Mayors and managers from some of the state’s largest cities met with the Michigan Municipal League’s lobbying staff in Lansing on Monday, January 13, 2014 to discuss how to best prioritize the new Partnership for Place policy agenda in the coming year.

Growing media attention to  issues such as Detroit’s bankruptcy, the rising number of cities in receivership, and transportation infrastructure challenges show a heightened public awareness of the importance of thriving local communities to the state’s overall economic health.

“Unlike some previous years where politics have put cities on the side in some ways, this year our cities have the opportunity to be front and center,” said League Executive Director and CEO Dan Gilmartin. “When they’re looking at the state budget, sometimes community issues stay on the side as things like labor and social issues dominate the political headlines, but this year the things we care about will play a bigger role.”

Michigan in MotionThriving communities are a key to Michigan’s long-term success and sustainability. If we are going to compete globally in the 21st century, then it is critical to create communities that can attract and retain talent and enterprise.

The Partnership for Place targets four key areas for action: Funding for the Future, Michigan in Motion, Place for Talent, and Strength in Structure. Strong and strategic policy action in each of these areas is crucial for Michigan’s economic growth and the development of places able to provide key services and amenities that contribute to a high quality of life.

To get the dialogue going, League Director of State Affairs Samantha Harkins offered these possible policy actions:


  •  Increase sales tax by 1% to a total of 7% with the new 1% earmarked for local government.
  • Expand the sales tax to include services.
  • Allow locals to implement land value taxation to encourage appropriate use of space.
  • Revise constitutional revenue sharing for new revenues to reflect service demands as well as population totals.
  • Advocate for the state to create an optional OPEB pool.


  • Restructure spending priorities through a new formula versus the current PA 51 system.
  • Alternatively, amend PA 51 to prioritize spending of any new transportation revenues on systems in already developed areas.
  • Place greater emphasis on transit development.
  • Support gas tax increase (i.e. gas tax increase to 37 cents which includes parity for diesel gas, and would generate approximately $950 million.)

Place for TalenTalent:

  • Advocate for wide range housing choices (affordable, rental, and owner occupied).
  • Promote mixed use development including business, retail, restaurant, and housing.
  • Forgive student loans on incremental basis.
  • Fund and support internship programs which link new graduates with small and large businesses, nonprofits, and foundations.
  • Invest in cultural arts.


  • Through new growth legislation, make Michigan laws more growth friendly to encourage more effective land use and efficient use of existing infrastructure. Getting developers to link into existing systems is also more environmentally friendly.

“I think we can all agree the biggest changes will come from large tax structural changes. The question to answer today is where do we want to put the emphasis and get the most impact over the next six months?” said Flint Mayor Dayne Walling.

The urban core leaders had varying ideas on the details, but all seemed to agree that the main focus for policy priorities in the coming year should be at the fundamental level  of assuring that local communities have the revenue they need to survive and thrive. That includes: more local flexibility in revenue raising; changing the caps on the capture of taxes from rising property values; transportation and roads; more funds from revenue sharing; and dealing with the OPEB.

A number of members, including Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and Wyoming City Manager Curtis Holt, stressed the need for local options and flexibility at the local level.

There was also a good deal of talk about land value taxation similar to a renaissance zone, which would encourage redevelopment by taxing less on improvements than the value of the land itself.

“Our cities have many contaminated old industrial sites where the owners who have leveled the property and never intend to sell because it would cost more to clean it up than they could ever sell it for.  They are within city downtowns, and there is zero incentive to ever sell these vacant parcels. Right now the taxes are so low they can sit on it forever,” Infrastructuresaid Summer Minnick, the League’s Director of Policy Initiatives & Federal Affairs.

Such changes would incentivize redevelopment investment, said Harkins.

Another priority is to make a case for the use of the state’s announced $930 million budget surplus, such as transportation – not just for freeways and trunk lines, but for alternative modes of transportation and local roads that bring people into communities, not just through them.

“One question we all struggle with is we know where the demographics are going, what types of communities are more competitive now than they were 10 or 20 years ago, and what a competitive community will look like in the next 20 years. But that’s not what we’ve been building for the last 50,” said Gilmartin. “We’re trying to deal with potholes but also trying to create communities for people who maybe don’t live there yet. We often have to balance between building for tomorrow or sticking gum in the holes of today’s sinking ship.”

The ReviewRead more about the Partnership for Place in the
January/February 2014 issue of The Review magazine.

Be part of the strategic conversation on implementing the Partnership for Place at the League’s Capital Conference, March 18-19 in Lansing.




Break Out Your Colored Pencils: It’s Time to Play Transportation Planner!

Let’s Save Michigan is giving away a brand new, Michigan-made bicycle for the best design idea for a slice of Michigan roadway. LSM’s Highways for Habitats design competition asks participants to: 1. Identify a road that is a drain on its community, and 2. Reimagine that road so that it works better for the community it bisects.

The contest seeks, for example, those five-lane roads that divide a quaint downtown into isolated halves, or separate a neighborhood from a public park—those roads that make their surroundings feel unsafe to pedestrians and bicyclists, families with kids and seniors waiting for the bus. Entries should imagine a new version of that street—one that works for all kinds of users, and that encourages community health and economic development.

Contest participants are asked to submit one photo of the site they select, along with their design and a few words about why it makes sense, at this contest submission page ( by Friday, October 18. The public will vote online to select the finalists, with the grand prize and a runner-up to be selected by a panel of judges.

A few words on what to enter: LSM is NOT necessarily expecting professional engineer-caliber drawings. Contestants can simply a picture, snap a photo of it with a camera phone, and submit that photo. Everyone has a shot at the prize, so long as the entry effectively gets across the brilliant idea.

To help generate ideas, LSM has been collecting examples from all over the world on the Let’s Save Michigan blog for the past few months in a Highways for Habitats blog series. LSM also has compiled resources from around country about good road design. Take a look and get inspired.

Entries can be uploaded here.

It’s been done all over the world: Roads can conduct vehicles while helping foster community and economic development. With the help of contest participants, Let’s Save Michigan plans to show Michigan’s leaders how it can be done.

LSM would like to thank the grand prize sponsor, Detroit Bikes! and the runner-up prize sponsor, Cross Country Cycle!

Every year, the Michigan Municipal League’s peer-nominated Community Excellence Award competition recognize transformational ideas and innovative solutions 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.

The 2013 CEA winner was Ironwood in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the Depot Park revitalization project has transformed a historic railroad depot into a key focus point in the community. Once completed in its entirety, the park will merge city blocks and add a pavilion, playground equipment, landscaping, volleyball courts, and other amenities in an effort to promote health, history and recreation. The park also serves as a trail head for the vast network of non-motorized trails crisscrossing the region.[vimeo width=”500″ height=”281″][/vimeo]

The other regional finalists were also outstanding examples of the power of placemaking to transform a community by creating a sense of place and identity while enhancing the quality of life.

Fenton, Holly and Linden’s Shiawassee River Heritage Water Trail [vimeo width=”500″ height=”281″][/vimeo]

St. Joseph’s Silver Beach development [vimeo width=”500″ height=”281″][/vimeo]

Belding’s Community Garden [vimeo width=”500″ height=”281″][/vimeo]

DeWitt’s Community Showcase [vimeo width=”500″ height=”281″][/vimeo]

Imlay City’s SEED economic gardening program [vimeo width=”500″ height=”281″][/vimeo]

Rogers City’s “Dancin’ Downtown” streetscape and revitalization [vimeo width=”500″ height=”281″][/vimeo]

human-scale-posterThis week my colleague Colleen Layton and I visited the 2013 Traverse City Film Festival to get a firsthand look at how the event is adding to the city’s blossoming identity as a cultural hotspot for national and even international visitors. It’s a placemaking success story that rivals the likes of ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, and a valuable lesson in the power of place as an economic development strategy.

This year’s festival slogan is “One Great Movie Can Change You.” Among the many great films at the festival that could do just that: “The Human Scale,” Danish filmmaker Andreas M. Dalsgaard’s documentary about revolutionary architect Jan Gehl’s vision for redesigning cities for people instead of cars.

The film opens with this sobering fact: 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050 this will increase to 80%. So how will we accommodate those 6.5 billion people in cities that are already struggling to meet people’s most basic needs?

“We have to get the cities to change their ways. If you pay attention to the smaller scale, inviting people to walk and bike, you get a more lively and livable city, a safer city, a more sustainable city,” says Gehl, who has spent the last 40 years observing and recording how people actually use public spaces, in order to build the empirical evidence necessary to change the modern approach to urban planning. For most of the 20th century we’ve been counting cars not people, Gehl says, and the result has been an urban landscape that’s designed for traffic flow at the expense of human habitation.

“The Human Scale” proves its point by taking viewers on a profoundly dramatic tour around the globe, from troubled cities that serve as disturbing cautionary tales to urban meccas that offer hopeful glimmers of what can be achieved with vision and political will.


Architect Jan Gehl

It begins in Copenhagen, where a former desert of urban modernist thinking has been transformed under Gehl’s influence into one of the world’s most livable, bikeable cities.

In Melbourne, Australia, city leaders literally reversed a decades-long trend of urban flight by closing some roads to traffic and giving them back to pedestrians and cyclists, creating true city squares, and converting unused alleys into public spaces. Almost like magic, the changes are bringing the city back to vibrant life and a flood of new residents are returning to the revitalized urban core.

In China and Bangladesh, Dalsgaard shows how the desperate drive to “catch up” with the west is repeating the mistakes of auto-centric planning to disastrous effect, destroying culture and community even as it fuels economic growth.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, we see how the earthquake that destroyed the city’s center also created an extraordinary opportunity for change—but now the short-term thinking of the national government and moneyed developers threaten to subvert the people’s will for change. It’s a story that echoes powerfully here, where cities like Detroit now have a similar opportunity to build something new and sustainable amid the ruins of the old and failed.

Building for cars creates a physical structure that separates and alienates people from each other and from their environment—from suburban islands and mega high-rise apartments that residents rarely leave, to freeways that wipe out neighborhoods and trunk-line highways that divide downtowns. Building more and bigger roads to accommodate more traffic only creates more traffic, Dalsgaard says. Building public spaces and walkways for people increases human interaction, promotes health and enhances public safety.

I thought about our own drive into Traverse City, which boasts one of the most beautiful and vibrant downtowns in Michigan. But to reach it, you have to drive in through the township on a five-lane highway choked with high-speed traffic and lined with high-rise resorts blocking the view of the water.

As we approached, we saw a young family of four stranded in the center turn lane. Mom was carrying the baby while Dad was pulling the toddler in a wagon, their heads scanning back and forth, helplessly waiting for a break in traffic that was never going to come. All they wanted to do was to walk less than 100 feet from the putt-putt course on the south side to their hotel on the north. We slowed to a stop, waving them to cross while our car blocked the traffic. At first they just stared at us with a mix of doubt and disbelief. Then they scurried across, waving gratefully when they reached the safety of the other side.

One hundred feet. An impossible blockade. Most families wouldn’t even try.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Filmmaker Andreas M. Dalsgaard

Filmmaker Andreas M. Dalsgaard

During the Q&A with the filmmaker at the screening’s end, an audience member asked where we could find political leaders who could implement human-centered design into our urban planning, to build these places where people truly want to live.

His answer was that the federal and even state government is too enmeshed in politics to facilitate this kind of ground-level change. It’s the leaders of the cities themselves who are in the best position to change our cities, he said.

Hopefully this film will indeed change the people who see it. And if enough of us are changed, we can help change the future of our cities, and the world.