Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Michigan Focuses Economic Policy Around "Placemaking"

Rust Wire writes about the new broad consensus, developing in Michigan towards what urban planners now call, placemaking.

After reading a number of stories and blog posts about this, it's still not exactly certain what the term means-beyond respect for place and quality of life. Looking at Michigan's previous policies makes the change clear.

The earlier attitude, could be summed up as, anything for jobs. In 1981, The city of Detroit, evicted thousands of residents, destroyed the bulk of a neighborhood and handed the land over to GM for construction of a new car plant.

"At first glance the project seemed brilliant. In 1979, the old Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck had closed and that city lost $1.7 million in tax revenue. Hamtramck was happy to join in the deal. But there were obstacles in Detroit -- 1,300 homes, 140 businesses, six churches and one hospital lay in the path of the proposed plant.

The neighborhood adjacent to Hamtramck's southern border was, like Hamtramck, home to Poles as well as Albanians, Yugoslavs, Blacks, Yemenis and Filipinos. But some families had been there for generations, since the influx of Polish workers to the auto plants in the 1920s and '30s, and even before. Some of the first Polish settlements in the city in the 1870s had been in this area. It was the home of the original St. Mary's College and Polish Seminary at the corner of St. Aubin and Forest. It was the original location for the International Institute. St John the Evangelist Catholic Parish had been founded there in the 1890s, Immaculate Conception Parish in 1918."

The same attitude went for highway construction, where few power players cried when eggs needed to be cracked in the name of progress. People moving and endless new construction always was sold as growth, even though the state's population was in a long steady decline. The people who found where they lived, unpleasant would stay cause they had jobs-and the fancy pants, over educated, complainers could just leave.

The huge car companies these policies were built around proved less stable than expected and the new dynamic firms needed the over educated, creative types who found Michigan so gross. A depleted tax base, also meant that growth at any cost was no longer a financial option.

From Model D

The state of Michigan, for example, is focusing on placemaking initiatives as part of its economic development strategy. "Economic development and community development are two sides of the same coin," said Gov. Rick Snyder in a special message to the Michigan Legislature last winter. "A community without place amenities will have a difficult time attracting and retaining talented workers and entrepreneurs, or being attractive to business."

Kent’s son, PPS Vice President Ethan Kent, said placemaking is striking a chord in the current economy because it’s resourceful and builds on a city’s existing assets. And the placemaking philosophy requires extensive public buy-in upfront, so officials can stand on safer ground politically. "Building convention centers and using tax incentives to attract big corporations or new business isn’t working," Ethan said.

Instead, placemaking emphasizes smaller, inexpensive improvements: Adirondack chairs to watch the sunset on the Buffalo waterfront, or temporary incubator retailers with lower overhead costs. At Gabriel’s Wharf in London, for example, a set design company created colorful facades on concrete garages, and then worked with artists to convert them into studios where they could sell their work. The fast-working set designers finished the job in three months. Rather than developers spending money on a costly master design, the tenants themselves provided the vibrancy to make the area compelling for visitors. The scheme was designed to pay for itself in four years.

Strangely, the new embrace of the small, incremental improvements and livable, walkable neighborhoods has attracted strong support from across the political spectrum, columnists, The Department of Transportation, Michigan State University and Michigan's Governor.

This widespread attitude is new, and pretty rare across the country. It will be interesting to see if it lasts and how things start to play out.

Article on The Project For Public Spaces Website

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