We’re proud to be part of Michigan’s leadership in building on place, but that doesn’t mean we’re content to rest on our laurels or pretend we’ve got everything figured out.  We’re still learning as we go, and updating our practice as we figure out what’s working well and what needs more attention in our communities.  As a result, many of the projects in this year’s third cycle of the PlacePlans program look very different from the initial pilots!

Yesterday, at the Building Michigan Communities conference, I was joined by some of our on-the-ground partners to talk about the different types of projects we’ve undertaken, and how the program has grown:

Allegan's first phase of construction shows the evolution from the vision created during their PlacePlans design process to the nuts and bolts of engineering considerations.

Allegan’s first phase of construction shows the evolution from the vision created during their PlacePlans design process to the nuts and bolts of engineering considerations.

Rob Hillard, city manager of Allegan, hosted one of our first PlacePlans projects: in 2012, we first teamed up with the team of physical space design experts from MSU’s School of Planning, Design, and Construction to look at the City of Allegan’s downtown waterfront. Allegan is one of our best-case scenarios: less than 6 months after the PlacePlans team wrapped up work, local voters approved removing $500,000 from the city’s sinking fund to seed implementation, and the city was able to leverage that to secure another $567,000 from other sources: the city is currently out to bid for the first phase of construction, which will create a public plaza with stage and amphitheater while “both reducing and improving parking.” Even while we see this as a successful move from our work to results, watching Rob’s follow-through helped us understand how we needed to look at funding scenarios–and getting potential funders involved–early in the process to support that transition. With that in mind, we’ve kept Samantha busy in her new role as President of the League’s Foundation.

We also decided that, while the design process worked well for Allegan, it wasn’t the type of support that many of our cities were stating a need for.  Laura Lam, community and economic development director for Kalamazoo, talked about her experience in the second round of PlacePlans, when we assembled teams of private consulting firms to address targeted needs in some of our cities.

LSL's transportation expertise helped Kalamazoo weigh trade-offs within the existing bounds of Portage Street.

LSL’s transportation expertise helped Kalamazoo weigh trade-offs within the existing bounds of Portage Street: the city will be undertaking a trial reconfiguration of the street this summer in advance of a planned reconstruction.

The City of Kalamazoo is acting on several of the recommendations from our work, but perhaps the biggest impacts will come from the engagement of the neighborhood’s anchor institutions, such as  and Bronson Hospital, which has committed to reduce driving and parking demand to their campus and is hiring a bicycle coordinator in support of that goal.  To make those connections, we had to change directions mid-stream in our work to catch up to and coordinate with related discussions that KVCC was hosting around the development of their new Healthy Living Campus. This year’s approach to our work in Saginaw is strongly shaped by that experience: sometimes all the right pieces are already on the table, and figuring out how to put them together is more important than bringing anything novel.

Berkley addressed ambivalence over turning a downtown street into a festival plaza by jumping in and trying it out.

Berkley addressed ambivalence over turning a downtown street into a festival plaza by jumping in and trying it out.

Finally, Sarah Szurpicki, a partner with New Solutions Group, talked about the projects that her team facilitated in Berkley and Utica last summer. These two cities had pitched us projects that we liked, but that weren’t quite ready for the full PlacePlans approach, so we engaged Sarah to help them road-test some ideas. Not only did this help the cities figure out where to take these project, but our experience with those cities’ stakeholder groups helped us organize community members better in all of our projects: we’ve added a “community steering committee” to most of our PlacePlans this year, to make sure we’re not missing any voices or opportunities. Additionally, these two cities reinforced that small-scale efforts need to be exceptionally focused: Berkley’s project gave clearer direction for next steps because it was tightly focused on a single downtown block.

We’ll probably never do PlacePlans the same way two years in a row, and that’s a good thing: it means that, even with our successes, we keep figuring out how we could do better with the next one.

Placemaker and CEO of Adelaide, Australia Peter Smith is coming to Michigan to speak at the Michigan Local Government Managers Association Winter Institute at the end of the month. Because he’s traveling so far, we figured we better take advantage of his time here with a fun, low-key, networking and information-sharing event in Detroit.1-26 event

Join the League at a networking and idea-mixing event with experts and practitioners who are passionate about building great communities.

Placemaking Happy Hour & Panel Discussion: Monday, January 26 from 4-6 PM at Seva Detroit

RSVP ButtonLook forward to great conversation and a cross disciplinary panel discussion moderated by Michigan Association of Planning Executive Director Andrea Brown. Panelists include:

  • Peter Smith, CEO of Adelaide, Australia
  • Alicia Marion-George, Co-owner of Motor City Java & Tea House
  • Sarida Scott, Executive Director of Community Development Advocates of Detroit
  • Steve Baker, Councilmember for the City of Berkley & IT Strategy and Innovation Lead at DTE Energy

The event is free and open to the public but space is limited so please RSVP here.

The League is pleased to host appetizers and there is a cash bar available. We’ll also be selling our new book, The Economics of Place: The Art of Building Great Communities.

Come for the event, but stay for dinner

Spend the evening in Detroit! Seva has a full dinner menu and there are plenty of restaurants in Midtown and within walking distance of the event, including:

I got goose bumps watching giant paper mache creatures come to life, limited only by their creator’s imagination. It was the 8th annual Festifools, an event that takes place on the first Sunday of April to celebrate April Fool’s Day.  For one hour, these majestic puppets marched to the beat of music up and down Main Street, often stopping to interact with the throngs of spectators.  Although it is a well-orchestrated event requiring hundreds of hours of preparation, the beauty of it is that it has the look and feel of a random, spontaneous, “let’s get together” street party that brings out people of all ages.

Festifools photo 1Mark Tucker, a University of Michigan art teacher to mostly non-art majors, was searching for a novel way to bring his students together with community members to create something unique and exciting for his “Art in Public Spaces” course.  The result was the Street Theather Art (START) project.  Through his work with a neighborhood theater group, he got the idea to create a student puppet-making workshop assisted by community volunteers which would culminate at the semester’s end with a public parade in downtown Ann Arbor.  With the whole concept not really clear in his head, and not knowing if they could even really deliver, his encouraging talks with the business community and the city spurred him on – and Festifools was born.  Because of its enormous popularity, a second event was added:  FoolMoon, a nighttime luminary festival that takes place on the Friday night before the Festifools parade.

Tucker saw the importance of actively encouraging students to work with the community and used his students to bring the arts to the community in a fun, whimsical way creating an engaging and educational experience for all ages.

Festifools - clownsCultural Economic Development is one of the 8 assets that the League has identified to help create desirable and unique places to live.  It’s an event like Festifools that not only brings people together, but contributes to the long-term economic health of a community and region.

The League had the opportunity to go behind the scenes and visit the studio where the puppets are made as well as participate in one of the several workshops held downtown that invites the community to come in and make their own luminary.  We had a chance to hear all about this creative experience from Tucker himself and we will be telling his story in more detail in the future.  For now, check out the video and get a flavor of what these majestic puppets have to offer.  I promise that you’ll get goose bumps too!

As I travel around to different cities and places, my camera is always ready to capture that “aha” moment.  You probably have things in your own back yard, but don’t see them because you walk by them every day.  But slow down your pace sometime, become more mindful and ask yourself what are the things that put a smile on your face or think about why you choose to walk on a certain side of the street.   You might be amazed what you discover.  It could be as simple as flower plantings, a pocket park, or a sign that makes you feel welcomed.  It is these things that cultivate the emotional attachment that we feel for a place or our hometown.

ann-arbor-kerry-town Ann Arbor, Michigan The KerryTown area is one of my favorite spots in Ann Arbor, and its courtyard, in my humble opinion, is one of the best gathering places in the city.  Adding to its cozy feel and vibrancy, is a new vegan restaurant called The Lunch Room (which just made the leap from one of Mark’s Carts to brick and mortar), which has placed a few tables outside, along with some very nice “hanging” plants that actually look like they are framed.  Again, it’s a simple idea, but a powerful statement that adds to the overall “place” of the courtyard.
minneapolis-alley Minneapolis, Minnesota – This restaurant managed to eke out an intimate little space between two buildings which only measures about 10 feet, creating a cozy outdoor restaurant experience.
zurich-umbrellas Zurich, Switzerland   As you approach this venue (Gerolds Garten), you might feel a bit like Mary Poppins with the “floating” umbrellas overhead as they seemingly guide you along with child-like glee.
marquette-dog-hitching-post Marquette, Michigan – I love seeing dog bowls outside of stores and restaurants – and I don’t even have a dog!  However, Marquette went a step further to provide a dog hitching post outside the restaurant L’Attitude Cafe and Bistro.  To me, this speaks volumes about a community’s welcoming and open spirit.
Valet parking in Vancouver Vancouver, BC – Talk about a bike friendly city!  This sign says it all.
bryant-park-sign New York City – Signage can say a lot about a community.  Here’s a sign at Bryant Park which lets you know the rules without trying to take away the experience.
piano-paul-revere-park Boston, Massachusetts –  Nothing like an invitation to sit down and play the piano in Paul Revere park!  (Although I play the piano, I was not tempted to play!)