I got goose bumps watching giant paper mache creatures come to life, limited only by their creator’s imagination. It was the 8th annual Festifools, an event that takes place on the first Sunday of April to celebrate April Fool’s Day.  For one hour, these majestic puppets marched to the beat of music up and down Main Street, often stopping to interact with the throngs of spectators.  Although it is a well-orchestrated event requiring hundreds of hours of preparation, the beauty of it is that it has the look and feel of a random, spontaneous, “let’s get together” street party that brings out people of all ages.

Festifools photo 1Mark Tucker, a University of Michigan art teacher to mostly non-art majors, was searching for a novel way to bring his students together with community members to create something unique and exciting for his “Art in Public Spaces” course.  The result was the Street Theather Art (START) project.  Through his work with a neighborhood theater group, he got the idea to create a student puppet-making workshop assisted by community volunteers which would culminate at the semester’s end with a public parade in downtown Ann Arbor.  With the whole concept not really clear in his head, and not knowing if they could even really deliver, his encouraging talks with the business community and the city spurred him on – and Festifools was born.  Because of its enormous popularity, a second event was added:  FoolMoon, a nighttime luminary festival that takes place on the Friday night before the Festifools parade.

Tucker saw the importance of actively encouraging students to work with the community and used his students to bring the arts to the community in a fun, whimsical way creating an engaging and educational experience for all ages.

Festifools - clownsCultural Economic Development is one of the 8 assets that the League has identified to help create desirable and unique places to live.  It’s an event like Festifools that not only brings people together, but contributes to the long-term economic health of a community and region.

The League had the opportunity to go behind the scenes and visit the studio where the puppets are made as well as participate in one of the several workshops held downtown that invites the community to come in and make their own luminary.  We had a chance to hear all about this creative experience from Tucker himself and we will be telling his story in more detail in the future.  For now, check out the video and get a flavor of what these majestic puppets have to offer.  I promise that you’ll get goose bumps too!

Sarah Pavelko discusses the PlacePlans project in Southwest Detroit.

Sarah Pavelko discusses the PlacePlans project in Southwest Detroit on WJR.

For many years now, the Michigan Municipal League has talked about placemaking as a vital part of making our state prosperous again. Simply put placemaking is about creating communities that people love. It’s about turning “that community” into “my community.” So how do we accomplish this? How do we create places to cherish? Often it starts with an idea and a new League program called PlacePlans is taking the ideas that already exist in eight Michigan cities and helping turn them into reality. This PlacePlans effort is the focus of our final show for 2013. We’re truly saving the best for last. My co-host for this show is Detroit Free Press reporter Matt Helms and our guests are Gary Heidel, the new Chief Placemaking Officer for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority; Sarah Pavelko, Project Manager  of the Southwest Business Association in Detroit; and Steve Wolbert, Director of Community Relations and Government Affairs at Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy in Flint. The show airs 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, on News/Talk 760 WJR but you can listen anytime at the  League’s website or by subscribing to the FREE iTunes podcast. Learn more about the placemaking concept here as well as on this blog.

One of the League’s eight critical assets to building vibrant communities is education.  In Michigan, the link between communities and school districts can be clouded as they are considered separate entities, where school districts are run by their own boards.  And the boundaries mostly never match.  There are some cities in Michigan that encompass up to half a dozen school districts!

This said, we’ve always maintained that it is important for local officials to realize the importance of the link between building a better community by building better relationships with the local K-12 school system and if available, a community college or four year school that might be within the city boundaries.  Certainly, all of these entities need a vibrant, healthy place for their teachers and professors to choose to live and parents to settle in to send their kids to school.  And at the end of the day, both local and school officials need to be working together to make that happen.

One of the bigger issues that certainly brings this to the forefront is that of after-school programs.  Time and again studies have shown that the after-school time period of 3-6 pm is the most worrisome and is that time of the day when school age children can find themselves in trouble on their own or in harm’s way.  There seems to be real opportunity in this area for local community and school district to partner.

And, its happening.  In Michigan, cities like Grand Rapids and Farmington Hills are well known for their work in this area.  The Michigan After School Partnership collaboration also is very active in promoting such partnerships.  The League has worked with both MASP and the National League of Cities on this matter as well.

Now, a new study by FHI 360 and The Wallace FoundationIs Citywide Afterschool Coordination Going Nationwide? , uncovers what mayoral support for coordination of after-school programs has meant in places around the country.

If you’re interested in learning more, The National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families, in partnership with The Wallace Foundation  is holding a webinar on Tuesday, November 19th from 2-3 pm  EDT to discuss the report findings.  Speakers will include not only report authors but also representatives from community after-school programs across the country.

To register for the webinar visit: https://expandedschools.webex.com/expandedschools/onstage/g.php?t=a&d=664503066

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Congress for the New Urbanism Food Trucks - SLC 1Conference (CNU21) in Salt Lake City (SLC).  I was sure that I would be let down following my barely contained anticipation of the event.  Not to worry, it was everything and more than I expected. Over the course of my professional career, I’ve attended a lot of conferences, but this one felt like the crown jewel.  Although it had many of the traditional components of a conference, this one felt different.  It was held in the Grand America (which WAS truly grand), with several plenary sessions and break-out sessions, but the tradition stops there.  This conference brought together people from many different backgrounds and organizations from all over the world, all passionate new urbanists which allowed for such a rich smorgasbord of conversations and experiences.  One element that I loved and need to mention, was the fact that food trucks were parked nearby for lunch everyday eliminating the traditional conference meals!

There were so many different topics, impromptu conversations, random small group meetings, and a wide variety of tours, making it difficult to choose what to participate in, but here are a few highlights:

  • As the co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism it wouldn’t be a CNU conference without Andres Duany.  His passion for what he does was visible through his opening address and throughout the conference as he informally engaged in conversations with attendees.  (My colleague Arnold Weinfeld and I were having breakfast with Craig Chester from Smart Growth America and Joh Geeting, writer/blogger and political consultant, when Duany joined us for breakfast.  We were of course, very honored and enjoyed a lively conversation.)  His common theme (or rant!) was the need to knock down the bureaucracy to allow to build live, work, play communities and “deliver a world where the young can operate.”   He castigated the American environmentalists who operate without taking humans into consideration.  He talked a lot about the beach mouse in Florida, and how you can’t build because of the beach mice.  At first I thought that “beach mouse” was his metaphor for not being able to get anything done.  But he was actually talking about real beach mice!  He went on to say that “Landscape urbanists don’t let us build cities.”  (He uses the test of not being able to build Charleston again.)  Duany also spoke about the need to come up with simple and lean codes, what he calls a transect-based “Pink Code”. (I should also mention, he will be the keynote speaker at the League’s Annual Convention in Detroit in September!)
  • Arnold and I toured Park City, home to the Sundance Festival and a year-round Affordable housing in Park Citytourist destination.  Located 32 miles southeast of Utah, over 7,000 people call it home.  The focus of the tour was affordable housing.  It was nothing short of impressive to see Park City’s commitment to providing affordable housing in a city that attracts the rich and famous.  With a progressive mayor (he had a brief encounter with the political hippie movement in the 60s in Ann Arbor!) who is passionate about his community and its residents, he showed us several outstanding examples of green and affordable housing and how the community has embraced sustainable construction.  There is a serious commitment to making this community welcoming to different socio-economic groups.
  •  I set out on a tour of Daybreak, not really knowing in advance where that was and what it was all about.  The purpose was to see an example of elder housing. I (along with some others) was a bit shocked to arrive at the last Trax (light rail) stop, 45 minutes from downtown Salt Lake City.  (The light rail also gives access to the airport and the University of Utah.)  With no protection from the sun and strong gusts of wind hurtling towards us (apparently it’s always windy there), we walked to a newly constructed master planned community of over 4,000 acres, using a Traditional Neighborhood Development model (TND) which has been in the making for the past 10 years.  This means that all homes within the community are within a five-minute walk or bike ride of a park, lake, shopping area, etc.  All the homes are Energy star certified.  The community broke ground in 2004 and plans to continue building for the next 20 years with more than 20,000 residential units.  The community is divided into four villages, one of them designed for over 55 years old, which was the primary focus of our visit.  Some of the housing is clustered facing each other, which reminded me of a great example of Umatilla Hill pocket neighborhood in Port Townsend, WA that I visited last year.  Daybreak now hosts 3 schools, churches, health services, movie theater and a community center.  A few of us had a chance to talk to some young teenage boys who were skateboarding.  They said that they loved living there because there was so much to do and they could walk and bike everywhere.  Although I seriously question why a community like this is being built so far out, it was impressive.
  • Salt Lake City is the largest city in Utah, with a population of a little under 200,000 (and over a million regionally).  The downtown has very wide streets – up to 9 lanes.  Their width has not changed since they accommodated oxen and their carts in the 1800s.  However, the city has turned them into pedestrian/bike friendly.  On some of Sidewalk in SLCthe main streets, light rail travels down the middle, calming the traffic on either side.  The city has done an excellent job with wide sidewalks and trees and other large plantings, acting as a buffer between the  pedestrian and the street.  It is a very walkable city and feels very safe. Add in the light rail, and it is easy to get around without a car. Through another organized tour, I visited several neighborhoods which are located on the diagonal grid in Salt Lake City.  It presented a new perspective on the city, with its small intimate tree-lined streets interspersed with small businesses.
  •  Living in a society where big is better, Susan Susanka, author of the Not so Big House (among others), begs to differ.  She presented at a Plenary session on “Not so Big Meets the New Urbanism.”  She says that everyone is searching for a sense of home – something that will make us feel better.  The feeling of home has almost nothing to do with size.  Community is a quality too.  It’s all about relationships and our interconnectedness that matters.
  •  Tactical Urbanism  is a term that is getting a lot of play these days and encompasses a lot of different placemaking concepts:  pop-ups; Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper; short-term action; long term change; a deliberate approach to instigate change; the development of social change. There were many different sessions and discussion groups devoted to this topic.  One that I participated in was an open-source group that discussed the role that local government plays in tactical urbanism action.  This really goes to the heart of what the League has been saying for years -  that local governments need to be the host of the party, not the life of the party.  They need to remove barriers, help solve problems, and assist in expediting the process
  • Although there were only a handful of Michiganians attending, I felt a lot of pride for the great placemaking happening around Michigan.  Several people that I met were clearly aware of some of the outstanding projects going on here.  This conference reinforced the importance of getting out of our own back yards.  It allows us to foster new relationships with people who share our visions and passions.  While sometimes reinforcing the old, it helps us gain new perspectives and ideas to bring back to the home front.