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!

 

midtown bizSmall Business Saturday is growing momentum. This year, 88 million people across the country shopped locally on November 29, which is up nearly 15% from last year. The impact? $14.3 billion – not bad for some small businesses! And according to one study, for every $100 spent at a local business, $68 remains in the local economy (compared to only $43 when $100 is spent at a chain store).

With so many people filling the streets for Small Business Saturday, Michigan’s small, mid-sized, and urban downtown leaders should be thinking more about promoting walkability, small businesses, and transit.

For example, Detroit has a ton of small, locally owned businesses but the city’s size and low walkability makes it difficult for shoppers to visit them on foot. To make Small Business Saturday easier, Pure Detroit launched a  business passport to promote the 20+ participating businesses while D:hive and Detroit Synergy sponsored a free shuttle bus to help consumers get around.

These efforts, positive promotion, and Saturday’s sunshine all made Small Business Saturday a great success in Detroit: Patrons packed local businesses and filled the streets of the downtown Woodward corridor.

Create a Small Business Passport for Any Occasion

Simple tactics, like a passport and shuttle bus, can benefit local shopping any time of the year. This summer, the League worked with the city of Utica to promote walkability and small business shopping during their annual Riverwalk Festival.

Utica ReportIn partnership with the city, downtown businesses, community stakeholders, and placemaking-focused consulting firm New Solutions Group, the team developed a downtown business passport and walkability survey to use during the event. The team recruited businesses to participate and each donated a raffle prize from their store. When patrons visited every business (as proven by a stamp, sticker, or initial), they returned the passport to be entered into the raffle.

Utica also used the passport to collect information from patrons as they walked through downtown. Participants could fill out a four-question survey asking about comfort, safety, and aesthetics of the walk to be entered in a second raffle drawing.

The League and New Solutions Group used information from the event to write a report analyzing the event and making specific recommendations to improve downtown walkability. Even small, low-cost initiatives like creative wayfinding, art, and simple landscaping improvements can improve walkability and benefit local businesses in Utica and communities across the state.

HowDoI Biz passportBuilding on experiences from the Utica passport and others, the League recently worked with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center to develop a how-to guide for communities to develop their own passport for any occasion.

Any time of year, but especially around the holidays, communities should be thinking about ways to improve walkability and support small businesses in downtowns of every size. Creating interesting, welcoming, and fun downtown areas will help Michigan communities thrive.

Additional Reading on Entrepreneurship, Small Businesses & Walkability

Cafe Con Leche in Southwest Detroit

Cafe con Leche in Southwest Detroit

There are many incentive programs targeting entrepreneurs, such as funding opportunities like Hatch and Revolve, but few grant dollars are going towards existing businesses. With the goal to increase business sales, create new jobs, and enhance economic stability in urban neighborhoods, the New Economy Initiative recently tackled this very issue.

NeIdeasIn partnership with the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, they awarded 30 small businesses in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park $10,000 grants to grow their business.

The NEIdeas Challenge received more than 600 applications and of the 30 winners, 73% were minority-owned businesses, 60% were women-owned, and four businesses have been in operation for more than 50 years.

Opportunities like this can have a large effect on a community because small businesses are central to economic recovery. Small businesses typically employ local residents and create a unique sense of place within the community. According to the American Independent Business Alliance, every $1 spent at an independent business generates $.68 back into the local economy. Supporting local businesses, even with just $10,000, can have an extremely positive effect on a small area.

Café con Leche was one of the NEIdea contest winners and happens to be my favorite Detroit coffee shop. Since they opened in 2007, the coffee shop has been a staple of the community – yes, they have great coffee, the staff is friendly, and the environment is pleasant. But most importantly, Café con Leche is a place where people come to gather.

Dia de los Muertos altar at Cafe con Leche

Dia de los Muertos altar at Cafe con Leche

When someone comes in the door, two, three, or four patrons greet the newcomer. People hug, give each other kisses on the cheek, go in for a handshake – it’s a place for residents to see other residents. Elected officials frequent the café to get a great cup of coffee, support local business, and have informal conversations with constituents. Nonprofit and church employees come to work, network, and run into old friends. Teens fill the shop after school to warm up while they’re waiting for the bus or to buy a bag of chips before walking home. This is the type of business neighborhoods need to promote a strong sense of place.

With the $10,000 grant from NEI, Café con Leche will buy equipment and train staff to bring the roasting process in-house. It means a lot of work for the owner, Jordi Carbonell, but hopefully it also means more business.

Supporting great places like Café con Leche and other NEIdea winners can truly enhance a neighborhood and act as a catalyst for small-scale but important community growth.