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.


Last week I attended Congress for New Urbanism‘s conference in Buffalo, NY and had a wonderful time learning about ideas, projects, and research on new urbanism and placemaking. Here are a few highlights from my favorite presentations:

Jeff Speck: New Urbanism 101

Jeff Speck's book, "Walkable City."

Jeff Speck’s book, “Walkable City.”

Jeff Speck is an urban planner and designer and most recently published Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. The three-hour presentation went into great detail on urban planning and design, but what resonated most is also a key message through his book: Walking has to be easier and better than driving a car. Speck’s “General Theory of Walkability,” illustrates how walking to a destination can be better than driving. A walk must be:

  • Useful
  • Safe
  • Comfortable
  • Interesting

Speck has spoken on this topic many times and just last month he gave a presentation at TEDxMidAtlantic.  The best way to learn about the General Theory of Walkability is to watch the presentation yourself.

Charles Montgomery: Happiness in Cities

It turns out presenting at a conference is a great way to sell books—My colleague purchased her own copy of Walkable City and I left Buffalo with Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.

Charles Montgomery's "Happy City."

Charles Montgomery’s “Happy City.”

Coming into the field of planning with a community organizing background, I am sometimes surprised to see the majority of discussions based on cars and buildings. Montgomery does an excellent job bringing people back into the picture and focusing on what all of us really want: To be happy. Montgomery’s book explores the relationship between cities and people.

By now, we should all know from Knight’s Soul of the Community that how people feel about where they live has an impact on the community’s economy. Montgomery’s research illustrates how people in car-dependent communities are more likely to be unhappy and untrusting than people who live in more walkable areas. This is just another reminder of why focusing on placemaking is so important to Michigan communities.

The presentation also left me with a few  memorable “fun facts” about happiness, which I’m sure I’ll learn more about when I start the book. They include:

  • Name tags make people nicer at public meetings
  • Nature boosts altruism
  • People like each other more when they sit in clusters
  • People who live in the suburbs and high-rise apartments experience the least amount of trust

Jennifer Hurley: I Love Meetings and You Can Too!

As expected, all of the presentations I attended focused on urban design, planning and architecture. To give my brain a change of pace, I attended a presentation by Jennifer Hurly on how to run successful, enjoyable meetings – unfortunately a topic many people need better training on.

Jennifer Hurley's slide on effective meetings. Write an agenda!

Jennifer Hurley’s slide on effective meetings. Write an agenda!

Hurley works with people across the country to run effective engagement meetings for urban planning topics. This is also one of the discussions I had with planning leaders at a civic engagement meeting I hosted a few weeks ago and wrote about here.

Some of the quick takeaways Hurley left her audience with were:

  • Don’t have a meeting if you don’t need discussion to make a decision or take action
  • Know the meeting’s purpose and make it known to participants
  • Start and end the meeting on time
  • Break up activities to keep things interesting
  • Set rules of engagement: Be present, stay on topic and finish the topic before moving on, encourage all to participate, evaluate, etc.

For those interested in this topic, feel free to contact me at As requested by the civic engagement focus group, I’m putting together a training on running effective community meetings. We’ll announce the opportunity on the MML website when things are finalized, but I would be happy to keep you in the loop!

Overall, the conference was very informative and engaging. I came back to Michigan excited about our work and inspired by the work of others. It had been a while since I was able to attend such a large conference as CNU and I’m glad to have had the opportunity.

It’s been a while since I last wrote and to be quite honest there has been a lot I’ve seen and done since then.  For instance, I was flattered to be a part of an international group of thought leaders that came to Detroit to discuss the principles and concepts of “Lean Urbanism”. This is an emerging topic of discussion and of great importance to local government officials and staff as we continue to find strategies to address the new normal of lowered capacity and system change.  Look for more on this subject soon.

Cleveland BRTMore recently I had the opportunity to attend the Inner City Economic Summit in Cleveland.  If you haven’t been to Cleveland recently, go.  The downtown area is lively and walkable with a BRT and trolley system for those days when mother nature decides to turn Lake Erie into her playground.  The theme of this conference was “Transforming Urban Ecologies”.  While I’ll write more about this in a later blog, the opening session featured 6 finalists from around the country as part of a “Urban Innovation Challenge”.  Three of the six were Detroit based projects, proving once again that as Detroit reinvents itself, it is truly a center of innovation.

But there will be time to explore these “30,000 foot” topics, thoughts and ideas that were central to both of the above meetings. What I want to write about today is something I saw this week on You Tube.  It is a TED presentation given by Jeannette Sadik-Kahn, Transportation Director for New York City.

Now if you’re not familiar with Ms. Kahn, then this video is a perfect introduction.  Let me begin by saying two things… first, if I was king of the world, this woman would be my Transportation Director!  I first ran across her at a CEO’s for Cities conference in New York several years ago and was in awe of her passion, intellect and get it done demeanor. The things she and her team have been able to do have not just reinvented areas such as Times Square, but touched neighborhoods and business districts across the city.  The second thing is that what she has done and is doing is being accomplished by not paying much attention to her own department bureaucracy or that of any other city department.  Some of the projects are simple and some more complex but she is turning the city into a more walkable, bikeable and pedestrian friendly place.

Watch the video, and before you dismiss it as only applicable to larger cities, clear your mind and I have no doubt you’ll come away with an idea or two for your community.

Now, back to my big think.

Better Communities. Better Michigan. The PodcastWelcome to Better Communities Better Michigan – the Podcast! 
The Michigan Municipal League is the one clear voice for Michigan communities, working in Lansing and throughout the state for the unique and vibrant places where people want to live. From state policy to cutting edge local initiatives, we’ll discuss issues that impact us all, and identify key strategies to promote highly adaptable, economically competitive communities that are ready to face the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.

October 30, 2013 podcast:

Lean Urbanism: The New Local Face of New Urbanism

There’s a fundamental shift going on in the way communities approach urban planning: Lean Urbanism. But what is it, and why should local governments learn to embrace it?

Listen in as the League’s Summer Minnick talks to Andres Duany, co-founder of the Congress of New Urbanism, and League CEO and Executive Director Dan Gilmartin, as they explain why the future of urban planning is moving on into this lighter, quicker, and cheaper approach to development and entrepreneurship.

“When new urbanism became the dominant paradigm, we became the bureaucrats in Washington…and we lost the agility that we need to deal with the limits of the 21st century,” said Duany.

Lean Urbanism is all about innovation and “getting City Hall out from under bureaucratic ties” to streamline the processes that hinder socioeconomic development, said Gilmartin.