Sprawl – we know it when we see it.  We all live with sprawl in some way or other, but do we ever stop to think how it impacts our lives?  Or do we just go through the motions of everyday life and become comfortably numb to our daily activities and surroundings? And it impacts us financially, as well.  We pay a lot more for sprawl development than for compact development.

Sun City West Sprawl 300x225A recent trip to the Phoenix area, hit me harder than usual.  It wasn’t my first time there, but my awareness and critique of how we build communities become increasingly unforgiving as time goes by.  If I were asked to describe Arizona in a few short words, it would go something like this:  cement pavement, strip malls, franchise restaurants, multilane roads (in one direction), boundless traffic, breathtaking views, soothing mountains, relentless sunshine, blue sky, rich history. Talk about divergent narratives – and all of them are true.  I’m not going to espouse why everyone should experience the beauty of Arizona once in their lifetime, I will leave that to the travel books. I just want to share (or vent is more like it) a few thoughts on poor planning – the bane of our everyday life.

I’m not a trained traffic engineer or certified planner, but I don’t have to be – and neither do you – to know what’s working and what’s not.  We just have to stop and think about how we go about our daily lives, and ask ourselves a few basic questions:  how much time do we spend in a car?  Do we have a local coffee shop or restaurant that we can easily get to?  What do we consider to be the heart of the community?  Can we walk to the library?  (Check out Strong Towns, an organization advocating for vibrant and resilient communities, which offers ten simple questions called the Strong Towns Strength Test to test the strength of your community.)

Most of us know someone who has fled the frigid north for the year-round warmer climates.  On my trip to Phoenix, I visited a friend who lives in a senior community, west of Phoenix.  It is an award winning community development which has separated the housing from shopping, restaurants, and cultural venues.  Sound familiar?  With an aging population, there should be less reliance on a car, not more.  So why are they building and expanding (construction can be seen everywhere) the road system?  The lanes are already confusing, and it’s difficult to access stores and restaurants that you see on the other side of the median.   At all hours of the day, traffic is heavy.  I saw no evidence of traffic calming devices or alternative modes of transportation.  That means you have to get in your car (or take your life in your hands in a golf cart) to get anywhere.  Even though a Starbucks coffee shop was only 2 blocks away from where I was staying, there was no way that I or anybody else was going to feel safe walking over there.  Even the most foolhardy would not risk crossing the multilane roads which lacked any clear markings for pedestrians

verrado pic 300x225I did, however, see an example of a planned community, which has all the potential for great community living. It is called Verrado, in Buckeye, Arizona, west of Phoenix. It is built on the principles of New Urbanism.  Once you get off the freeway, you truly enter an oasis of peaceful, walkable neighborhood living, with the presence of bike and walking paths everywhere.  Although there were a fair amount of people in the small town center on a Sunday, a second visit during the week, showed a lot less people.  It was clear that this community is in its infancy.  More businesses and restaurants need to open to attract more people before it becomes a true destination.

Of course, we don’t have to go to Arizona to find examples of uncontrolled sprawl.  We can go anywhere in this country and find it, including right here in Michigan.  We are becoming an older nation, and unlike previous generations, as boomers age, they are choosing to age in place.  That means that communities will have to be ready to meet their growing needs. There is no time to waste.  We need to build more mixed-use communities, retrofit our suburbs, and consider alternative modes of transportation that will accommodate these challenges.  And in the end, we will be providing a great quality of life for all generations.

The MSU Center for Community and Economic Development is hosting their annual Contemporary Issues Institute on the topic of civility: Cultivating a Civil Society in an Era of Incivility.

Civility Conference Info

Event participants will have the opportunity to learn from and discuss with innovative thinkers and doers from across the state on how to promote more civil behavior in personal, public, private, and online realms.

The event will take place Friday, March 6 from 8:30 AM – 12:30 PM in the Michigan State Capitol BuildingThe event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Complete the short registration form here.

In order to get a great conversation going in each session, the planning team hopes to attract a wide range of attendees. People in local government, community leaders, business owners, planners, academics, students, and others are all encouraged to attend! Be prepared for interactive sessions with a chance to share experiences, challenges, expertise, and lessons learned.

State Representative Andy Schor is offering opening remarks and the Flint Youth Theatre will bookend the event with short, theatrical interpretations of civility.

Session topics include:

  • Our Individual Character
  • Putting Civility in Place: How Placemaking & Interior Design can Promote Civility
  • Theories of Civility
  • Media, Technology & Incivility

Putting Civility in Place

With the League’s emphasis on placemaking, I am excited to moderate the session Putting Civility in Place. Research tells us that place has a huge impact on how people feel and act. For example, people who live in high-rise apartments are less trusting of their neighbors than single-family home residents, being in nature boosts altruistic behavior, and students’ grades improve when their school is designed to increase human connection. To explore this topic further, we have the following speakers lined up to discuss how place impacts people, communities, and workplaces:

Feel free to spread the word about this event, and don’t forget to RSVP!Civility Registration Button

Allegan and Cadillac were among the five cities that recently received Core Communities grants for public infrastructure and site improvements from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The Core Communities fund is designed to spur private development in urban communities and traditional centers of commerce. Funds can be used for such things as land and property acquisition, site development, and infrastructure improvements.

allegan-placeplanBoth cities will use the funds to implement some of the projects proposed in their PlacePlans. Allegan’s Downtown Riverfront Development plan called for redeveloping the Kalamazoo riverfront that borders downtown into an inviting space for festivals, events, and recreation that would also jumpstart economic development. The city plans to use its $250,000 Core Communities grant to redevelop an underutilized parking area into an 11,600 square foot events plaza connecting the community’s central business district with the Kalamazoo River. The space will include an elevated stage for musical performances, shows and outdoor movies, and a multi-use space for events and festivals.

Cadillac-PlacePlan-300x200In Cadillac, the Heritage Plaza PlacePlan presented a redesign of a lakeside block in the downtown area., which is currently a parking lot and City Park. The plan envisions the site as a year-round destination and hub of downtown, hosting seasonal events and providing an attractive connection between the Mitchell Street businesses and Lake Cadillac. The city plans to use its $200,000 Core Communities grant to redevelop the two acre downtown parking facility into an inviting space for community festivals and events. The site will also make it easy for residents and visitors enjoying the lake to frequent downtown businesses.

 

 

 

cadillac-placeplan-coverAll year, the League and its partners – Michigan State University and Michigan State Housing Development Authority – have been working with community leaders and residents in eight cities throughout Michigan. The goal was to help communities design and implement transformative placemaking projects that focus economic development efforts around walkable downtown districts.

The result is creative PlacePlans that are uniquely customized for each community. Cadillac’s “Heritage Plaza” concept envisions the site as a year-round destination and hub of downtown. Southwest Detroit’s “Connecting Communities with Vernor Crossing” PlacePlan redesigns a vacant brownfield site as a flexible public plaza, retail center and shared market space for local entrepreneurs. Flint’s Grand Traverse Greenway PlacePlan provides unique designs for intersections, community connections and amenities for this 3.4 mile bike/walk trail. Creating a “food innovation district” in the Western Gateway area was the recommendation of Holland’s PlacePlan.

The “Downtown Jackson Alleyway” can become an inviting part of the city with PlacePlan design elements that enliven and link together destinations along the alley. Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s new healthy living campus and surrounding area can benefit from the Kalamazoo PlacePlan’s recommendations for a sustainable transportation plan. Marquette’s “Reimagining Baraga Avenue” PlacePlan is full of ideas to improve the connectivity and appearance of this section of downtown. And iIn Midland’s PlacePlan, learn about the strategic opportunities for the city’s popular farmers market as a functional market, community gathering space, and catalyst for economic development in downtown.

To read the full reports for all the 2014 PlacePlans, visit the PlacePlans page.