Although the effects of place projects may be less visible in large cities, projects in small-to-mid-sized cities, like Farmington, can initiate huge impacts on the economy, resident well-being, and connection to the community. For detailed information on Farmington’s downtown redevelopments, read the MML case study on how Sundquist Pavilion created an active downtown center and is helping to revitalize the community.

Farmington's weekly Summer Concert Series attracts a large audience to the city center.

Farmington’s weekly Summer Concert Series attracts a large audience to the city center.

Farmington’s main downtown placemaking project, which transformed a strip-mall parking lot into a community pavilion and park, started through a community visioning project. An article from Project for Public Spaces encourages city leaders to think of streets as public spaces and allow residents to envision the kind of interactions and places they want to support.

Farmington's sidewalk and landscape improvements make the street more welcoming.

Farmington’s sidewalk and landscape improvements make the street more welcoming.

In Farmington, city leaders partnered with a local university to do in-depth community visioning. Realizing there was no downtown “city center,” residents pushed for placemaking.

Even controversial topics, like parking availability, were smoothed over because of resident engagement. With the mindset that parking should be designed for people and not cars, Farmington engineers were able to eliminate a large portion of the strip-mall parking lot, but keep the same number of spaces.

Staying focused on the pedestrian also allowed Farmington to improve walkability and the downtown’s streetscape. Farmington narrowed the main road by adding bump-out parking, improved sidewalk aesthetics, and enhanced landscaping. These projects promoted walkability and encouraged local restaurants to build outdoor seating.

Farmington's Harvest Moon Festival hosts family-friendly events.

Farmington’s Harvest Moon Festival hosts family-friendly events.

All of Farmington’s activities are making it easier for residents to connect to their community, the most important asset a community can have. The Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community reports that the more people love where they live, the more economically vital that place will be. And by the looks of it, some Oakland County cities are leading the way for downtown revitalization in Michigan.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson recently said downtown Main Street projects  have resulted in more than $648 million in investments, 870 new businesses, and nearly 7,000 new jobs across the county. As projects like Farmington’s downtown redevelopment continue, residents will likely be happier, more prosperous, and feel a deeper connection to their city.

Michigan communities, large and small, can learn from Farmington and other main street development projects to improve downtowns, increase walkability, and make the state a great place for all.

Supporting Research

  • The Knight Foundation: Soul of the Community– This study shows that what drives people most to love where they live is their perception of aesthetics, social offerings, and openness. The more people love their community, the more economically vital that place will be.
  • Better Cities & Towns: New Urbanism’s Impact on Mid-Sized and Smaller Cities – Placemaking development may have a profound effect over time in a big city, but effects in mid-to-small-sized cities are much more dramatic.
  • Project for Public Spaces: Streets as Places: How Transportation Can Create a Sense of Community – This article encourages city leaders to think of streets as public spaces and allow for residents to envision the kind of interactions and places they want to support, and outlines 10 qualities of great streets.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency: Smart Growth and Economic Success: Benefits for Real Estate Developers, Investors, Businesses, and Local Governments – Compact, diverse, and walkable development can increase property values, encourage job creation, and create amenities and places that improve residents’ quality of life.
  • Cities for People:Time to Reclaim the Streets – Streets and cars are the center of many cities across the world, however, building more pedestrian-friendly streets is key to effective placemaking.
  • Small Town Urbanism: Parking–Local leaders need to carefully consider parking when trying to create a walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly environment. Parking policies should be designed to benefit people, not cars.
Strava's heat map of bike/walk activity in Midland shows the popularity of that city's recreational trails--but surprisingly little bike/walk access to the major employment center.

Strava’s heat map of bike/walk activity in Midland shows the popularity of that city’s recreational trails–but surprisingly little bike/walk access to the major employment center.

Fitness tracking app Strava recently began offering its data—millions of walking, jogging, and cycling trips around the world—to cities and transportation agencies. For a price, of course: this is a revenue stream for the app developers…so what’s in it for the public agencies? As Gizmodo explains, bike/walk traffic data is traditionally much harder for agencies to collect than traffic data, but, with apps like this, “we’re all walking sensors now:”

Strava’s first customer, Oregon’s Department of Transportation, paid $20,000 for data from nearly 20,000 cyclists in hopes that it might help them figure out how to handle the steadily increasing bike traffic in cities like Portland. “Right now, there’s no data. We don’t know where people ride bikes,” Jennifer Dill, a professor and urban planner at Portland State University, told The Wall Street Journal. “Just knowing where the cyclists are is a start.”

This type of data can support placemaking efforts, especially as we look to support walkability and offer residents a range of transportation options: knowing where people choose to walk, jog, and bike—and where they don’t—helps us diagnose our community’s streets and target improvements.

Know your data’s limits—and leverage them

This can’t be done without some caution, though. As many commenters on the Gizmodo piece point out, the Strava dataset includes two biases that we need to consider in our planning.

The first issue is a self-selection bias: since the data is collected by smartphone users using the app, it only measures the habits of people whose income, age, and comfort with technology lead them to seek out and use smartphone apps to track their travel. Also, as the app is targeted at “fitness” users, it will likely be skewed to those trips, and include a smaller sample of people who are walking or biking to work, school, shopping districts, or other destinations. Even those app users who are tracking their bicycling commute are likely to be biking by choice—rather than being forced to because they lack access to an automobile. The app data will be less useful in identifying the travel patterns and needs of low-income residents and others who walk and bike out of necessity.

The second concern is a confirmation bias: because of that skew in who the users are and why they are traveling, they are more likely to have the luxury of choosing routes that already work well for biking and walking. This data will point to heavy activity on the scenic rail trails and state park trail loops, while overlooking the people who brave dangerous freeway interchanges on foot to get to work, or the road that could deliver recreational cyclists into downtown, if only it had a bike lane.

Strava's walking heat map shows the already high-quality rail trail near EMU's campus, while completely overlooking the more hostile, but still heavily used, Huron Street / I-94 interchange.

Strava’s walking heat map shows the already high-quality rail trail near EMU’s campus, while completely overlooking the more hostile, but still heavily used, Huron Street / I-94 interchange.

Because of these, planners should therefore be double-checking the Strava data against conditions on the ground. While the data might point to highly-traveled routes that need some improvements, in many cases, the outcome should actually be to improve the biking and walking experience on routes that Strava users are NOT recording.

If on-site observations or neighborhood engagement show that certain streets are critical walking and biking routes for day-to-day essential travel, but the travelers using fitness apps are avoiding those routes, then planners should be asking why: what’s wrong with those routes that causes travelers with choices to avoid the, and how can they be made better for those travelers with no choice? Not only will this use of the data serve a broader segment of additional residents, it will also help extend the attraction of a community’s downtown districts and other major nodes by bridging current barriers.

Share and share alike: supporting virtuous cycles

In many cases, privately developed apps rely on the availability of public data to function, either directly or implicitly. Transit app Ototo, for example, wants to tell transit planners what people are searching for, so they know where people want to go, but it can only serve metro areas where the transit agencies have published open data sets. By providing ready access to public datasets, local communities (and state agencies) can support the private development of apps, which can then feed data back to the communities on how people are using the apps—and, by extension, how people are interacting with the places around them.

Several efforts try to help public bodies shorten this cycle even further: organizations like Code For America, or events like the National Day of Civic Hacking (coming up May 31-June 1!) bring motivated software developers together to design, prototype, and build new applications for public data. In order to have the greatest benefit for communities, though, these efforts need access to both data and the public sector staffers who know the subject matter.

As mobile apps continue to grow in popularity and capabilities, cities should continue to look for ways to leverage the data generated—and to support the process with data of their own. Even though the field of mobile apps is only a few years old, cities and states that have engaged effectively are already benefiting.

We started our morning itinerary at Campus Martius, the award-winning public space in downtown Detroit. My colleague Luke Forrest (pictured below with Christine Meyer at the Riverfront) was kind enough to meet us there and tell the fellows about Campus Martius and the Riverfront. Since it was late in the season, the ice skating rink had already been taken down. It was snowing and blustery when we were there–not a super nice day to take visitors around but they were very good-natured. We headed down to the Riverfront and to the Underground Railroad statue.

river front - luke - christine







We went to the Detroit City Council meeting, and during a lovely presentation were given “Spirit of Detroit” Awards from Council President Brenda Jones. Below, City Clerk Janice Winfrey calls us up and I introduce the fellows to the Council.

 detroit council mtg                                                                                                                 

After the council meeting the fellows took advantage of the cultural offerings in the city and visited the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Our next itinerary stop was to the Grandmont-Rosedale Development Corporation (GRDC) to talk about housing and neighborhoods and the work they are doing to stablilize the neighborhood. We were even able to go inside a house the GRDC is rehabbing. They buy homes, rehab them and resell them (well this is a portion of what they do). Grand-Rose house rehabGrand-rose house interior    




Last but not least, we drove to the Heidelberg Project. Given its name, the Heidelberg Project is known in Germany, and the German fellows were eager to see it–they wondered what it would look like in person after seeing it on TV.          I asked them and it seemed to live up to their expectations–I think it was spaced out further than they thought. Here is our photo–the yellow bag is from the city of Cottbus Germany and part of their city contest to get the bag photographed in all types of places for a photo contest.

Heidelberg Project   The fellowship was a wonderful sharing of municipal practices and the added benefit of building intercultural and international relationships. Henrik wrote this after he returned home nad received the photo of us at the Detroit City Council Meeting: Because of the ceremony our names will ever be linked to the city of Detroit and Michigan as well (and so will our hearts). What a lovely sentiment. I felt the same way about Dusseldorf, Oldenburg, Cottbus, and Munich, the four cities I was connected to during my fellowship in Germany.