In February 2012, the Michigan Association of REALTORS® (MAR) hosted “MI Great Places,” the first ever Placemaking Leadership Forum in Michigan. The two-day event engaged leaders from organizations across the state on placemaking: a new idea taking Michigan by storm and building hopes for collaboration in our economic recovery.
Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Put simply, it involves looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work and play in a particular space, to discover their needs and aspirations. This information is then used to create a common vision for that place. The vision can evolve quickly into an implementation strategy, beginning with small-scale, doable improvements that can immediately bring benefits to public spaces and the people who use them.
“Michigan stakeholders are realizing that placemaking strategies can help rebuild our economy and encourage more people to live in our state,” said 2012 MAR President Beth Foley. “The MI Great Places forum was about forging strong connections between local government officials, policy makers, financial institutions, residents, architects and REALTORS® to find solutions that go beyond the financial aspects of the housing slump.”
The MI Great Places Forum, held on February 14 and 15, 2012, at MAR headquarters in Lansing, included presentations and panels with Bill Rustem, director of strategy in the Office of Governor Rick Snyder; Dan Wyant, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ); Mike Kapp, administrator at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Office of Economic Development; Katharine Czarnecki, manager of Community Programs at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC); Gary Heidel, executive director of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA); Todd Kalish of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR); and Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), among others.
The forum’s co-sponsors included MSHDA, the National Association of REALTORS®, the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF), the Michigan Municipal League (MML), the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) and the Michigan State University Land Policy Institute (LPI).
Project for Public Spaces (PPS), an international authority on revitalizing spaces and placemaking strategies, coordinated the forum. The event provided the tools and impetus that REALTORS®, community leaders and other stakeholders will need to have in order to bring placemaking to their communities, including an implementation strategy emphasizing the forum’s unofficial slogan: “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper.”
“Building convention centers and using tax incentives to attract big corporations or new business isn’t working,” explained PPS Vice President Ethan Kent. “Instead, placemaking emphasizes smaller, inexpensive improvements: Adirondack chairs to watch the sunset, a great public square for a festival, or temporary incubator retailers with lower overhead costs. These can be the kinds of things that make people call a city or town, ‘home.’”
Another key concept emphasized at the MI Great Places Forum was “Power of 10,” the idea that any great city needs to offer at least ten great places, each including at least ten interesting things to do. These could include a place to sit, playgrounds to enjoy, art to touch, music to hear, food to eat, history to experience, and people to meet. Ideally, some of these activities are unique to that particular spot and are interesting enough to keep people coming back.
“The Power of 10 offers an easy framework that motivates residents and stakeholders to revitalize urban life, and shows that by starting efforts at the smallest scale you can accomplish big things,” explained Kent. “The concept also provides people something tangible to strive for and helps them visualize what it takes to make their community special.”
PPS has been using Michigan’s placemaking examples for more than a decade and building some of their signature projects here. The improved Campus Martius Square in downtown Detroit has become a community magnet, attracting more than $700 million in new investment around it. Most significant, Compuware, a computer firm, moved its headquarters and 4000 employees from the suburbs to a new building adjacent to the square. “Compuware would not have come downtown without the park,” notes Bob Gregory of the Detroit 300 Conservancy. “They didn’t want just a building. They wanted a lively district, where their workers would have things to do.”
Meanwhile, the revitalization of Eastern Market was made possible by the planning and technical assistance of PPS dating back to 1998. More recent, with the support of the Ruth Mott Foundation, PPS has completed a three-year placemaking program in downtown Flint, and new vitality is emerging in places ranging from Riverbank Park to the Flint Farmers’ Market.
For MAR, the connection between real estate and the need for placemaking in Michigan communities is clear. “Our role as REALTORS® is much greater than simply helping folks buy and sell houses,” MAR President Beth Foley said. “We owe it to our clients to help them find or keep their homes in cities, towns and rural communities that have appealing and sustainable plazas, efficient and convenient transportation, walkable main streets, green spaces, thriving shops and cultural amenities. Those are the qualities of placemaking that are driving demand in today’s real estate marketplace.”
“REALTORS® spend a great deal of our time selling ‘place,’” explained Gilbert White, placemaking consultant for MAR. “There is no other private sector group better situated to help inform and advance the discussion on placemaking than the REALTOR® community. There is a positive correlation between placemaking elements and local housing choices. Obviously places in higher demand can command higher prices.”
Michigan has been one of the states hit the hardest by foreclosures, posting the sixth worst rate of mortgage defaults in 2011. Formerly foreclosed homes have saturated the market in Michigan since the recession hit. The high percentage of foreclosed homes on the market has been blamed for real estate prices crashing to levels not seen in Michigan since the 1990s.
However, Realty Trac reported that the average price paid for a foreclosed home in Michigan rose during the third and fourth quarters of 2011. Analysts say the surge could signal that the state’s real estate market may finally have hit bottom and is ready to stabilize. Building momentum in 2012 with new strategies and policy recommendations is what prompted MAR to host the Placemaking Leadership Forum.
Although a new concept for many, placemaking is already advancing and has passionate supporters in Michigan. MSHDA is developing a curriculum for government and nonprofit administrators and a website, www.miplace.org, that will spotlight cities and neighborhoods that have a great sense of place and provide individuals with the tools they need to help create a sense of place in their communities.
“Placemaking has long been a key organizing idea of MSHDA’s community development projects,” said Gary Heidel, executive director of MSHDA. “Our Michigan Main Street Program is helping communities develop main street districts and traditional commercial neighborhoods that attract new residents and businesses, promote investment, and jump start economic growth.”
Meanwhile, a lively placemaking discussion is already in motion in the “MI Great Places” Facebook group, run by Gilbert M. White and other leaders in the Michigan placemaking movement. The group features photos and examples of effective placemaking, including a conversation about bringing art to Detroit’s abandoned storefronts and setting up community gardening initiatives.
“The next step to get Michigan moving on placemaking is an education campaign, from the bottom up,” said White. “Community attachment is crucial to creating attractive cities and neighborhoods. We're challenging members of the MI Great Places Facebook group to come up with one new suggestion every week for their communities.”
“Once we have the ideas,” White continued, “it’s up to key personalities within our communities to aggressively (but cheaply) fund neighborhood placemaking opportunities. It’s going to be an incremental process with many small steps. But we can’t be overly worried about failure; we must embrace placemaking and adopt a ‘what are we waiting for’ attitude. Otherwise we will overplan, overregulate, and probably slow things down and negatively impact enthusiasm.”
One organization already running on funding community placemaking opportunities is forum co-sponsor, the Michigan Municipal League (MML). MML has led the placemaking charge with its book, Economics of Place: The Value of Building Communities Around People, which focuses on the challenge of creating dynamic, walkable, sustainable communities and regions where people want to live. To get things moving beyond ideas, MML is holding a contest titled, “It’s About Place,” awarding $2,000 for the best projects using placemaking principles to make Michigan cities more vibrant. You can learn more at www.letssavemichigan.org.
“Creating funding sources to ‘seed’ and facilitate small activities and identify opportunities to build capacity off of small successes is going to be a critical step,” White said. “The Michigan Municipal League’s contest is a great start, but we also need local government and other funding sources to get behind placemaking activities and allow them to easily occur.”
For Michigan, placemaking is a catalyst providing a way of not only playing off the natural assets that exist within every community but also strengthening partnerships between communities, organizations and government. It may very well be the best way to re-create our economies and communities for the 21st century, and to breathe new life into Michigan’s struggling real estate industry.
For more information and resources on Michigan placemaking, join the Facebook | MI Great Places Group Page.