Watch the award-winning video.

The Michigan Municipal League’s animated Partnership for Place video shown at the start of 2014 Capital Conference received the highest award possible in the national 2014 Videographer Awards competition run by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals.

There were 1,500 entries from throughout the United States and the League’s video was among the top 12 percent to receive the highest honor – “award of excellence.” The League was the only award of excellence winner from Michigan. View the complete list of award of excellence winners here: https://enter.videoawards.com/winners/excellence/.

In addition to the recognition, the League will receive a movie-style clapboard as a trophy.

The League’s Partnership for Place: An Agenda for a Competitive 21st Century Michigan is a proactive policy agenda that proposes a commitment of action in partnership between the state and its municipalities. The goal of this effort is that these policies will facilitate Michigan’s economic growth and allow for the development of places to provide key services and amenities that contribute to a high quality of life.

The Partnership for Place focuses on a more regional approach to service delivery, which would change the way services are provided, how resources are dedicated, and how systems are supported. Approved by the Michigan Municipal League Board of Trustees in June of 2013, this policy agenda proposes actions that will re-establish a partnership for prosperity in four key areas: Funding for the future; Michigan in motion; Place for talent; and Strength in structure. Read more about the agenda here.

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

The Michigan Main Street Center recently published Ten Years of Excellence: The Economic Impacts of Main Street in Michigan. With more than 45 communities participating in the program, benefits have spread across the state.

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Michigan Main Street participant Boyne City is able to draw large crowds to their downtown for special events.

The state-led program started in 2003 with the goal to help communities revitalize their historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts. Similar to MML’s placemaking strategy, the Main Street Program encourages communities to expand on their unique assets and fill gaps where necessary. This model is a community-driven Four-Point Approach® of placemaking that highlights design, economic restructuring, promotion, and organization.

Boyne City is a Michigan Main Street Master Level Community.

Boyne City is a Michigan Main Street Master Level Community.

According to the report, the Michigan Main Street Program has:

  • Boosted community investment: Over $200 million has been invested in Main Street buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces.
  • Improved business and expanded job opportunities: 250 new businesses have been established and more than 1,300 new jobs have been created in Main Street districts.
  • Increased tax revenue: Local property tax revenues in Main Street districts see an estimated $3 million more each year because of improvements to downtown buildings. The state has also seen an increase in sales tax from new businesses in Main Street districts by $3.1 million each year.
  • Leveraged community volunteers: The value of volunteer hours spent in Main Street districts equates to nearly $8 million.

Michigan Main Street City: Boyne City

Boyne City sidewalk improvements enhance the aesthetics of the community.

Boyne City sidewalk improvements enhance the aesthetics of the community.

Boyne City has already implemented Main Street initiatives and now serves as a mentor to other communities. As highlighted in an MML case study the Main Street Program helped Boyne City leaders:

  • Create successful downtown events, including a farmers market.
  • Invest more than $6 million in downtown infrastructure.
  • Found a local economic development team of community stakeholders.
  • Help property owners with facade renovations.
  • Attract new residents and businesses.
  • Partner with a private developer on a multimillion dollar mixed-use project.
  • And simply create a downtown residents and visitors could enjoy!

Learn about Boyne City’s Main Street improvements here.

Important initiatives like Michigan Main Street are strengthening communities and increasing resident quality of life. We’re glad to support and continue these sort of projects through placemaking, education, and our policy framework.

As soon as we stepped out of the airport and onto the nearby platform for MAX Rail, my colleague Sarah Craft and I knew we weren’t in Detroit anymore. For only $2.50, this clean, quick, quiet light rail system whisked us to downtown Portland, where we got off just a block from our hotel – and the site of the National League of Cities State League Staff Workshop.

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Live music at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland

Along the ride, several locals noticed our suitcases and engaged us in friendly conversation, asking us where we were from, where we were going, and pointing out local landmarks. We passed a farmer’s market, gatherings of food trucks, public plazas designed for concerts and other fun community activities, and walkable streets filled with people streaming in and out of stores, restaurants and offices. In short, we saw placemaking in action.

All of this set the stage for the State League Staff Workshop, the reason for our visit to Portland. We were part of a large contingent of league staffers from around the country who had come to learn and share their knowledge. As a first-timer, I discovered that state leagues come in all sizes – some as small as 2 or 3 staff members – but we all have the same dedication to the cities and towns we represent.

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Right off the bat, I was impressed with the generosity of my fellow workshop participants. At the Communications Networking Roundtable, everyone chimed in with questions and suggestions on everything from convention and video apps to social media strategies. When we broke into sessions, league staffers shared successes and lessons learned on a number of topics. One of my favorite sessions was on PR. The League of Arizona Cities and Towns showcased their Arizona Cities @ Work PR campaign, designed to highlight the great work being done in their cities. Samantha Womer and Rene Guillen brought plenty of campaign “bling” – mugs, tote bags, lanyards and more – which they gladly offered to everyone in the room.

My other favorite session was Don’t Reinvent Content … Reuse, Recycle, Reformat for Maximum Impact. Mary Brantner of the Municipal Association of South Carolina and Jennifer Stamps of the Texas Municipal League made the point that people generally need to see or hear something seven times to really get the message. They then shared ideas on how to publish content in a variety of formats on different platforms to meaningfully reach your members.

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Voodoo Doughnut

When I wasn’t engaged in a session, I took the opportunity to explore a little of downtown Portland. Just a block away was Pioneer Courthouse Square, affectionately known as Portland’s Living Room. This urban park hosts events almost every day of the year. I was lucky enough to enjoy live lunchtime music one day and sand sculptures the next day. Since there is no sales tax in Oregon, I made a quick dash into Macy’s and snapped up some summer bargains. I relished the local cuisine at Bottle & Kitchen and Clarklewis Restaurant. And, oh yeah, I definitely made a side trip to Portland’s infamous Voodoo Doughnut. At the 3rd Avenue location, placemaking had turned the alley alongside the shop into an inviting space with picnic tables and attractive landscaping. I soaked up the morning sun at one of those tables as I munched on a yummy chocolate-glazed old fashioned doughnut.

Strava's heat map of bike/walk activity in Midland shows the popularity of that city's recreational trails--but surprisingly little bike/walk access to the major employment center.

Strava’s heat map of bike/walk activity in Midland shows the popularity of that city’s recreational trails–but surprisingly little bike/walk access to the major employment center.

Fitness tracking app Strava recently began offering its data—millions of walking, jogging, and cycling trips around the world—to cities and transportation agencies. For a price, of course: this is a revenue stream for the app developers…so what’s in it for the public agencies? As Gizmodo explains, bike/walk traffic data is traditionally much harder for agencies to collect than traffic data, but, with apps like this, “we’re all walking sensors now:”

Strava’s first customer, Oregon’s Department of Transportation, paid $20,000 for data from nearly 20,000 cyclists in hopes that it might help them figure out how to handle the steadily increasing bike traffic in cities like Portland. “Right now, there’s no data. We don’t know where people ride bikes,” Jennifer Dill, a professor and urban planner at Portland State University, told The Wall Street Journal. “Just knowing where the cyclists are is a start.”

This type of data can support placemaking efforts, especially as we look to support walkability and offer residents a range of transportation options: knowing where people choose to walk, jog, and bike—and where they don’t—helps us diagnose our community’s streets and target improvements.

Know your data’s limits—and leverage them

This can’t be done without some caution, though. As many commenters on the Gizmodo piece point out, the Strava dataset includes two biases that we need to consider in our planning.

The first issue is a self-selection bias: since the data is collected by smartphone users using the app, it only measures the habits of people whose income, age, and comfort with technology lead them to seek out and use smartphone apps to track their travel. Also, as the app is targeted at “fitness” users, it will likely be skewed to those trips, and include a smaller sample of people who are walking or biking to work, school, shopping districts, or other destinations. Even those app users who are tracking their bicycling commute are likely to be biking by choice—rather than being forced to because they lack access to an automobile. The app data will be less useful in identifying the travel patterns and needs of low-income residents and others who walk and bike out of necessity.

The second concern is a confirmation bias: because of that skew in who the users are and why they are traveling, they are more likely to have the luxury of choosing routes that already work well for biking and walking. This data will point to heavy activity on the scenic rail trails and state park trail loops, while overlooking the people who brave dangerous freeway interchanges on foot to get to work, or the road that could deliver recreational cyclists into downtown, if only it had a bike lane.

Strava's walking heat map shows the already high-quality rail trail near EMU's campus, while completely overlooking the more hostile, but still heavily used, Huron Street / I-94 interchange.

Strava’s walking heat map shows the already high-quality rail trail near EMU’s campus, while completely overlooking the more hostile, but still heavily used, Huron Street / I-94 interchange.

Because of these, planners should therefore be double-checking the Strava data against conditions on the ground. While the data might point to highly-traveled routes that need some improvements, in many cases, the outcome should actually be to improve the biking and walking experience on routes that Strava users are NOT recording.

If on-site observations or neighborhood engagement show that certain streets are critical walking and biking routes for day-to-day essential travel, but the travelers using fitness apps are avoiding those routes, then planners should be asking why: what’s wrong with those routes that causes travelers with choices to avoid the, and how can they be made better for those travelers with no choice? Not only will this use of the data serve a broader segment of additional residents, it will also help extend the attraction of a community’s downtown districts and other major nodes by bridging current barriers.

Share and share alike: supporting virtuous cycles

In many cases, privately developed apps rely on the availability of public data to function, either directly or implicitly. Transit app Ototo, for example, wants to tell transit planners what people are searching for, so they know where people want to go, but it can only serve metro areas where the transit agencies have published open data sets. By providing ready access to public datasets, local communities (and state agencies) can support the private development of apps, which can then feed data back to the communities on how people are using the apps—and, by extension, how people are interacting with the places around them.

Several efforts try to help public bodies shorten this cycle even further: organizations like Code For America, or events like the National Day of Civic Hacking (coming up May 31-June 1!) bring motivated software developers together to design, prototype, and build new applications for public data. In order to have the greatest benefit for communities, though, these efforts need access to both data and the public sector staffers who know the subject matter.

As mobile apps continue to grow in popularity and capabilities, cities should continue to look for ways to leverage the data generated—and to support the process with data of their own. Even though the field of mobile apps is only a few years old, cities and states that have engaged effectively are already benefiting.