Who hasn’t made a joke about Detroit, or the state of Michigan in the past 10 years? Yeah, they seem like an easy target – what with a major metropolitan cities crippled by economic depression, architectural ruin porn all across the state in places like Flint, Grand Rapids, Detroit, and continuing to rank number one in foreclosures year after year. In that same span, if you were to ask city officials across the U.S. about their own city’s problems, they’d confer it isn’t as bad as up in Michigan – as if that is some consolation prize.
Built on the auto industry and other great engineering feats, Michigan was the epicenter of the industrial pioneers for a good century. With that came ungodly riches, but as we’ve seen that didn’t trickle down to future generations. Yes, the manufacturing sector has lost jobs over the past decades, but Michigan has been hemorrhaging its greatest asset, people, for just as long.
As has been the thinking across the nation: get them jobs, let them do their own things, let the market react to their desires, and then let them choose the American Dream of their choice. With this thinking came a disinvestment of cities and their downtowns by consequence and also by policy, as suburban living became the latest and greatest to the masses. A house in a cul-de-sac, two cars in the driveway, and maybe a mall to by the latest trends was the status quo of development.
It turns out the status quo has removed the authentic and genuine places people crave. It weakened the interactions that makes communities tick. It ran up the bill for local governments needing providing more services and having to providing them further and further away from where they used to. Then the jobs left. Then the people left. So now what?
A year ago when I came across some wildly innovative placemaking strategies, I was shocked to see that of all the places in the U.S., they came from – Michigan. In specific, I was reading several reviews of a book that put numerous brainstorming sessions all in print. The Economics of Place is a series of essays by many progressive minded individuals all striving to make Michigan, and towns across America more livable.
This is why this book intrigued me to read it. Michigan is actually a great place and full of potential. Of course I’ve made a joke or two about the place, but neither Illinois or Texas (the last two places I’ve lived), have been perfect in their histories. See: political corruption, gangs, guns, booze, etc...
The Michigan Municipal League is toting this book and its many ideas, its fresh perspective, and its change of culture around door-to-door in as many cities within the state as fast as it can. It’s not about taxes and regulations or how to attract private capital, but how to attract human capital. The bottom line: it all comes down to Place. As Leagues CEO Dan Gilmartin writes
65% of college-educated young people look, first, for an attractive place to live and second, for a job.
Those high paying, low education manufacturing jobs just don’t exist anymore – in fact, they haven’t for decades. As the authors go on, they say that in order for Michigan to move forward, they must leave the old notion of what used worked in the past. The economy has changed from an industrial one to a knowledge based one. Per capita income is increasingly correlated with a state’s ranking in educational attainment. It must attract and retain those with education in order to survive in a knowledge based economy.
Quality of Place is that talent driver. Place with a capital “P” refers to a meaningful setting that is rich in amenities and diverse in offerings. Michigan has more places, with a lower case “p” that are nothing but coordinates on a map. Instead of just saying that they have a place to live, work and play, the book suggests making Places that are built around these 8 assets:
- Physical Design & Walkability – aesthetically pleasing and not catering to moving automobiles around.
- Green Initiatives – implementing environmentally friendly policies.
- Entrepreneurship – harnessing the talents of members within the community.
- Multiculturalism – embracing all walks of life.
- Messaging & Technology – upgrading communication technologies.
- Transit – providing multiple modes of getting around.
- Education – growing our future leaders from within.
How each town attempts to deal with each of these assets is up to them, but they must remember that it is focusing on the people not the projects. The Economics of Place really goes into depth on several other fascinating issues regarding where community building is heading. It is far more than I can go into here without reciting the whole book. I read it twice so you should at least read it once!
Although I don’t live in Michigan I am looking at what is happening there with close attention. They’ve already decided in order to have a bright future they must put the past strategies of development behind them. My question is: in a state like mine, will we come to that realization before it’s too late, or will we rest on our laurels and continue to go to the well of what used to work?