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.

Last week the National League of Cities hosted their 2014 State League Staff Workshop in Portland, OR. Here, staff from state leagues around the country gathered to network, learn, and discuss emerging issues in the field.

Presenting on how leagues can support distressed communities with Rhode Island League Associate Director, Peder Schaefer

Presenting at the NLC Staff Workshop with Rhode Island League Associate Director, Peder Schaefer, on how municipal leagues can support distressed communities.

In a workshop co-led by Peder Schaefer of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, I had the opportunity to present MML’s work on supporting distressed communities. MML’s role promoting placemaking by highlighting case studies, enhancing crowdfunding, and developing a place-based policy platform are unique to leagues across the country. Workshop attendees were eager to hear about Detroit and the creative ways MML is supporting the state’s communities.

Portland, OR

Portland's Saturday Market on the riverfront

Portland’s Saturday Market on the riverfront

Hosting the NLC’s conference in Portland was a wonderful illustration of effective placemaking. The city has incredibly effective and low-cost public transportation, miles and miles of bike lanes, small and walkable city blocks, and neighborhoods full of life and character. Yes, the city’s slogan “Keep Portland Weird” was true to its name, but even the strangest people were kind, helpful, and excited to talk about their city.

Downtown Portland was full of activity with public plazas, food carts, multimodal transportation, and people doing things people do: talking, laughing, eating, soaking up the sun, shopping, and simply looking at other people.

Pedestrians are the priority in Portland's streets. Downtown intersections are marked with brick to notify drivers to slow down.

Pedestrians are the priority in Portland’s streets: Downtown intersections are marked with brick to notify drivers to slow down.

After the conference, I stayed an extra night in the Alberta District in north-east Portland. The people I stayed with had an extra bike for guests, so I was really able to get around like a Portlander! There were amazing local shops, a ton of places to eat, and parks full of activity.

I was floored at how friendly people were and how eager they were to help a tourist. People started real conversations while waiting in line, said hello on the street, and customer service staff took pride in their roles (and with a minimum wage of $9.10/hour and rising, there was plenty of reason to be genuine).

The city is scattered with food carts and there are block-long segments of permanent food vendors in cart-like structures.

The city is scattered with food carts and there are block-long segments of permanent food vendors in cart-like structures.

While wandering around the city, the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community report kept popping into my head. The study found that aesthetics, openness and social offerings are what people loved most about where they live. Portland looks great, people felt open to diversity, and there were countless opportunities to connect with others on the street, at an event, or standing line at the food truck: Portland makes a great case study.

Although we have aspects of Portland’s magic in some Michigan communities, many have a long way to go. Not every city should be exactly like Portland, but our role at MML is to help communities expand on their own unique assets and become the best cities they can be.

Last week, the League’s Southwest Detroit PlacePlan project took an important step with a three-day charrette, a community-based design workshop. Southwest Detroit is known for great food, a lively atmosphere, and local art. Known as Mexicantown, Hispanic culture is evident in almost all aspects of the community.

Vernor is Southwest Detroit’s main street and is populated with densely packed storefronts, restaurants, and independent businesses. Due to Southwest Detroit’s proximity to Canada and the international bridge crossing, the area unfortunately has quite a bit of industrial land use and suffers from a high volume of truck traffic.

A Google map of Vernor with "the gap" highlighted.

A Google map of Vernor with “the gap” highlighted.

As seen in the map above, Vernor’s vibrant commercial district is divided by about a half mile “gap,” created by complicated intersections, a former industrial complex, wide one-way roads, a viaduct, and an unnatural bend in the road. In an effort to better connect the east and west sides of Vernor, the League partnered with Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA) and Archive DS to collect resident ideas, concerns, and desires to reduce the gap and better connect the community.

Over the three-day process, ArchiveDS designers worked long hours in SDBA’s storefront office to get to know the community, collect ideas from residents, and create stages of potential improvements. Because development is often a slow, expensive process, ArchiveDS developed a number of solutions to more immediately improve the area, with long-term recommendations to look forward to when financing and leadership allow.

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(Left) Current view of the Vernor and Livernois intersection. (Right) Proposed streetscape improvements: Bump-out parking, bike lanes, crosswalk, landscape improvements, and sidewalk bordering techniques. Some of these aspects are very low-cost but make a big impact on pedestrian comfort.

For example, Southwest Detroit has many independently operated taco trucks, ice cream vendors, and small, independent businesses. Currently these vendors are scattered across empty lots and sidewalks throughout the district.

To capitalize on this aspect of the community, ArchiveDS recommends building small sitting areas in underused parking lots for food trucks to park and sell on a regular basis. The endeavor doesn’t have to be highly organized, as it is at Mark’s Carts in Ann Arbor, but can be a simple space for residents to gather, have a meal, and enjoy the outdoors.

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(Left) Current view of the Vernor viaduct. (Right) Proposed recommendations to make the space more pedestrian friendly: Local art, protected pedestrian/bike area, and creative lighting.

Larger, more long-term changes will certainly benefit the gap and ArchiveDS pulled in elements of the community into the recommended changes. As seen above, the viaduct between Livernois and Dix is a harsh divide of the east and west sides of Vernor. The team recommends incorporating local art, a clearly defined pedestrian/bicycle area, and creative lighting to make the space more comfortable and welcoming.

An imagined market in an industrial building near the Livernois and Vernor intersection.

An imagined market in an industrial building at the Livernois and Vernor intersection.

A major problem in the identified area is a former industrial building. Although a clean up and improvements are necessary, the building could become a major asset to the community. As seen in ArchiveDS’s rendering, the building could be transformed into a indoor/outdoor market to benefit local business owners, residents, and visitors to the community. Transforming the space into a destination wouldn’t come without substantial funding, but identifying what the community wants is the first step towards changing the area’s future.

The Archive DS team is now writing a full report to share with SDBA and the Southwest community. The League will move to a supportive role as the community continues to identify priorities, coordinate funding, and gain momentum for the project.

Berkley Art Bash attendees take a break on patio furniture rented by the placemaking committee.

Berkley Art Bash attendees take a break on patio furniture rented by the placemaking committee. 

Kids share their ideas of what they would like to see in the space.

Kids share their ideas of what they would like to see in the space.

As part of the League’s placemaking work, we recently partnered with the city of Berkley and organized a group of residents, business owners, and public officials to brainstorm ways to create a central gathering space in the city’s downtown. Much like the problem the city of Farmington once faced, there isn’t a great downtown Berkley location for people to gather, enjoy take-out, run into neighbors, read a book, and host events. Seeing the space’s potential to build community, the city determined Twelve Mile and Robina may be a place to invest in.

Berkley officials were already planning on making improvements to the Robina and Twelve Mile intersection (the sidewalk is dangerously bumpy and there are some obvious signs of neglect) but wanted to test creative ideas before making any dramatic changes. Twelve Mile Road is populated with local businesses and restaurants and Robina has a block of wide sidewalks with cement planters and trees. The somewhat dated and neglected space is activated only a few times a year with a summer concert series and other small events.

How it worked

Residents and visitors play games and take a break at the Robina and Twelve Mile intersection.

Residents and visitors play games and take a break at the Robina and Twelve Mile intersection.

During an existing event, the Berkley Art Bash, the placemaking committee decorated the intersection with local art, colorful flags, a giant checker board, and moveable patio furniture and let residents do the rest! Kids drew with chalk, a yoga class practiced in the street, people rested on the patio furniture and cement planters, and residents shared their ideas of how they wanted the space to be used in the future.

A Berkley yoga studio brought a class to the space to practice outdoors.

A Berkley yoga studio brought a class to the space to practice outdoors.

Through 1-1 conversations and residents writing their ideas on a large paper posted on a building’s exterior wall, committee members came up with an array of ideas like:

  • Closing the road to make the space pedestrian-only public plaza
  • Hosting weekly outdoor summer movies
  • Making moveable patio furniture a permanent feature
  • Putting in a splash pad
  • Incorporating more plants and trees
  • Painting a mural on the large, brick wall
  • And so many more!!

Next Steps

The committee is currently recording all of the ideas, comments, and concerns residents shared about Robina and Twelve Mile and are putting together a report and presentation to share with the city. Councilmembers, Downtown Development Authority members, residents, and others have committed to schedule presentations to share the results with a larger audience and get the redesign going in the coming months.

MML will certainly stay involved and supportive of Berkley’s downtown placemaking process so I’ll be sure to report on the city’s progress. To get a project like this started in your community or for questions about Berkley’s process, feel free to contact me directly at scraft@mml.org.