MSHDA has recently issued a call for proposals to their Neighborhood Enhancement Program, with local applications due December 1.  Municipalities and 501(c)3 non-profits can apply for up to $30,000 or $50,000 (depending on size) in funding for local exterior home improvements or public space improvements.

In mentioning that funding opportunity, I want to point to the Oswego Renaissance Association in upstate New York as a great precedent for how these relatively small grants can be used for substantial impacts. The ORA has one of the neatest programs I’ve found via Strong Towns. As they explain,

Among other activities, the Oswego Renaissance Association makes small matching grants to clusters of homeowners who want to collaboratively improve the exterior of their neighborhood. This results in a huge return on investment, not to mention the value of neighbors working together…often for the first time.

This is a simple but profound process that unlocks neighbors’ confidence in their neighborhood.

The ORA’s mini-grant program supports small, visible investments and repairs on clusters of properties, helping spin up collective action and belief on blocks where residents may be suffering from despair about their neighborhood’s prospects. Where the hurdle to residents’ reinvestment is as much about their belief that it’s “worth it” as it is the dollar cost, a program like this can get everyone moving together and supporting each others’ efforts.  (Often, of course, these neighborhoods also suffer from larger economic shifts or histories of discrimination, challenges that require larger interventions and shouldn’t be overlooked in a search for quick fixes.)

MSHDA’s program can be used in exactly this way — to offer every home on a block some funding for exterior rehab, providing a visual and emotional impact that’s greater than what might happen from just one home being fixed up: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As an example, Battle Creek’s past grantees Neighborhood Inc. note that their use of NEP funds for home repairs not only got those household engaged in additional projects, but generated a lot of attention from surrounding neighborhood residents.

The MSHDA funds are limited to owner-occupied single family homes, so unfortunately can only be used for a subset of neighborhood residences. A non-profit applicant, community foundation, or private sponsor could add funds to cover these gaps in eligibility; note that the municipality generally cannot use its funds for activities like private home repair.

Thanks to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, this year’s Convention attendees had the chance to be wowed by the transformation of Detroit’s waterfront during two mobile workshops and a general session with Conservancy CEO Mark Wallace. While our largest city’s efforts are of course larger than what most of our communities will undertake, many of the lessons from their experience can translate to smaller places.

Convention attendees gathered at the start of an urban bike and walk trail

The Dequindre Cut connects from the Detroit Riverwalk two miles north to Eastern Market along a former rail right-of-way.

Plan long-term, work incrementally

Convention attendees gathered around a landscape model

The Conservancy’s Mark Pasco discusses the plans for West Riverfront Park

Conservancy staff noted that they do not own the property that the Riverwalk or Dequindre Cut sit on, instead relying on a network of 99-year easements across a patchwork of privately and publicly-owned properties. In fact, after 16 years of work, this effort is still ongoing, and the Conservancy doesn’t yet have control over all the land needed for the ultimate vision.

This experience will be common to riverfront, lakefront, or trail projects in many communities—and that’s okay. Parts of Detroit’s Riverwalk have been completed and in use for a decade, offering great public spaces even while other pieces are still being put together. Treat these projects as a marathon that may take multiple generations of elected or staff leadership to complete: start with the parts that are available, build momentum, and expand from success.

Don’t give away public access

One missing link in the Riverwalk has been the segment in front of the Riverfront Towers condominiums. Built in the early 1980s on parcels that went to the water’s edge, the condo association was unwilling to allow use of their frontage for the Riverwalk; the conservancy was ultimately able to negotiate a boardwalk in the river to go around the towers’ property. A Riverwalk or similar linear park effort can easily be stymied by a holdout property owner like this—communities should do what they can to avoid having to face these situations.

Where public land along a riverfront or other such feature is sold for development, the community should maintain a public frontage in essentially all cases: where selling rights all the way to the water may boost the value to that single developer and therefore the one-time benefit of the sale price, maintaining it in the public trust provides broader public value in perpetuity. Similarly, any negotiation of development incentives for waterfront property should consider access rights, even if no trail or Riverwalk plans currently exist. If a property is sold or developed without such rights, another chance at that discussion may not arise for several decades.

Design or adapt the space to the people who use it

Children playing in the GM Plaza fountain

This was not the intended use of this space, but the designers followed the users, and it worked.

Wallace noted that the fountain in GM Plaza, in front of the Ren Cen, was originally envisioned as a sculptural element, rather than an interactive feature, but was quickly adopted by kids as a play area. (A development that could have been predicted by anyone who knows small children!) Rather than trying to obstruct access to the water feature, the Conservancy realized this unintended use was a bonus—but that water features which kids play in need more care taken for water quality, requiring an upgrade to the water supply for the fountain.

A learning process over times of how people want to use the space can be a good thing, and can be anticipated and planned for, rather than treated as a mistake. Temporary pop-ups, or a limited initial construction phase can allow some time to see what people like, or what’s not going to work as planned.

Make programming easy

Placemaking is about people, and nothing attracts people like other people. Making it easy for events large and small to use a space gets residents and visitors accustomed to visiting and adding that place to their routine. This means a place like the Riverwalk needs active management and a clear, easy process for event approval. This doesn’t mean a mandate to say “yes” to everything, because of the need to ensure access to all, provide for public safety, event cleanup, etc., but the requirements placed on an event should be clear and easy to meet, with fast turnaround from place managers.

Natural areas and real estate development aren’t incompatible

Conflicts often arise during discussions of vacant land, especially along water, around perceived zero-sum trade-offs. Dedicating new parkland can be seen as a missed opportunity for economic development or new housing, while construction along natural corridors draws opposition as antithetical to nature. Detroit’s Riverfront shows these purposes can thrive in coordination, with a variety of amphibians, reptiles, and birds in restored natural areas alongside new homes for humans.

Tour group photographing a great blue heron perched on a light fixture in front of new residential development

That’s an actual heron on the lamppost, not some concocted sculptural element.

In reaching this balance, the design of both aspects is important. Natural spaces that support wildlife (and stormwater management) doesn’t mean either a grassy lawn or just leaving be an overgrown farm field, but requires attention to scale, grading, plant selection, and creation of contiguous corridors. Not to mention education–as Wallace and other Conservancy staff noted, having high-functioning natural ecosystems can involve fielding complaints from park users who think the space is overgrown with “weeds”.

New construction can have the broadest benefit if it prioritizes multi-family apartments or condos, targeted to a mix of income levels, over stand-alone house construction. Additionally, where the footprint of development is large enough to include new streets and blocks, avoid placing long continuous block faces towards the water or natural area—a block pattern that has frequent streets or alleys perpendicular to the natural area will allow the greatest access for residents further into the neighborhood.


While Detroit’s Riverfront has benefited from substantial private donations, some of the funding sources used are available to other communities statewide:

All of these grant programs have an April 1st annual application deadline, and require that the local government applicant have an adopted 5-year Recreation Master Plan on file with DNR. Communities interested in applying should discuss their projects with MDNR grants staff well in advance of the deadline.

mshda_fb-200x300The Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) recently announced a request for proposals (RFP) for a new “Neighborhood Enhancement Program” that provides communities an opportunity to fund placemaking projects in priority neighborhoods. MSHDA worked with the League and other statewide partners to develop the program and they are eager to receive creative and innovative proposals in three main categories: beautification, public amenities and infrastructure enhancement. MSHDA, in the first year of this program, is interpreting those categories broadly.

Cities must work through a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to apply. Proposals are due March 15. For complete details, visit the MSHDA website.