Downtown-Ann-Arbor-University-of-Michigan-on-Graduation-Day-May-2014-TownGown-(59)-200x300This spring, more than 6,000 undergrads will receive their highly-anticipated diplomas from the University of Michigan; I’m proud to be one of them. For some of these students, several of whom have called Michigan home since childhood, graduation will mark the end of their time in the Wolverine State. Like many Michigan grads who came before them, they’ll take their first-rate education, their soon-to-be-tapped potential, and their dreams for the future elsewhere.

But the scene need not seem so dismal – at least not anymore. Because today, more than ever, many of these students will choose to take their uniquely developed talents, their can-do attitudes, and their passion for their work into cities like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Traverse City, and various other communities throughout Michigan.

In recent years, staying in Michigan after graduation seemed the less-glamorous, ‘only if I have no other options’ choice for graduates. However, remaining in-state to contribute to Michigan’s ever-developing and increasingly entrepreneurial landscape is becoming a bold, even renegade option for students hoping to make a difference in their own corners of the world.

I can speak to this developing phenomenon because I’m a product of it. A year ago, I was convinced that the most courageous post-grad move I could make involved packing my bags and relocating to Washington, D.C. Fast forward two semesters and I (like many of my fellow spring graduates) have come to realize that perhaps the most daring and adventurous option is to use the talents I’ve spent the last four years developing to take an active role in Michigan’s reinvention.

Downtown-Ann-Arbor-University-of-Michigan-on-Graduation-Day-May-2014-TownGown-(48)-300x200Michigan’s reinvention is key because, on the whole, millennials have been found to value the difference that they can make in their respective localities. Staying in Michigan allows millennials to pursue not only individual success, but to directly affect their changing and growing communities, something essential to their own personal fulfillment.

Additionally, almost two-thirds of millennials have an interest in starting their own business. As Michigan has shifted focus to building a new economy, new spaces of innovation supporting local entrepreneurs and startups have popped up all over the state’s map. This unique and increasing demand for entrepreneurship in Michigan attracts millennials boasting individual talents and looking for opportunities to use them.

This space to develop professionally, however, would perhaps be less thrilling if it were not mirrored by an equally stimulating space to engage personally. Millennials find a plethora of places in which to pursue their interests outside of work in Michigan, whether those interests are playing sports, watching sports, venturing through nature, or even delving into history and exploring the occasional museum. Millennials seek to create a home for themselves and for their future families; they appreciate the concept of work-life balance, and they’ve found that here in Michigan.

In short, students who stay in Michigan today grasp an incredible opportunity to have a hand in determining what Michigan will become tomorrow. In this atmosphere dedicated to growth, business owners, families, educators, and lawmakers continue to cooperate with the commitment of developing stronger, more vibrant communities in which graduates can prosper – professionally and personally. Because for everything that Michigan has to offer, its future development and success will be determined by its greatest resource – its people.

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Samantha Audia, Michigan Municipal League Intern

SamanthaAudia-150x150Samantha joined the Michigan Municipal League team as an intern this winter, and will graduate from the University of Michigan in the spring with a degree in Political Science and International Studies. Previously, she has worked with several political non-profits in the Washington, D.C. area, and contributed to an array of publications. Samantha calls Garden City home but currently resides in Ann Arbor, and she looks forward to blogging for the League throughout the winter.

knight-cities-challenge-logo-200x227The Knight Foundation has announced the finalists for this year’s Knight Cities Challenge–and the League’s idea – “Permit Corps” –  is among them!  With over 4,500 ideas submitted in the first round, the 158 finalists who have been invited to submit full proposals include 20 finalists from Detroit.  (We’re tied with Philadelphia for the largest number of finalists.)

The Permit Corps would be an intern or fellowship program that would place graduate students in a few neighborhoods in Detroit. They would serve as a combination of technical expert and patient advocate, helping residents and small business owners get projects done.

Maybe a small business owner needs a site plan to show zoning compliance for an expansion: an urban planning student from Wayne State or an architecture student from University of Detroit Mercy could help navigate the zoning ordinance and draft the site plan showing the relevant information. Perhaps a resident wants to renovate their home in a historic district: Eastern Michigan University has one of the country’s leading historic preservation programs, and a student from that program could help the resident evaluate their options and put together materials for the Historic District Commission. Maybe a Spanish-speaking resident wants help filling out permits in English–there are any number of ways that the Permit Corps might be able to help neighborhood residents take care of the paperwork so that they can take care of their projects, as well as easing the burden on city staff.

We’ve primarily targeted the Challenge’s goal of “expand economic opportunity” with this proposal: by providing technical capacity to neighborhood residents. We would complement the city’s own efforts to streamline their internal functions and broaden access to the formal process.

This idea stems in part from my own time in Ypsilanti City Hall, helping people through various city, county, and state permitting processes: no matter how much a city has done to make its processes easy, the zoning ordinance is still a legal document, and presenting to the Planning Commission or Historic District Commission can still be intimidating to people.

And that’s why the League chose to dive into the Challenge with this idea–we know we can’t possibly help every person who’s trying to make something happen in their piece of Detroit, but we hope to model a new interaction between residents and city processes that can be adopted not just across Detroit but in other Knight Cities–or by our communities across the state.

 

There's a sidewalk here, but the snow and ice cover renders it impassible for some and dangerous to all.

The sidewalk doesn’t end here, but any reasonable expectation of safe travel does.

With many of Michigan’s communities recovering from our coldest or snowiest Februaries on record, the Water Hill neighborhood in Ann Arbor is making headlines from The Atlantic’s CityLab to the Christian Science Monitor with “SnowBuddy.” From their webpage:

SnowBuddy is a unique nonprofit sidewalk snow removal service run like a public radio station.  It provides its service for free to an entire area and is supported by donations.

Instead of dividing walkways into segments assigned to property owners, SnowBuddy sees the sidewalk as a continuous right-of-way, a transportation corridor most appropriately maintained in its entirety, using municipal-quality equipment, as a service to the community.

SnowBuddy's tractor can clear the sidewalk in front of a residential lot in approximately 10 seconds.  Photo courtesy Paul Tinkerhess.

SnowBuddy’s tractor can clear the sidewalk in front of a residential lot in approximately 10 seconds. Photo courtesy Paul Tinkerhess.

After last year’s heavy snows, neighbors raised over $20,000 to put a down payment on a sidewalk tractor with brush and plow attachments, buy fuel, ice melt, and insurance, and train a team of volunteer drivers. After each  snow, SnowBuddy clears 12 miles of sidewalk throughout the neighborhood, as well as clearing the major walking routes to downtown Ann Arbor.  (Another team of volunteers, the “windrow patrol,” hand-shovels the sidewalk curb ramps at intersections where they’ve been buried by the city’s snow plows.)

The project is a testament to Water Hill’s neighborly sense of place (see also their annual music festival, held on dozens of front porches each May), but it also poses a serious question: if we want walking and biking to be real transportation choices in our communities, can we reasonably leave sidewalk snow removal to individual property owners?

Dozens of Michigan communities have formally adopted Complete Streets ordinances or policies, recognizing that thriving downtowns and attractive urban neighborhoods require infrastructure that serves residents’ varied transportation needs, from car, bus, and delivery truck to bicycle and pedestrian.  As SnowBuddy’s organizers point out, though, few of these Complete Streets policies extend beyond the construction of the infrastructure to its maintenance.  Transportation only works as a network: a 40-foot long stretch of ice where a single property owner has failed to clear their sidewalk makes a pedestrian’s commute dangerous, no matter how diligent the rest of the neighbors on the block.

Why is it that most communities consider street plowing among the most fundamental of public services, but leave sidewalks snow removal in the hands of individual property owners?  If we continue to have winters like this year’s and last, we may need better answers to that question as we strive to build attractive, quality places.

Placemaking is such a buzz word of 2014 – and that’s a good thing! Placemaking awareness has been on the rise for the past few years, but themes, ideas, and policies are now more generally accepted and promoted. Placemaking is something people can relate to, want to talk about, and want to promote, which is great news for Michigan communities.

2014 has been a wonderful year for new research, stories, and perspectives on placemaking, engagement, and talent attraction throughout Michigan and across the globe. As part of the League’s services, we’ve been documenting and cataloguing articles related to our placemaking asset areas to use in presentations, guidebooks, research, and talking points. Here are my top five favorite reports of the year:

Investing In Place, American Planning Association

investing in placeMillennials were certainly a discussion topic of 2014. Articles like What Millennials Want – And Why Cities are Right to Pay Them So much Attention, Millennials & Mobility: Understanding the Millennial Mindset, and the Deloitte Millennial Survey populated newsfeeds. As a millennial, the results didn’t seem that staggering – we care about placemaking, doesn’t everybody? In case some leaders still weren’t getting the picture, the American Planning Association went a step further to explore the similar wants and needs of the country’s two largest population groups: millennials and boomers. It turns out they want the same things. Recommendations to please the largest populations include:

  • Engage residents: 75% of millennials and boomers agree that engaging citizens is essential to rebuilding local economies and creating jobs
  • Prioritize walkability and transit: Fewer than 10% of millennials, gen Xers, and boomers are interested in traditional, auto-dependent suburban living
  • Invest in quality of life: 74% of respondents believe investing in schools, walkability, and transportation is a better way to grow the economy than traditional approaches.

Using findings from this report, community leaders can frame future investments and development plans based on the public’s interests.

The Rise of Innovation Districts, The Brookings Institute

Communities and metro regions across the country are recovering from the Great Recession, but most are still behind their pre-recession peaks. There are some areas, however, that are recovering faster and stronger. According to the report, downtowns where people both live and work grew 77% faster than the country as a whole. Similarly, metro areas with more than 1 million people grew twice as fast than areas with populations under 250,000innovation districts

The report explores all aspects of innovation districts – which Brookings defines as a high density area of entrepreneurs, education and medical institutions, start-ups, and mixed-use developments that are interconnected through transit, technology, and physical proximity. The Rise of Innovation Districts says these districts are where jobs can grow faster, stronger, and more equitably, where density can reduce carbon emissions, and where local governments can generate more tax revenue. The report continues to explore the economic, physical, and networking aspects of how innovations work, as well as how community leaders can spark and scale innovation districts in their own communities.

Even for smaller communities, the report can be used as leverage to promote different areas of placemaking from entrepreneurial incentives, to walkable streets, to efficient transportation options.

State Policies Matter, Michigan Future

state policiesThis report is Michigan-specific, and especially with drama from Michigan’s current lame duck legislature, civic leaders should take a few minutes to read or re-read this paper. State Policies Matter describes how Michigan and Minnesota were once very similar states, with similar statewide policies and economies. Since 1990, however, Michigan and Minnesota have been growing more and more dissimilar: Minnesota now ranks 11th highest in the country in per capita income while Michigan is ranked 35th, and Minnesota’s unemployment and poverty rates have declined but Michigan’s have stayed about the same or worsened. This report seeks to explain the growing differences between the two states through policy decisions state and local leaders have made over recent decades. Major differences include the following:

  • Income taxes, business taxes, sales taxes, and gas taxes are all significantly higher in Minnesota, which means per capita state and local taxes are $1,000 – $5,000 higher than in Michigan.
  • These higher tax revenues allow Minnesota’s government to invest more in important priorities. For example, Michigan spends $1,447/person on k-12 education, while Minnesota spends $2,067/person. Michigan spends $223/person on transportation, while Minnesota spends $465/person. And Michigan spends $119/person in local government aid, while Minnesota spends $465/person.
  • Social policies are also more equitable in Minnesota than in Michigan. For example, the state allows same-sex marriages, allows affirmative action for college admissions, and allows undocumented high school graduates to receive in-state tuition at state universities.

This report can be seen as a timely warning to our state and local leaders to reconsider some current policy priorities.

The Equity Solution, PolicyLink

This fall, PolicyLink launched the National Equity Atlas, an online resource of demographics and economic data across the US with policy implications focused on racial equality. This data highlights the persistent, and often growing gaps, between the rich and poor, and white and non-white populations. Some important findings include:

  • equity atlasRacial economic inclusion could annually add $2 trillion to the national economy
  • 66% of racial income gap is due to wage differences, and only 34% is due to employment differences
  • Every region in the country would be stronger with racial inclusion. Potential annual gains range from $287 million to $510 billion in the nation’s 150 largest metro regions.

Users can manipulate data on the National Equality Atlas site to represent findings from their state or region. Michigan can be looked at as a whole or in the Ann Arbor, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Lansing regions.

The report also highlights policy recommendations for closing economic gaps between racial lines. Some examples include:

  • Invest in transit and other infrastructure projects to improve connectivity and create jobs
  • Leverage anchor institutions to grow new business in underinvested areas
  • Raise the minimum wage through local living wage ordinances or statewide initiatives
  • Remove barriers of employment, like prohibiting credit checks for job applicants and increasing citizenship for immigrants.

City Open Data Policies, National League of Cities

open dataMunicipalities collect and store a ton of information but most of it just sits there. Recently, excitement around open data has grown through initiatives from Code for America and other organizations – if there’s data, let people access it, manipulate it, and see what they can come up with. Open data is simply “data that can be freely used, reused, and redistributed by anyone” and is a pretty new idea for cities around the world. This report highlights lessons learned so far from 5 cities who have implemented open data policies and outlines recommendations and resources for communities looking to implement something similar.

Jackson is the only Michigan community, so far, to venture into the possibilities of open data. With work from city leaders, student interns, and national institutional advisors, Jackson has already adopted an open data ordinance and is currently working on creating an online portal. Communities interested in learning more are encouraged to contact Jackson and take recommendations from the NLC report:

  • Find leadership for open data initiatives
  • Commit to open data through legislation and formal policies
  • Allocate resources to open data initiatives – although it’s low cost, the best policies have appropriate staffing and budgeting
  • Rely on experts to provide technical expertise and customer service for online platforms since municipalities often don’t have the in-house resources readily available

So what are you supposed to do with these five reports?

Read them, share them, and use them to make decisions in your community. And if you want more light reading for the holiday break, just let me know! Since April, we have been cataloging interesting articles, reports, and case studies related to placemaking. So far we have about 200 in our database, so there’s plenty to keep you busy.

Looking forward to another year of research, placemaking, and community building!