More than 100 people gathered to hear Dan Gilmartin, the executive director and CEO of the nonprofit Michigan Municipal League, speak on urban development strategies at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy Wednesday.
The lecture, sponsored by the Public Policy School’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, was aimed at educating students about placemaking, which is an economic strategy to boost city appeal by sponsoring events or creating interesting sites to attract a community. Examples of placemaking include areas like Campus Martius, a park between office buildings in downtown Detroit, and events that bring a community together like ArtPrize in Grand Rapids.
Gilmartin spoke primarily about placemaking in Michigan, focusing on how the majority of the state lacks the fundamental features of a lucrative place to live for young people. He described placemaking as improving the human experience.
“We found now that quality is life is where people are going and certainly where people with means and where people with entrepreneurial spirit and where people with access to all sorts of different things are going,” Gilmartin said. “So, it’s one in the same now about creating that great place in terms of creating a great economy.”
Gilmartin said college graduates can be more interested in finding a place to live before finding a job in that area. Citing the competition among cities to appeal to young people, he listed eight characteristics localities use for placemaking: physical design and walkability, messaging and technology, green initiatives, ability to be welcoming, cultural economic development, transit, entrepreneurship and education.
One of the largest challenges Michigan currently faces, Gilmartin said, is the lack of public transportation. He told the crowd about speaking to a friend who spent three and a half hours plus a mile-and-a-half walk travelling from downtown Detroit to Somerset Mall in the metro-Detroit suburb of Troy using public transportation. The distance between the two places is 22 miles — a 25-minute drive by car.
CLOSUP collaborated with the Michigan Municipal League, among others, on a Michigan Public Policy Survey that was published in 2014, showing that local Michigan governments have increased their use of placemaking. Between 2009 and 2013, there was a 60-percent increase in the number of jurisdictions partaking in placemaking activities.
“This is an area of growth in Michigan among local governments and the private sector and other non-governmental organizations,” said Thomas Ivacko, CLOSUP manager and administrator. “It is a pretty exciting, new place to turn I think to help improve the quality of life in Michigan.”
Gilmartin said the worldwide competition for talent creates a need for 21st century communities that blend the eight characteristics he discussed, especially in Michigan.
“People are going places where they want to be able to experience things in the places they live, where they work, where they play, where they learn,” Gilmartin said. “If we are not providing that stuff in high enough numbers, we are going to continue to hemorrhage people out of the state.”
He noted, however, that many cities face legal challenges in creating lucrative features. For example, creating downtown environments similar to State Street in Ann Arbor in other Michigan cities would be illegal due to factors like zoning laws and parking requirements, whereas simple but unappealing strip malls are essentially legal to build anywhere.
“We deserve better than this,” Gilmartin said in reference to the strip malls.
Public Policy graduate student Caitlin Conway said she thought the contrast between a downtown street and a strip mall was particularly interesting and important to keep in mind when it comes to managing urban planning in the 21st century.
“I think that will help me going forward in the policy world about thinking about the unintended impacts about some of our decisions,” Conway said.
University alum Josh Sabo worked for a campaign over the summer and came to the event in hopes of gaining insight for working with local governments. He said he the way Gilmartin explained old-school incentives as still prevalent in the business and manufacturing world intriguing.
“The fact that this is still so dominant in the rhetoric of campaigns is really striking to me,” Sabo said. “It’s super obvious that it is what we talk about, but few corporations are actually interested in that was of value to me.”