A great place: Belle Isle in Detroit

A great place: Belle Isle in Detroit

As a new staff member of the Michigan Municipal League, I’m excited to bring a young, fresh, community-based perspective to the organization and our work. Although I’m new to the blogging world, and usually a pretty quiet person on social media, I am excited to start a weekly blog with the hopes to:

Some background info

I live in Detroit and I graduated this past December from Wayne State University with my master’s in public administration. I’ve spent most of my professional career working in community organizing and development throughout the city.

Detroit SOUP's monthly citywide dinner

A great place: Detroit SOUP’s monthly citywide dinner

Most recently I worked with Detroit SOUP and helped communities across Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck start and (hopefully!) sustain neighborhood-based community fundraising dinners.

I also spent time community organizing alongside youth and parents in low income communities. Community organizing is really just grassroots lobbying– We did research, built relationships, shared stories and advocated for initiatives to reduce youth violence and improve education. Through my experiences, change is smoother, easier to implement, and more positive if it’s resident-driven. Placemaking is no exception.

The blog

Part of my job at MML is to read, digest, and catalog interesting/useful/cool placemaking articles and reports. I’m organizing the information into a database and our hope is to make these articles relevant and available to you as you think about and start placemaking projects.

A great place project: Betsie Valley Trail in Frankfort, MI

A great place: Betsie Valley Trail in Frankfort

Feel free to forward me great articles I can put into our database. I’ll share some articles on Twitter, @MISarahC, but I’ll also feature some of the really good ones here.

As I continue to spend time at the League, I will learn more and more about the wonderful projects and initiatives happening across the state.

But, I need your help!! Tell me about the projects you’re a part of or know about. I would love to feature your story on this weekly blog.

There are a ton of ways to get a hold of me, so please take the initiative to reach out and join the conversation: Email me at scraft@mml.org, tweet @MISarahC, write a comment here, call 734-669-6328, you can even send a letter or stop by our office in Ann Arbor.

Looking forward to your involvement!


Sarah Craft is an Information & Policy Research Program Coordinator at the Michigan Municipal League. She can be reached at 734-669-6328 or scraft@mml.org.

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!

Representatives of the seven regional CEA communities are (from left) Gladstone Mayor Pro Tem Hugo Mattonen; Fenton Mayor Sue Osborn; Ithaca Councilmember L.D. Hollenbeck; Grandville Mayor Pro Tem Josh Meringa; East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett; Cadillac Mayor Carla Filkins; and Harbor Beach Mayor Gary Booms.

Representatives of the seven regional CEA communities are (from left) Gladstone Mayor Pro Tem Hugo Mattonen; Fenton Mayor Sue Osborn; Ithaca Councilmember L.D. Hollenbeck; Grandville Mayor Pro Tem Josh Meringa; East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett; Cadillac Mayor Carla Filkins; and Harbor Beach Mayor Gary Booms.

Placemaking can come in many different forms. It can be in the form of an after-school ski hill program, like the one in Gladstone in the Upper Peninsula. It can also be turning vacant old fire house into a vibrant restaurant in Fenton; or a flower beautification effort in Ithaca; or sharing services in the Lansing area; or revitalizing Grandville’s downtown; or starting a free bicycle rental program in Cadillac; and even doing self-performed dredging in Harbor Beach.

These projects are the seven regional finalists in the 2014 Michigan Municipal League Community Excellence Awards (CEA). They were selected during the Michigan Municipal League’s 2014 Capital Conference March 18, 2014. The League’s annual Community Excellence Award program showcases innovative solutions, programs or projects that have had a positive impact on their community, and can be replicated in other communities with similar challenges. The winner from each region will now go on to compete for the statewide CEA title during the League’s annual convention taking place Oct. 14-17 in Marquette. Every year, the League’s peer-nominated CEA competition recognizes transformational and problem-solving ideas to the many challenges facing communities. Increasingly, these local success stories are place-based projects and initiatives that are having a profound socioeconomic impact on communities in each of the state’s seven regions.

All of these CEA entries can also be described as placemaking success stories. Here is a closer look at the seven finalists shared at this year’s CEA presentations.

Region 1: Fenton Fire Hall:
The city of Fenton had a historic fire hall in the heart of its downtown that was no longer in use and had stood vacant for 10 years. The city of Fenton and Downtown Development Authority established a partnership with a nationally recognized restaurant group, called Union Joints, which focuses on converting historic buildings into eating establishments. The Fenton Fire Hall restaurant is now an extremely popular and successful destination point for people from miles around the Fenton area. Region 1 includes all communities in the southeastern portion of the state’s Lower Peninsula. View a full press release and photos.

Region 2: Metro Connection–Greater Lansing Shared Services Fire Initiative: Six Lansing-area jurisdictions participated in a shared public services study that has led to unprecedented trust building, costs savings and efficiencies between the fire departments from the cities of Lansing and East Lansing and townships of Meridian, Lansing, Delta and Delhi. Region 2 includes all communities in the south-central and southwestern portions of the Lower Peninsula. View a full press release and photos.

Region 3: Grandville’s downtown streetscape project: A vibrant downtown and a sense of place are crucial to a community’s identity and health. Grandville is one of the few Grand Rapids inner-ring suburbs that still has a traditional downtown, but its downtown was becoming more aged and losing many of its key attributes. A recent streetscape project created a more pedestrian-friendly downtown by improving parking, walkability and revitalizing the downtown core. Work included giving Chicago Drive, a former state trunkline, a road diet by narrowing it down from four to two lanes with a center turn lane, adding on-street parking, benches, banners, flower pots and brick pavers, as well as burying power lines under the street. Since the completion of the work, several new businesses have opened in the area, including Grandville’s first microbrewery, and new downtown community events have successfully started and drawn more people to the city. Region 3 includes all communities in the west-central area of the state’s Lower Peninsula. View a full press release and photos.

Region 4: Ithaca’s flower beautification community project: The city of Ithaca has a 12-inch strip of land lining its main street coming into the downtown area. Each year the community gets together to plant flowers along this area as a way to welcome visitors and residents. The project also brings the community together because everyone pitches in on the planting, including students from area schools, flower organizations, nonprofit service groups and many others. Region 4 includes all communities in the east-central part of the state’s Lower Peninsula, excluding the Thumb. View a full press release and photos.

Region 5: The city of Harbor Beach’s self-performed dredging project:  With water levels on the Great Lakes being so low last summer, many communities like Harbor Beach had to do emergency dredging in order to accommodate boats in its municipal marina. The city owns and operates a 114-slip marina on Lake Huron in the thumb of Michigan. Harbor Beach received grant funding assistance from the Department of Natural Resources-Waterways to do the dredging. The city administered the dredging project using its own equipment and personnel. Region 5 includes all communities in the Thumb. View a full press release and photos.

Region 6: Cadillac’s bicycle rental project called Bike Cadillac!: The city of Cadillac has put to use the many abandoned and unclaimed bicycles the police department has collected over the past several years. The city takes these bikes, has them refurbished if needed, places decals on them, provides locks, and then rents them for free to visitors and residents in the Cadillac area. People use the bikes on city trails, paths, and roads to travel around Lake Cadillac, visit Mitchell State Park and the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Museum, and/or travel to downtown Cadillac. The exciting and innovative program started in 2013 through a partnership with Mitchell State Park, which is the location of the bike station. The program was a very popular and successful endeavor and plans are now underway to expand it. Region 6 includes all communities in the northern portion of the lower peninsula. View a full press release and photos.

Region 7: Gladstone After School Ski Hill Program: The Upper Peninsula city of Gladstone is known as the “year-round playground” which conveys the great quality of life and sense of place enjoyed by our residents and visitors. Up to 70 kids a day attend the city’s after-school ski hill program. Students from Gladstone and surrounding schools can ride a bus three days a week to the city’s ski hill where they receive a healthy snack and homework assistance. At 4 pm they can tube, snowboard or ski. Equipment is provided as needed and lessons provided by the hill’s student/city employees. This program addresses latch-key issues, educational support, healthy eating and exercise, personal growth in skills and self-confidence, as well as employment and job skills for high school students. It makes a life-long hobby affordable and is a collaboration with area schools. Region 7 includes all communities in the Upper Peninsula. The other communities that competed for the Region 7 CEA nomination were Ironwood and St. Ignace. View a full press release and photos.

The CEA program, affectionately called “The Race for the Cup,” was started by the League in 2007 to recognize innovative solutions taking place in Michigan’s cities, villages and urban townships.

View photos of the League’s 2014 Capital Conference, which focused on the League’s Partnership for Place policy agenda. View media coverage from the conference.

top of photo--the street level above the subway construction.

top of photo–the street level above the subway construction.

Walking through the soon-to-be subway extension

Walking through the soon-to-be subway extension

Down catwalk to the Dusseldorf subway construction site

Down catwalk to the Dusseldorf subway construction site

Sunday afternoon in front of the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany

Sunday afternoon in front of the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany

Huh, and I thought NIMBY was an American thing. When I was in Germany as part of the McCloy Fellowship in Urban Affairs, German officials cavalierly said “Germans are famous for opposing everything. Every project is met with ‘Not in my backyard’ (NIMBY).” And what is the response to citizen opposition? They proceed anyway. They said if they didn’t, they would never get anything done.

I bring this up because in Dusseldorf, I toured the most incredible building project—the construction site of a subway line extension. We went right under the existing buildings on the street level—they are only five meters above the dig site. We put on hardhats, yellow firefighter-like coats, and boots and walked over catwalks and down narrow flights of stairs to see the construction up close. The incredible part is—the city did NOT close any streets for this construction. Traffic is flowing just as before. It’s really amazing. The construction manager said “The citizens of Dusseldorf will not tolerate disruption to their transportation systems.” And, to top it off, the city is building a tunnel in conjunction with the subway. The tunnel and subway will be stacked right on top of each other. They tore down an overpass because they wanted to turn the area into a walkable, pedestrian-friendly site, and concluded that it would be less costly and more convenient to construct them both at the same time.  

            What does this have to do with Detroit? Detroit has a lot of initiatives that are driven by residents and city-lovers. There is a lot of citizen involvement. That is something that is not part of the German municipal operations. Because they have such large elected city councils (the city of Dusseldorf has 92 elected officials), they don’t have a lot of what we think of as citizen engagement and participation. Not that Germans don’t fully engage in their everyday lives—they  are out and about in droves, walking, taking public transit, visiting museums, hanging out in the public square (and in those charming cafes). I have never seen so many people on the streets here—and I don’t mean just walking to where they are going to catch a specific form of transit—but actually being out in public as a purposeful activity.

I’ve thought a lot about it, and I think the government is so efficient at getting things done, and the agenda of the political leaders is focused on sustainability and transit and education and building partnerships—that the citizens don’t need to fight for those types of things. When I asked the mayor of Oldenburg how much citizen participation his city had, he told me “citizens can come to the council meetings.”

So, what do we have that is unique and special? We have citizen engagement, participation, the city as “host” and not “the life of the party.” We have Detroit Soup, we have Recycle Here!, we have the Green Garage and the Green Alley, we have the Artist’s Village. So many great things! What a multitude! What we will show the German fellows, with their varied interests, about our largest and at times, most maligned city? Stay tuned.