Placemaking is such a buzz word of 2014 – and that’s a good thing! Placemaking awareness has been on the rise for the past few years, but themes, ideas, and policies are now more generally accepted and promoted. Placemaking is something people can relate to, want to talk about, and want to promote, which is great news for Michigan communities.

2014 has been a wonderful year for new research, stories, and perspectives on placemaking, engagement, and talent attraction throughout Michigan and across the globe. As part of the League’s services, we’ve been documenting and cataloguing articles related to our placemaking asset areas to use in presentations, guidebooks, research, and talking points. Here are my top five favorite reports of the year:

Investing In Place, American Planning Association

investing in placeMillennials were certainly a discussion topic of 2014. Articles like What Millennials Want – And Why Cities are Right to Pay Them So much Attention, Millennials & Mobility: Understanding the Millennial Mindset, and the Deloitte Millennial Survey populated newsfeeds. As a millennial, the results didn’t seem that staggering – we care about placemaking, doesn’t everybody? In case some leaders still weren’t getting the picture, the American Planning Association went a step further to explore the similar wants and needs of the country’s two largest population groups: millennials and boomers. It turns out they want the same things. Recommendations to please the largest populations include:

  • Engage residents: 75% of millennials and boomers agree that engaging citizens is essential to rebuilding local economies and creating jobs
  • Prioritize walkability and transit: Fewer than 10% of millennials, gen Xers, and boomers are interested in traditional, auto-dependent suburban living
  • Invest in quality of life: 74% of respondents believe investing in schools, walkability, and transportation is a better way to grow the economy than traditional approaches.

Using findings from this report, community leaders can frame future investments and development plans based on the public’s interests.

The Rise of Innovation Districts, The Brookings Institute

Communities and metro regions across the country are recovering from the Great Recession, but most are still behind their pre-recession peaks. There are some areas, however, that are recovering faster and stronger. According to the report, downtowns where people both live and work grew 77% faster than the country as a whole. Similarly, metro areas with more than 1 million people grew twice as fast than areas with populations under 250,000innovation districts

The report explores all aspects of innovation districts – which Brookings defines as a high density area of entrepreneurs, education and medical institutions, start-ups, and mixed-use developments that are interconnected through transit, technology, and physical proximity. The Rise of Innovation Districts says these districts are where jobs can grow faster, stronger, and more equitably, where density can reduce carbon emissions, and where local governments can generate more tax revenue. The report continues to explore the economic, physical, and networking aspects of how innovations work, as well as how community leaders can spark and scale innovation districts in their own communities.

Even for smaller communities, the report can be used as leverage to promote different areas of placemaking from entrepreneurial incentives, to walkable streets, to efficient transportation options.

State Policies Matter, Michigan Future

state policiesThis report is Michigan-specific, and especially with drama from Michigan’s current lame duck legislature, civic leaders should take a few minutes to read or re-read this paper. State Policies Matter describes how Michigan and Minnesota were once very similar states, with similar statewide policies and economies. Since 1990, however, Michigan and Minnesota have been growing more and more dissimilar: Minnesota now ranks 11th highest in the country in per capita income while Michigan is ranked 35th, and Minnesota’s unemployment and poverty rates have declined but Michigan’s have stayed about the same or worsened. This report seeks to explain the growing differences between the two states through policy decisions state and local leaders have made over recent decades. Major differences include the following:

  • Income taxes, business taxes, sales taxes, and gas taxes are all significantly higher in Minnesota, which means per capita state and local taxes are $1,000 – $5,000 higher than in Michigan.
  • These higher tax revenues allow Minnesota’s government to invest more in important priorities. For example, Michigan spends $1,447/person on k-12 education, while Minnesota spends $2,067/person. Michigan spends $223/person on transportation, while Minnesota spends $465/person. And Michigan spends $119/person in local government aid, while Minnesota spends $465/person.
  • Social policies are also more equitable in Minnesota than in Michigan. For example, the state allows same-sex marriages, allows affirmative action for college admissions, and allows undocumented high school graduates to receive in-state tuition at state universities.

This report can be seen as a timely warning to our state and local leaders to reconsider some current policy priorities.

The Equity Solution, PolicyLink

This fall, PolicyLink launched the National Equity Atlas, an online resource of demographics and economic data across the US with policy implications focused on racial equality. This data highlights the persistent, and often growing gaps, between the rich and poor, and white and non-white populations. Some important findings include:

  • equity atlasRacial economic inclusion could annually add $2 trillion to the national economy
  • 66% of racial income gap is due to wage differences, and only 34% is due to employment differences
  • Every region in the country would be stronger with racial inclusion. Potential annual gains range from $287 million to $510 billion in the nation’s 150 largest metro regions.

Users can manipulate data on the National Equality Atlas site to represent findings from their state or region. Michigan can be looked at as a whole or in the Ann Arbor, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Lansing regions.

The report also highlights policy recommendations for closing economic gaps between racial lines. Some examples include:

  • Invest in transit and other infrastructure projects to improve connectivity and create jobs
  • Leverage anchor institutions to grow new business in underinvested areas
  • Raise the minimum wage through local living wage ordinances or statewide initiatives
  • Remove barriers of employment, like prohibiting credit checks for job applicants and increasing citizenship for immigrants.

City Open Data Policies, National League of Cities

open dataMunicipalities collect and store a ton of information but most of it just sits there. Recently, excitement around open data has grown through initiatives from Code for America and other organizations – if there’s data, let people access it, manipulate it, and see what they can come up with. Open data is simply “data that can be freely used, reused, and redistributed by anyone” and is a pretty new idea for cities around the world. This report highlights lessons learned so far from 5 cities who have implemented open data policies and outlines recommendations and resources for communities looking to implement something similar.

Jackson is the only Michigan community, so far, to venture into the possibilities of open data. With work from city leaders, student interns, and national institutional advisors, Jackson has already adopted an open data ordinance and is currently working on creating an online portal. Communities interested in learning more are encouraged to contact Jackson and take recommendations from the NLC report:

  • Find leadership for open data initiatives
  • Commit to open data through legislation and formal policies
  • Allocate resources to open data initiatives – although it’s low cost, the best policies have appropriate staffing and budgeting
  • Rely on experts to provide technical expertise and customer service for online platforms since municipalities often don’t have the in-house resources readily available

So what are you supposed to do with these five reports?

Read them, share them, and use them to make decisions in your community. And if you want more light reading for the holiday break, just let me know! Since April, we have been cataloging interesting articles, reports, and case studies related to placemaking. So far we have about 200 in our database, so there’s plenty to keep you busy.

Looking forward to another year of research, placemaking, and community building!

 

BA meeing roomBA tour on streetSlums 2

During the first week of September, I had the privilege of attending an international conference in Buenos Aires that focused on streets as public spaces and how they can drive urban prosperity. This is the second of a series of three conferences called The Future of Places, funded by Ax:son Johnson Foundation and partners UN Habitat  and Project for Public Spaces. Following the conclusion of the third conference in New York City in 2015, a blue print will be presented which will offer proposals for what it will take to meet the demands of our growing cities around the world and how the challenges of future cities can be met. In 1970,  only 37% of the population were living in urban areas, but if global trends continue, cities will be home to 60% of the world’s population by 2030. With up to 80% of a city made up of streets, the focus of this conference was centered on designing streets to serve more than just moving vehicles or pedestrians from one location to another. It was about reimagining them as public places, making them attractive and safe for all types of users, and as places to hold events.

Over fifty nations were represented among the 300 or so participants, who were planners, architects, academics, consultants, and social entrepreneurs, all converging to discuss public space and placemaking from their own unique perspectives. What was so compelling for me, was that despite the diversity of nations represented from all continents, there was one thing that we all had in common: we could all agree that placemaking is really all about how we live.  It is a process that puts the human experience before all else.  As one presenter stated, “All cultures share the same reactions to public spaces. We touch, feel, and smell the place.” 

The three and a half day conference was an eye opener, to say the least.  It incorporated several tours of placemaking, from examples of improved pedestrian and bike lanes to creating public spaces in the overcrowded districts that housed the very poor. We listened to speakers who told stories of just needing basic infrastructure, which for them would mean a better quality of life living on the streets, to those whose were making transformative changes in their communities through placemaking.

The challenge for all is connecting good decision-making to good policy. What I walked away from was a profound sense of camaraderie with people from around the world and a deep sense of pride for what we are doing in Michigan.It was a real affirmation that we have a lot to learn from each other. Clearly, our challenges and victories were very different from each other, but from the poorest streets in Mumbai to some of the wealthier neighborhoods in the developed world, we all had something to learn from each other to take back home.

Here comes BRT!  Silver Line's stations include "blue light" emergency phone kiosks, fare machines, and digital signs showing when the next vehicle arrives.

Here comes BRT! Silver Line’s stations include “blue light” emergency phone kiosks, fare machines, and digital signs showing when the next vehicle arrives.

The Rapid cut the ribbon on their Silver Line, Michigan’s first BRT system, a few weeks ago, connecting Grand Rapids, Wyoming, and Kentwood along 9.6 miles of Division Avenue.  BRT, or bus rapid transit, tries to provide the benefits of a light rail system, like travel speed, reliability, and ease of use, but with tires and pavement instead of the upfront costs of laying rail; the metro Detroit RTA, Lansing’s CATA system, and the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority (AAATA) are all exploring BRT for their high-demand routes. Similar to a rail system, these benefits of BRT should support higher ridership, leading to residents and businesses wanting to be near the stations and driving real estate development in these areas.

Last week, I had the opportunity to catch a ride on the Silver Line and get an initial idea of how well it delivers on the promise. Since I had to be downtown both before and after my research ride, I just rode out from the central station for a while before getting off and crossing the street to come back, but the impressions of riders who were actually using the BRT to go somewhere were overwhelmingly positive.

Typical bus routes are slower than car travel, because they not only experience the same traffic and red lights, but also have to stop every few blocks for passengers.  The Silver Line attempts to cut down all of these delays:

My impromptu focus group had only good things to say about the Silver Line.

My impromptu focus group had only good things to say about the Silver Line.

  • Dedicated lanes marked “BRT ONLY” for about 2/3 of the route mean that the BRT isn’t competing with traffic—in some cases we zipped by lines of cars, while the parts of the route we shared with traffic were notably slower
  • Signal priority means that the traffic signals try to give the BRT a green whenever possible, shortening the time it spends stopped for red lights.
  • The stations are bigger structures, and average about a half mile apart (closer together downtown), instead of bus stop signs every 3-4 blocks, reducing the number of stops.
  • Pre-boarding fare payment has riders buying a ticket before they get on the vehicle, so nobody’s fumbling for change at the door and holding up the bus.

The riders I talked to said it was working, even though many cars hadn’t yet learned they were supposed to stay out of the BRT lanes, and even though the fare machines at the stations had some learning curve: the BRT ran faster, came more frequently, and was altogether a more pleasant experience than riding the “regular” bus.  As a result, the BRT had most seats full on both my ride out and back, at 3:30 on a Wednesday afternoon. Obviously, Month 1 is very early for trying to measure either ridership or economic development impacts, but I also talked to a developer looking at a few sites along the route for mixed-use, residential + retail projects.

BRT-only lanes help keep the Silver Line from getting stuck in traffic, providing a faster and smoother ride.

BRT-only lanes help keep the Silver Line from getting stuck in traffic, providing a faster and smoother ride.

Grand Rapids has set the bar for the other Michigan regions considering BRT, and
there is also room to improve:

  • For now at least, the Silver Line departs every 10 minutes during peak hours, but only every 20 minutes mid-day, which falls short of “so often you don’t need a schedule”—the best case for calling a transit line truly “convenient” (and a goal the BRT can grow towards).
  • The vehicles have somewhat larger front and rear doors for faster boarding, but otherwise seem nearly the same as typical buses. By comparison, Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT has extra-long buses with no stairs to reach the rear seats, and lets riders bring bicycles on board (avoiding delays from loading them on the front racks).
  • The areas where the BRT shares a lane with cars are noticeably slower than the dedicated lanes, limiting the speed benefit.

Coincidentally, the Detroit RTA board approved the “locally preferred alternative” (LPA) for a Woodward BRT system while I was riding the Silver Line. The LPA provides the broad strokes of a transit system, allowing the RTA to dive into the details of engineering and service design. With calls for Woodward to be the first “Gold Standard” BRT system in the United States, the RTA can learn from Grand Rapids’ very good system as they work towards a final design.

group shotThroughout the summer, kids showed up to the Berston Field House in Flint around 4:00 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The recreation center is known for its boxing and basketball programs, but these students came for a somewhat less popular sport – bicycling.

picking-out-bikes-blog-inlineThe Berston Bicycle Club Project started in 2012, when founder Angela Stamps moved back to Flint after spending years in Los Angeles. She started riding in California out of necessity – her car had gotten repossessed so she needed a low-cost way to get around. Her boyfriend bought her a bicycle and her life was never the same after that.

“A bike can change everything,” Angela said. “The community thinks they have scarce resources, but what do they have? A used bicycle fleet.”

The Berston Bicycle Club is a nine-week class for Flint youth ages 10-18. Students ride for at least an hour-and-a-half two to three times a week and if they complete the program (ride a minimum of twice per week), they take home a free bike, helmet, bag, and safety gear.

The main goal of the program is to give kids a mode of transportation and teach them about bike safety, but students learn a ton more than that: they get healthy, meet new friends, learn about their city, and gain valuable independence.

cute-kid-blog-inlineEncouraging youth to bike can lead to changes throughout the community. Angela said since the program began, there seems to be more people biking throughout Flint and a wider acceptance for narrowing roads and adding bike lanes. Although she doesn’t think the bike club has facilitated the change alone, seeing more bicyclists on the street encourages others to do the same.

Bicycling can have a positive effect on a community’s health and well-being. In Boston, for example, leaders went so far as to prescribe low-income patients free bike-share membership to help tackle obesity, heart disease, and other illnesses. Research also shows that walking and biking improves mood, attitudes, diet, and happiness – something everyone has room to improve on.

And, possibly most importantly, biking gives everyone equal opportunities. Public spaces shouldn’t be designed for cars, they should be designed for people. Building trails, protected bike paths, and designing streets for all users is a great way to prioritize democracy and equality.

getting-ready-blog-inline“Some kids spend their entire summer indoors playing video games, sitting on the computer, and watching TV,” Angela said. “They need to get out of the house and see new places in their city. Biking gives them a mode of transportation and the independence to explore, go to school, and get to work without having to depend on anybody.”

Fostering independence, healthy lifestyles, and stronger communities is exactly what the Berston Bicycle Club is about. Read the complete case study here and learn how to replicate a similar project in your own community.