Last week the National League of Cities hosted their 2014 State League Staff Workshop in Portland, OR. Here, staff from state leagues around the country gathered to network, learn, and discuss emerging issues in the field.

Presenting on how leagues can support distressed communities with Rhode Island League Associate Director, Peder Schaefer

Presenting at the NLC Staff Workshop with Rhode Island League Associate Director, Peder Schaefer, on how municipal leagues can support distressed communities.

In a workshop co-led by Peder Schaefer of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, I had the opportunity to present MML’s work on supporting distressed communities. MML’s role promoting placemaking by highlighting case studies, enhancing crowdfunding, and developing a place-based policy platform are unique to leagues across the country. Workshop attendees were eager to hear about Detroit and the creative ways MML is supporting the state’s communities.

Portland, OR

Portland's Saturday Market on the riverfront

Portland’s Saturday Market on the riverfront

Hosting the NLC’s conference in Portland was a wonderful illustration of effective placemaking. The city has incredibly effective and low-cost public transportation, miles and miles of bike lanes, small and walkable city blocks, and neighborhoods full of life and character. Yes, the city’s slogan “Keep Portland Weird” was true to its name, but even the strangest people were kind, helpful, and excited to talk about their city.

Downtown Portland was full of activity with public plazas, food carts, multimodal transportation, and people doing things people do: talking, laughing, eating, soaking up the sun, shopping, and simply looking at other people.

Pedestrians are the priority in Portland's streets. Downtown intersections are marked with brick to notify drivers to slow down.

Pedestrians are the priority in Portland’s streets: Downtown intersections are marked with brick to notify drivers to slow down.

After the conference, I stayed an extra night in the Alberta District in north-east Portland. The people I stayed with had an extra bike for guests, so I was really able to get around like a Portlander! There were amazing local shops, a ton of places to eat, and parks full of activity.

I was floored at how friendly people were and how eager they were to help a tourist. People started real conversations while waiting in line, said hello on the street, and customer service staff took pride in their roles (and with a minimum wage of $9.10/hour and rising, there was plenty of reason to be genuine).

The city is scattered with food carts and there are block-long segments of permanent food vendors in cart-like structures.

The city is scattered with food carts and there are block-long segments of permanent food vendors in cart-like structures.

While wandering around the city, the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community report kept popping into my head. The study found that aesthetics, openness and social offerings are what people loved most about where they live. Portland looks great, people felt open to diversity, and there were countless opportunities to connect with others on the street, at an event, or standing line at the food truck: Portland makes a great case study.

Although we have aspects of Portland’s magic in some Michigan communities, many have a long way to go. Not every city should be exactly like Portland, but our role at MML is to help communities expand on their own unique assets and become the best cities they can be.

Dan Burden, a notable long-time friend of the Michigan Municipal League and co-founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, has caught the attention of Burden - Birmingham 2the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, he was honored with a 2014 White House Champion of Change award for his tireless efforts to make pedestrians and bicyclists an important part of the transportation equation. It is a recognition well deserved.

Dan’s dedication is unyielding. His travels take him to communities all over the country for more than 300 days a year. Many of those days have been spent here in Michigan, leading walking audits designed to uncover neighborhood opportunities and find solutions. He brings people together from all sectors, engages them in conversation, and inspires them to reimagine the future of their community.

Burden - BirminghamAlong with several of my League colleagues, I have had the privilege of accompanying Dan on many of his walking audits. Every community has its own unique assets and challenges, so I learn something new each and every time. With his bright road construction safety vest and measuring tape in hand, he leads a group of stakeholders and local officials up and down sidewalks, through parking lots and alleys, and across busy streets, offering up all the possibilities. With his years of experience and knowledge—and contagious enthusiasm—even the naysayers start to believe. Step by step, Dan is truly making our communities more livable and walkable.

Congratulations, Dan!  We appreciate all the great work you have done and continue to do in Michigan. Thank you for being one of Michigan’s greatest cheerleaders.

Throughout the first weekend of May, it is a time to celebrate Jane Jacobs, an inspirational leader among urban thinkers.  It is celebrated through an event called Jane’s Walk.  These urban walks are locally led walks giving residents the opportunity to explore their own communities and connect with other residents.  Jacobs felt that a community-based approach was the foundation of city building.  Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities remains as relevant today as it did when it was first published in 1961.

Since its inception in Toronto in 2007, Jane’s Walk has spread to thousands of participants walking in neighborhoods and cities around the world.

A friend and I decided to go on the “spaces between buildings” walk, which took place on Sunday, May 4, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Our small group of nine was fortunate to have two urban professors leading the way.  I’ve lived in this community for over 30 years, so I wasn’t sure that I was going to discover anything new.  But I did - small walkways and alleys tucked between and behind buildings, a painted garage; inspiring graffiti; and a long decorative sidewalk between a student high rise and the back of a church yard, that guided one along like the yellow brick road.  They were great examples of negotiating that fine line between public and private space.  Every community has empty areas can easily be activated.  Engaging the community on how to redine those spaces, is what is so powerful.

If your community would like to host a Jane’s Walk, it’s easy to organize.  Click here where you will find everything you need to have your own event next year.  It’s a good way to educate the community, engage in conversations, and exhibit some community pride!

Marquette’s Baraga Avenue two-day charrette was aptly summarized by one participant as, “… a great process, synthesizing the idealistic with the pragmatic.”

Baraga Avenue’s location as the first primary street entering Marquette’s downtown and situated across from continuing well-planned and exciting developments at Founder’s Landing along popular Lakeshore Drive and the Spring Street bike/pedestrian pathway, makes this location a certain future hot-spot.

Baraga Ave. PlacePlans CharretteHistorically the main street to the hub of industrial activities, Baraga Avenue is wide and its eclectic mix of trendy specialty shops, museum district and light industrial, leading to the city’s governmental center, is currently surrounded by a sea of concrete and asphalt. This creates an unappealing first impression and discourages pedestrian traffic. While only a couple blocks removed from the principal shopping area on Washington and Front Streets and a mere block from the Farmers Market and other event sites–the relatively bleak surroundings do not entice people to Baraga.

Much discussion from business owners and stakeholders has centered around maintaining views of the waterfront, creating an entrance signaling to people that they have “arrived”, traffic calming, encouraging outdoor dining and inviting seating areas where passersby will see more activity, providing a more obvious connection between the Children’s Museum and the History Museum, public art displays, “greening” up the area, creating more inviting connections to the downtown and waterfront with potential wind protection, and incorporating design features that honor the area’s original historical purpose and heritage. There are also some great potential sites for exciting mixed-use development.  Baraga Ave. is definitely the spot to watch.

The energy of the first visioning session carried through to the two-day charrette as stakeholders engaged in lively discussion, listened with open minds, were ever respectful and offered incredibly creative suggestions.  A summarized list of the feedback loop from the first days’ session is as follows:

  • Respect and enhance working waterfront and views
  • Include public art that is reflective of Marquette
  • Create a sense of arrival and pedestrian enhancements at the intersection of Front & Baraga
  • Enhance mid-block connections between Baraga and the downtown
  • Incorporate a stormwater management system as a functional and artistic natural feature
  • Encourage pedestrian activity and outdoor eating
  • Develop first floor retail on the parking structure
  • Provide a unified streetscape character while respecting functional needs of businesses and snow removal
  • Refine site furnishings and street elements to reflect Marquette’s history and character
  • Provide bicycle parking and access to the non-motorized network

Please leave your own comments at the Baraga Avenue Facebook page.