shutterstock-environment-green-initiatives-21c3-wind-turbine-energy-small-for-webThe 2014 Olympics may be over, but gold, silver and bronze awards are still being handed out to a select group of Michigan communities. A total of 33 Michigan local governments were recognized for environmental leadership at the Michigan Green Communities conference in Flint today (Tuesday, February 25, 2014). They are the second set of governments recognized under the recently expanded Michigan Green Communities Challenge (http://mml.org/green). The program helps local leaders measure their progress in implementing energy, economic development and environmental improvements.

The program is directly tied to the Michigan Municipal League’s ongoing effort around placemaking and creating desireable communities. To foster placemaking, the League has identified eight key assets that every community should strive to have. One of those assets is green initiatives and the Michigan Green Communities Challenge helps communities of all shapes and sizes achieve energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.

Awards were given at four levels of accomplishment:

  • Gold: Ann Arbor, Battle Creek, Charlevoix, Dearborn, Dexter, Farmington Hills, Grand Rapids, Meridian Township, Oakland County, Rogers City, Williamstown Township
  • Silver: Berkley, Birmingham, Delta Township, Lathrup Village, Monroe County, Novi, Quincy, Saline
  • Bronze: Delhi Township, East Jordan, Royal Oak, Sterling Heights, Troy, Warren
  • Member: Bangor Township, Clawson, Coldwater, Curtis Township, Fremont, Fruitport, Lansing, Livonia

Press releases about the honored communities will be posted here on the League’s newsroom page.

The Challenge is a new tool to help local leaders measure their progress in implementing energy, economic development and environmental improvements. It is supported by the Michigan Association of Counties, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Michigan Economic Development Corporation Energy Office, Michigan Municipal League, and Michigan Townships Association. It uses a rating system to recognize sustainability­ accomplishments and serves as a guide for the community leaders looking to learn from their peers. Participation is free and open to all local governments in Michigan as part of the statewide Michigan Green Communities network that aims to support local sustainability efforts.

The Challenge launched in 2009 and emphasized energy efficiency projects in an effort to help local governments prepare for and make the best use of federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) funds. In the past, graduate students from the University of Michigan worked with Challenge participants and the staff of a partner organization to update the program and reflect the evolving sustainability standards. The updated challenge reflects broader topics, such as green economic development, resource conservation and water quality, in addition to maintaining a strong energy component.

Matt Bach is director of media relations for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at mbach@mml.org and (734) 669-6317.

Ann ArborThis week, the Center for American Progress, in anticipation of the coming anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, released a report highlighting the work of 50 “Storm-Ready Cities” across the country. Storm-Ready Cities are those that have taken steps to plan for and adapt to increasingly frequent extreme weather. At the League, we were pleased to see that the Center recognized two of our member communities, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, for their leadership and vision. Congratulations to the leaders of those two cities!

Grand RapidsHowever, the list of communities in Michigan that are tackling this important issue does not start and end there. A growing number of other local governments are taking the steps necessary to become Storm-Ready. For example, the City of Marquette and the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission have each recently developed climate adaptation plans with the assistance of MSU Extension and the UM Graham Sustainability Institute. The City of Monroe is working with its neighboring townships and LIAA to integrate resilience into its master plan. And the City of Flint is tackling climate adaptation as part of its new Imagine Flint process.

The League is cosponsoring a conference February 25 & 26 at the University of Michigan-Flint that will showcase the work of these communities and others. To be notified when registration is open for that conference and to learn more about the resources available on this topic, join the Michigan Green Communities network.

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.

 

First, a brief history lesson.  Woodward Avenue , a multi-lane road that stretches over 27 miles, making its way through 11 communities, dates back to 1805 when it was originally platted.   In 1909, responding to demand for smoother roads by bicyclists and early auto owners, the first mile of concrete highway in the world was laid. Referred to as metropolitan Detroit’s “Main Street”, Woodward Avenue paves a rich story that is intrinsically connected to Detroit’s legacy as a growing commercial center and as birth place of the American automobile industry.  Over the span of a century, as the automobile industry accelerated, so did the development of Woodward Avenue, spurring new businesses and retail growth along its path. In 1999, it was designated a Michigan Heritage Route because of its more than 300 historic sites. It plays host to one of the most iconic celebrations of the car culture – the Woodward Dream Cruise.  

Project
Walkability - Birmingham photo1To facilitate continued improvement of the Woodward Avenue Corridor, The Woodward Avenue Action Association was founded in 1996.  Always a magnet for investors and developers over the course of its history, Woodward Avenue continues to evolve with a changing culture.  After decades of focusing on building roads and streets for the automobile, Michigan, like so many places around the country and world, is looking at communities differently and placing more emphasis on building them around people.   This transformational thinking has placed Michigan as one of the leaders in adopting Complete Streets  concepts – plans that will embrace all users of the road – pedestrians, the physically challenged, bicyclists, transit users, as well as drivers. The Woodward Avenue Association has embarked on an ambitious program to redesign and reshape Woodward Avenue into a Complete Street and is leading a  design team made up of representatives from each of the 11 communities, MDOT, a team of consultants, and various other organizations.  My colleague, Luke Forrest, serves on this team. The goal is to “develop standards and policies to increase the livability of Woodward and its surrounding communities and business districts; as well as to make the All American Road function efficiently and safely for residents, as well as visitors to the region.”  Dan Burden, Executive Director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute and world renowned walkability expert working on the project, calls it a “great laboratory and a grand opportunity to be an example of change for the future.”

Community Meetings
 Woodward photo1A series of 5 Charrettes are being held in various host communities.  Each one takes place over a span of 3 days and invites residents and stakeholders to drop in any time during designated hours to participate in walkability audits, interactive design workshops, or listen to scheduled presentations.  This week, my colleague Liz Shaw and I took part in the walkability audit in Birmingham, one of the host cities. It was a very open and welcoming setting, allowing us to become immediately engaged in the process.  Simultaneously, lots of discussions and the poring over of maps and designs were happening throughout the room. 

With the second in a series of five interactive community events just wrapping up, some themes are emerging:  the need to use color and plants to enliven the right-of-way for all forms of transit users; the need to strategically use the preserving and adding of trees as safe buffers between cars, pedestrians and bicyclists; and the need to reduce the speed of cars to foster a more safe environment.  (Although it sounds counterintuitive, by decreasing the number of lanes, you calm the traffic without reducing capacity.  Burden affirmed this by saying that “we squander success when we have an overabundance of lanes.”) 

The first phase of the project hopes to wrap up this fall and a cohesive plan should begin to emerge for all of Woodward Avenue in early 2014.  Get engaged and follow Transform Woodward’s progress.  To make it really easy, you can download an app and provide your own ideas.  Woodward Avenue has shown resilience throughout the ages, growing to accommodate the needs of the automobile.  Now it has the opportunity to accommodate the demands of a 21st century economy and lifestyle.