtown areas, the report names several smaller “town centers” among the metro’s current WalkUPs: West Dearborn, downtown Ypsilanti, and Main Street Ann Arbor; and the downtowns of Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham are all tagged as regional examples. It’s no accident that these regional centers are located along the planned Ann Arbor-Detroit Commuter Rail and Woodward Rapid Transit corridors, and the report should reinforce the importance of those transit lines in linking together the metro region.

Why do these places matter? The research team at George Washington University that produced the report notes that WalkUPs on average make up only 1% of metro land area—but account for nearly half of all development activity since 2007, demonstrating the relative resilience of these places in economic downturns, and their importance in economic recovery. WalkUPs command a 44% premium in office rents (excluding New York), and are correlated with higher average educational attainment and higher per capita income and GDP than the surrounding metros.

The authors remind that correlation is not causation, and that while WalkUPs may attract these businesses and residents, it may also be that when these businesses and residents concentrate in certain areas, they demand the creation of multimodal transportation options and mixed-use business districts.  In either case, though, the evidence is clear: these are places that are in high demand and short supply–cities and states should ensure that they have the infrastructure, financing options, and development regulations in place to expand these people-friendly areas.

The LOCUS / GWU analysis only looked at the nation’s 30 largest metro areas, but places like downtown Grand Rapids, Lansing, Jackson, and Kalamazoo most likely meet the criteria as well: an area-wide WalkScore over 70, and “regional significance” as defined by having at least 1.4 million square feet of office space or 340,000 square feet of retail space.

Enjoy this slide show illustrating the St. Joseph Public Art project through the years.

Susan Solon beams with pride as she thumbs through a family photo album on her desk at St. Joseph City Hall. And it’s not even her family.

It’s a photo album that the Belz family of Kalamazoo gave Solon, St. Joseph’s director of communications and marketing, illustrating their repeated visits to St. Joseph to see relatives and the city’s Annual Public Art. It’s really a 52-page visual thank you note to Solon and the city for contributing to their many summer memories.

“Isn’t that great,” Solon says of the album. “It shows how much people and families enjoy the public art year after year.”

The St. Joseph Public Art project began in 2004 as a way to bring visitors to the Lake Michigan shore community, but as the photo album shows the project has really done much more than that. The public art program is one of many “How-To” studies done by the Michigan Municipal League. The how-to study and a related video can be viewed here. All the League studies, which can be viewed here, focus on outstanding placemaking initiatives and programs being done in communities throughout Michigan. The St. Joseph program is an excellent example of cultural economic development – one of the eight placemaking assets identified by the League.

The Belz family photo album starts out in 2007 (Hot Cars Cool Beaches was the theme that year) when the youngest child in the family of four girls is about six months old, said Cindy Belz, who took most of the photos of her daughters along with her husband Eric. The album then shows the girls (Mackenzie; 16; twins Sierra and Kaleigh, 13; and Taylor, 7) growing up and smiling gleefully next to the various art pieces in subsequent years through 2012 the year of the “Beached Pirates.” They’re shown playing with farm animals in 2011’s “Barnyard at the Beach”; petting dogs in 2010’s “Hot Diggity Dogs”; sailing away in various aquatic vessels during 2008’s Boats-n-Beaches theme; and adventuring with wild beasts in 2009’s “Surf ‘n Safari”.

Cindy Belz said she made the photo album as a gift for her parents, St. Joseph residents Mike and Marci Kastner and her father showed it to Solon at City Hall, who then requested a copy of the album after being so impressed by it.

“St. Joseph is just a great town,” said Cindy Belz, whose family lives outside of Kalamazoo. “I tell everybody I know about St. Joseph and the public art. It’s a great day trip for your family to go down there and look at the art – take in the fountain, the carousel, the whole atmosphere down there. You can easily make a full day out of it for your family. Plus, it’s inexpensive for a family to do. To look at art on the street doesn’t cost anything. But of course we always get ice cream and do some shopping.”

In addition to providing memories, the St. Joseph Public Art has accomplished the main things it was intended to do when city leaders embarked upon it more than a decade ago:

  • Eliminate the 33 percent vacancy rate among downtown storefronts;
  • Capitalize on the artistic talent that exists in the community;
  • And turn St. Joseph into a tourist destination for visitors and second-home buyers.

“When I first started here six years ago it was hard for our business to get through the winter and now we have steady cash flow all year long,” said Christopher Heugel, manager of The Boulevard Inn in downtown St. Joseph and a member of the St. Joseph City Commission. “Plus, the demand has grown during the summer.”

In addition, the art project has served as a catalyst to other related economic development efforts, including a downtown beautification movement, numerous festivals taking place year-round; and eventually the future development of the Silver Lake Beach, which now includes the Silver Beach Carousel, Silver Beach Amusement Park, Shadowland on Silver Beach ballroom; Curious Kids’ Discovery Zone and the Whirlpool Compass Fountain.

This year’s art project is extra special because it is directly tied to the restoration effort of St. Joseph’s two historic lighthouses located within eyesight of the downtown district. The 2014 theme is “Shining Sculptures – Lighting Up St. Joseph!, and consists of 30 lighthouse art pieces on display in and around the St. Joseph area from now until Sept. 26. Following the summer-long public display, the pieces will go up for sale in a public auction taking place Sept. 27. Proceeds from the sale will benefit the $2-million lighthouse restoration effort, Solon said.

“The Public Art project started out because we had a 33 percent vacancy rate in the winter here in our downtown when I started working for the city 16 years ago,” Solon said. “So we developed this to bring vibrancy to our downtown and over the years it’s really brought foot traffic, people love it. We are really becoming known as THE public art destination in the state of Michigan. Our occupancy is 100 percent occupancy now, so we’re very excited.”

Go here to view the case study and related video about the St. Joseph project. View dozens of photos from the art projects over the years in this Michigan Municipal League photo album on flickr.

Dan Burden, a notable long-time friend of the Michigan Municipal League and co-founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, has caught the attention of Burden - Birmingham 2the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, he was honored with a 2014 White House Champion of Change award for his tireless efforts to make pedestrians and bicyclists an important part of the transportation equation. It is a recognition well deserved.

Dan’s dedication is unyielding. His travels take him to communities all over the country for more than 300 days a year. Many of those days have been spent here in Michigan, leading walking audits designed to uncover neighborhood opportunities and find solutions. He brings people together from all sectors, engages them in conversation, and inspires them to reimagine the future of their community.

Burden - BirminghamAlong with several of my League colleagues, I have had the privilege of accompanying Dan on many of his walking audits. Every community has its own unique assets and challenges, so I learn something new each and every time. With his bright road construction safety vest and measuring tape in hand, he leads a group of stakeholders and local officials up and down sidewalks, through parking lots and alleys, and across busy streets, offering up all the possibilities. With his years of experience and knowledge—and contagious enthusiasm—even the naysayers start to believe. Step by step, Dan is truly making our communities more livable and walkable.

Congratulations, Dan!  We appreciate all the great work you have done and continue to do in Michigan. Thank you for being one of Michigan’s greatest cheerleaders.

This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

Today’s mobile workforce is highly motivated by a sense of place. They seek out communities that suit their lifestyle before finding jobs and opening up businesses. This mindset makes “placemaking” vital to the long-term economic development of 21st century communities.

The Michigan Municipal League has identified eight essential assets that make communities the vibrant places that attract 21st century businesses and talent: physical design and walkability, green initiatives, cultural economic development, entrepreneurship, diversity, messaging and technology, transit and education. Our focus is on helping local officials identify, develop and implement strategies that will grow and strengthen these assets in their own community.

Many Michigan communities have already found unique ways to create a sense of place and boost economic opportunities for their residents. Here are just a few examples.


The sounds of buzzing saws, humming sewing machines and live bands playing everything from jazz to hip hop fill the air at Ponyride, a once-empty warehouse in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.  The project’s whimsical name reflects its commitment to providing a fun place where socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs can pursue their passion and share their knowledge, resources and networks. Co-working space adds another dimension to the building, blending authors, nonprofits, technology companies and even a lawyer into the eclectic tenant mix.

Ponyride was born out of owner Phil Cooley’s desire to see how the foreclosure crisis could have a positive impact on the community. Thanks to an abundance of community support, rents are kept low, enabling tenants like Detroit Denim, Smith Shop and Edible Wow to focus on developing their crafts. In return, tenants have to put in some sweat-equity to build-out their own work space and give back to Detroit through educational programs and volunteering. Ponyride’s studios and co-working space are in such high demand that newcomers may have to put their name on a waiting list.

soup-serving-siteDetroit Soup

Sharing a good meal with neighbors, business owners and community leaders is the jumping off point for Detroit SOUP, a grassroots initiative designed to raise money and support for local projects. After everyone’s appetite is satisfied, four people are given the opportunity to present their ideas for a project that will make their community a better place – anything from starting a small business, to running an after-school program, to cleaning up a park. Dinner guests ask questions, share ideas and vote on the project they like best. The winner leaves with the $5 per person donation that was thrown in the pot at the door. Down the road, winners attend a future SOUP dinner to report on their progress.

Detroit SOUP dinners bubbled up from a small group of people who were trying to improve their community but needed their neighbors’ support to get the job done. Since the first monthly dinner in 2010, Detroiters have showed up in strong numbers to raise almost $67,000 for Detroit-specific projects. Winners have included 10 small businesses, 15 community clean-ups or beautification projects, 6 food or urban agriculture-related projects, 5 art projects, and at least 15 youth development projects.

adrian-main-street-inlineMain Street Community Partnership

Red Paint Printing is thriving and renters are adding homey touches to upper floor apartments in a significant, yet long-neglected building on Adrian’s main street. The new landlord, Main Street Community Partnership, has provided stability for the printing business, enabling it to expand its operations within the building. Plans have even been made for this retailer to acquire ownership of the space over time. And recent façade and structural improvements to the building have ensured its long-term viability and enhanced its appearance. As a result, the whole downtown landscape looks more appealing.

All of this was made possible by a group of four local business and civic leaders who were inspired by a presentation about the power of investing in your own community. They gathered the support of 18 more concerned citizens, who agreed to invest $2,000 each into a limited-liability partnership established to acquire and redevelop the property. Since purchasing the building, the group has expanded the first floor retail, improved the condition of most of the apartments, and found higher quality tenants. Thanks to the donated work of partners, the project has been able to exceed initial financial projections.


In early April, humongous paper-mache puppets march down Main Street to the beat of lively music in Ann Arbor’s annual FestiFools event. Throngs of spectators fill the sidewalks and are thrilled when these majestic puppets stop to interact with them. Art students and community members collaborate on the creation of the paper-mache creatures. And anyone looking for a chance to be creative is invited to add their talents for singing, dancing, puppeteering or just plain schlepping glue.

The idea for the big-headed puppets sprang from the mind of Mark Tucker, for the “Art in Public Spaces” class he teaches at the University of Michigan. He saw the parade as an opportunity for people of different ages and backgrounds to work together and bring the arts to the community in a fun, whimsical way. Local government and civic group leaders provided FestiFools with the initial support it needed to get off the ground in 2007. Since then, this fun-filled, artistic event has become an annual tradition, drawing thousands of people onto the street to enjoy the foolishness.